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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This is the future of cinema, whether you like it or not.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first major film ever shot and released in a format with a frame rate significantly higher than cinema's traditional 24 frames per second. Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull experimented with high frame rate technology in the '70s, creating the proprietary Showscan format, but was never able to utilize it in a feature film.

When a selection of critics and tech geeks got a chance to preview a scene from "The Hobbit" in this new, 48 frames per second format, the response was mixed at best. Many complained that it looked too much like daytime TV, or like a soap opera, and not enough like the cinematic experience it was supposed to be. I have to say, I agree, but only to a point.

There are several factors that taint the high frame rate (HFR) experience in this case.

First, most of us who are seeing "The Hobbit" in theaters grew up with television. I'm not talking about the new, flat-screen, high definition digital stuff. I'm talking, rather, about what used to come over the air to our cathode ray tubes, the big boxes in our living rooms. For much of the history of television in the US, TV was broadcast using a standard called "NTSC", which projected our news and shows at a frame rate of 29.97fps (30fps, in short-hand). This was typically an interlaced image -- each frame was divided in two, and the two halves were projected sequentially, instead of all at once. The frames weren't divided down the middle, but by alternating lines of resolution (so, the first half of the frame would be lines 1, 3, 5, 7, etc., and the second half would be lines 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) So, although the resolution of a TV image was relatively low compared to what we'd see in theaters, the frame rate was higher (by nearly six frames per second), and the actual rate of flickering was much higher (and therefore much less visible) at nearly 60 half-frames per second. That, to us, subtly defined the television image.

When digital technoloists began to introduce 24fps video in the late '90s, I remember it as a heady time for independent filmmakers. For the first time, we could create content that had the "look" of film without losing the accessibility and cheapness of digital. At the time, David Tames of broke it down for me as follows: We've become programmed by our own experiences. After seeing the news day in and day out in 30fps, we've come to expect fact-based, informational material to come to us at that frame rate. But since we're used to the cinematic experience at 24fps, we expect images that flicker that way to be fictional, to be narrative, and therefore fundamentally different than the 30fps "factual" images.

That has remained fairly true: fiction is shot at 24 frames per second, whereas non-fiction is shot at 30. Now that newer home TVs are capable of showing a 24fps image, the line has started blurring, but this hasn't been the case for long enough for us to un-learn our visual expectations.

So, when we see "The Hobbit" in a higher frame rate, of course it's going to look like TV. The television frame rate is the closest thing we have to compare it to.

(I wonder if this is the case in Europe, where the TV frame rate is 25 frames per second, extremely close to cinema's traditional 24. Do they think "The Hobbit" looks like TV? If you've seen it, and you're European, let me know!)

The second major factor in the 'small screen' feeling many reported in "The Hobbit" is, unfortunately, somewhat the fault of the filmmaker, Peter Jackson. The first act of the film is shot and paced like a 1990s British sitcom, and for that reason, serves as a poor introduction to the high frame rate format. It's where the story begins, so I can't fault Mr. Jackson for starting the film there, but the extended sequence in which Bilbo is visited by dwarves has little of the cinematic flair of other sequences in the film, so it doesn't counteract the sense of "TV" very strongly.

I think high frame rate cinema is here to stay. The images are very crisp, movement is very sharp. In the slow, steady journey towards greater and greater realism, HFR is an important step.

That said, I think it requires a much stronger cinematic filmmaker than Jackson, whose choice of shots and angles is often dissociated with (and occasionally undermines) the mood of the scene. One of the challenges of HFR is that so much within the scene is vividly clear. Jackson provides us with quite a few deep focus shots -- shots where much of what is in frame is in sharp focus. Without a very strong, steady storytelling hand to guide us, we get lost among the details.

Although I find James Cameron's stories frustratingly simplistic, he tells those simple stories very well. His plans to release the next two Avatar films in HFR may provide us with a very different visual-narrative approach with which to judge the format.

For more on high frame rates, here's a very informative website with examples:


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