Jackson's 'The Hobbit' Debuts in 48FPS - Will the Future Be in HFR?
by Alex Billington
December 5, 2012
In darkened movie theaters last Friday morning, November 30th, history was made. New Line/Warner Bros screened one of the very first movies shot in 48FPS 3D - Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part in a trilogy based on the J.R.R Tolkien classic - to critics nationwide who were anxiously waiting to see it. I sat Friday morning inside the Dolby screening room in New York City, quietly, patiently waiting with a scattering of other members of the press around me for this landmark screening to begin. Would anyone like it? Would the person next to me get nauseous from HFR? Would the whole 48FPS experience be a revelation or a disaster? We were all about to find out. In a hole in the ground there lived...
The events leading up to this screening have been memorable, which is why it was such an odd and quiet morning, as everyone agreed to follow Warner Bros' embargo (now up this week) and only speak amongst themselves. Ever since this past CinemaCon, where WB screened 10 minutes of HFR footage to an exhibitor plus press crowd to mediocre reactions, they haven't been showing or pushing 48FPS/HFR publicly at all. It was only recently noticed as a format listed in TV spots as "HFR 3D". That's the way I've experienced The Hobbit—twice already, mostly to confirm my feelings on the experience (and because I'm a huge LOTR geek and had to go again, my precious). My claim: I believe HFR is here to stay, as long as audiences embrace it.
Now, I'm not going to get too technical here, as I just want to talk about the experience. If you recall in my CinemaCon video blog, my thoughts on the HFR experience in April were iffy. I wasn't into it, even though I'm generally open to technological advances. I was waiting for this experience in full, and having seen The Hobbit twice, I really feel as if I can say that HFR (aka 48FPS or 60FPS) is indeed the future. However, I am nervous thinking those thoughts emerging after that first screening because—well, let's say a few people so far seem to hate the HFR experience. They don't ever want to see another movie like that again. Uh oh?
I think the big problem is that we will need to get used to HFR (High-Frame Rates), just because we have to. Essentially, every movie we've ever seen up until now, everything we've ever watched, every film we've ever loved, that has defined our tastes and our lives, we've seen in 24FPS. The Hobbit is literally the first film to ever be shot in 48FPS and shown that way, and it's unlike anything we've ever seen. And everyone knows the old saying: no one likes change. It's so different, it doesn't look right, doesn't look like Lawrence of Arabia — even though that might actually look great in HFR 3D. While yes, maybe we shouldn't have to "get used to" something in cinema, this isn't a new style, it's almost just the technology catching up with the times.
Peter Jackson explained at a press conference recently that HFR is much more of a format choice, like 3D, for filmmakers to use. And because it actually benefits the 3D in many ways (and potentially detracts - more on that later) filmmakers may want to use it to match modern technology like video games that already offer this kind of FPS. Especially with Peter Jackson and The Hobbit setting the precedent, along with James Cameron's Avatar sequel coming up, which may even be made at 60FPS. Jackson stated via ComingSoon:
"Warner Bros. were very supportive. They just wanted us to prove that the 24 frame version would look normal, which it does, but once they were happy with that, on first day, when we had to press that button that said '48 frames' even though on that first day we started shooting at 48 FPS, you could probably say there wasn't a single cinema in the world that would project the movie in that format. It was a big leap of faith."
"The big thing to realize is that it's not an attempt to change the film industry," Jackson added. "It's another choice. The projectors that can run at 48 frames can run at 24 frames - it doesn't have to be one thing or another. You can shoot a movie at 24 frames and have sequences at 48 or 60 frames within the body of the film. You can still do all the shutter-angle and strobing effects. It doesn't necessarily change how films are going to be made. It's just another choice that filmmakers have got and for me, it gives that sense of reality that I love in cinema."
The experience I had watching The Hobbit the first time was on of utter fascination: was I seeing a glimpse at the future of cinema? A glorious, grand, epic, fun adventure about a small little Hobbit and thirteen of his Dwarf friends running across the hills and valleys of Middle Earth to reclaim some mountain taken over by a dragon. Was the HFR distraction just a temporary interference or greater hindrance? The one thing I can say: I've never seen a film, so many of the action scenes and visual moments in this, look like this. Ever. And I say that with an optimistic outlook on the future of movies - I've never experienced visuals like this.
One thing that we all have to acknowledge going into this is that, yes, Peter Jackson and Warner Bros are turning J.R.R. Tolkien's one long book into three long movies - a trilogy, in Middle Earth. I love the Lord of the Rings series (ROTK is listed as my all-time favorite) and I am more than excited to be back for another adventure. Almost to the point where, having been through this experience once before, I know that as much as I am enjoying (or not) the current movie, there's quite a bit more to come. Not only an Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey, but two other entire movies to finish the story. So, this is just the beginning...
I remember back to the days of Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, two years before Return of the King would arrive and go on to win 11 Oscars. It was a similar experience to now. The visual effects were pretty good (one of the four Oscars FOTR won was for Best Effects) but we hadn't seen Gollum at all yet, and ohh—all the battles in Return of the King, just wait. You ain't see nothing yet! So maybe we ain't seen nothing of The Hobbit, yet? Especially of HFR? Sure, PJ did stretch out one story into an amusing overlong fantasy tale, but at the same time, it took two additional years to recognize the brilliance in the LOTR trilogy of 11 years ago.
Which also makes me think - if we got a glimpse at future technology then, are we getting a glimpse at future cinematic technology now, with An Unexpected Journey being shown in HFR? It certainly feels that way. If you throw aside expectations and the hope that this will be everything Fellowship of the Ring was (which is the case but almost to a fault, it's a bit too similar in structure) and enjoy the story, it's fun to get lost in the entertainment of The Hobbit all over again. It is one big, epic kids' movie with some singing and goofy antics throughout and a ragtag team of misfit dwarf heroes, hand-crafted with the abundant beauty of imagination.
Being able to use 48FPS and 3D this time, Jackson is able to create a world that looks and feels completely real (in a fantasy-world-come-to-life way), but almost too real. Many of the complaints with HFR are about how realistic it makes everything seem, so much so that it's actually easy to tell what is an indoor set, what is an outdoor shot, what is CG; because it's almost too video game smooth. It has crystal clarity. However, I found that with a little imagination I was able to get lost in the story because it was if Jackson and his New Zealand team was creating the purest sense of performance art adapted from narrative text, created and captured for viewing on a big screen. A "real-life" fantasy story envisioned in as true to real-life as possible.
So what if it looks too realistic? Isn't that that the point — striving for (fantasy) "realism"? Video games have always pushed to increase the FPS (Frames-Per-Second) in gaming to achieve a lifelike smoothness, less visual lag so to say. Why can't movies do the same? Others have stated that 48FPS is only "fixing" the old, broken system of 24FPS, which was initially easier to use in projection systems of early days, and optimized motion blurring. We've become used to seeing everything, literally every movie in our lives up until now, in 24FPS, and have come to know the feeling so well that anything new and never-seen-before is wrong at first.
As for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey itself, it is certainly still a wondrous and massively entertaining movie. It is also very long and does have many setups and introductions to get through before setting out on the "journey", but it's exhilarating being back in Middle Earth. By the end all I wanted was the next one, which is how I felt during Lord of the Rings. This movie is all about the setups. He's introducing so many characters and connections and relationships and feelings and storylines and moments that will all connect, or pay off, or play in, later on down the line. I'm fine with that because it's part of the bigger anticipation for the over-arcing story of The Hobbit trilogy, as told by Peter Jackson. I'm just unhappy we have to wait again.
There were a number of action sequences that thoroughly dazzled me. They aren't the most groundbreaking in terms of stunt choreography, but visually, I've honestly never seen action like this. The scenes that stuck out in particular: fighting the trolls; the mountain battle crashing/jumping across rocks; their Goblin Town escape sequence and fights; and the final flaming tree battle, especially the end with Thorin. I think the HFR 3D enhanced this action even more cinematically. When they're swinging on gigantic rocks, there's not a moment of motion blur, it's crystal clear—every last detail can be seen—from start to finish with everything going on, even during sweeping camera movements. It's here where that action choreography pays off, every little hop and skip and hammer smash can be seen hitting dead on, like real characters in this grand story.
Where HFR really shines (or at least should) is with three elements: water, fire and smoke. So much so that it was actually distracting, since those three have important roles in Middle Earth. One critic I talked to after the screening kept complaining about the HFR saying that he was always more intrigued by how shiny and perfect the water looked, or the smoke (which in HFR 3D looks about as realistic as smoke can possibly look), not the scene itself. Again, it's the wonder of technology, we're so used to how something looks that seeing it look so perfectly clear again in 48FPS can be distracting, but in time we will get used to it. In time.
I didn't really want to quote her, but one of the most vicious attacks on The Hobbit and HFR 3D comes from Jen Yamato at Movieline. She says pretty much what everyone is thinking when they see 48FPS for the first time - it looks like awful reality TV in overblown Best Buy showfloor HD. From her review on Movieline:
"HD TV did look rather freaky at first, I'll give him that, and there's a shared quality of too much visual information that The Hobbit's 48 fps shares with high-def television. But it didn't take a few minutes of adjusting to get used to it; even two hours and 40 minutes later my brain was rejecting the look of it. It felt like watching daytime soaps in HD, terrible BBC broadcasts, or Faerie Tale Theater circa 1985, only in amazingly sharp clarity and with hobbits."
That really can't be denied, it's a bit weird at first and does make the world almost 80's TV surreal—as if we can point out the sets ourselves. With time, better set lighting work and post-processing will improve that. The other problem with HFR has to do with the eerie double-motion effect. I realized while watching that because we're used to seeing 24FPS most of the time, when we see double the amount of frames (48) in the same amount of time, it looks as if everything moves at double speed. It wasn't until my second viewing when all the motion seemed to appear normal, no longer jittery or sped up. I believe I was getting used to it. HFR has a growing number of dissenters, but does that mean audiences will be into it or not? Am I alone?
Another critic I knew I could count on was Jeff Wells, who wrote an interesting plea in support of 48FPS, despite otherwise disliking The Hobbit. "Let me explain something else. 48 fps is a lot closer to what life looks like with your eyes. It's much clearer and sharper and more vivid than 24 fps, which looks like that special neverland called 'cinema' -- a very peculiar world with very specific climates and textures, and all of it fake. No matter what Pond, Debruge, Yamato and Rocchi are telling you, there's nothing wrong, trust me, with a movie looking more vivid and life-like and less like the other-worldly realm of 24 fps, which the harumphs prefer because -- it really comes down to this -- they've been watching it all their lives."
His post echoes some of my own sentiments about how it's completely new, but is still the way we should be seeing things now anyway, and likely will continue to. Which is how I felt seeing Hobbit the second time around, 48FPS was starting to feel like the "norm", because every computer screen I'm looking at is already HFR. Of course, this particular format "isn't for everything", as they'll say. It's best suited for fantasies, superheroes, animated films and so on. Just as with 3D, not everything is meant for that enhancement, and the same with HFR. But I expect years down the line this might be the norm, and we'll be used to this clarity and crispness in most movies, even if it doesn't look like the way we're used to watching now. Wells adds:
"Let me explain a third thing. Once you've seen a big, empty, splashy, FX-driven film at 48 fps, you'll never again be fully satisfied with seeing a big, empty, splashy, FX-driven film at 24 fps. 48 fps is perfect for comic-book whack-offs, Star Trek or Star Wars flicks, monster movies, vampire movies, pirate movies, adventure flicks, zombie flicks, animated features... anything that isn't straight drama or any kind of impressively written, character-driven adult fare aimed at anyone with a year or two of college.
All of that is true. The times I was most impressed were the action scenes. A couple of huge sequences where things are swinging and the camera is moving fast, and yet the action seems flawlessly captured. It reminds me of a video game, but I actually mean that in a really good way. Like the N64 3D Mario platformer, as if envisioned into fantasy movie happening for real in front of you. Which is the thought that made me realize this is going to make Avatar 2 look totally phenomenal. Can you remember how that mostly-CGI movie looked the very first time you saw it? Despite its story, there are some moments in the second half that are visually astounding. I imagine the action in that, in 3D, will look even better in HFR—many years from now.
In answer to all the complaints about how all the details look so cheap and so movie-set-ish in HFR, I think this will improve with time. It is the future, but there's a ways to go. In the same way color, sound and even 3D allowed filmmakers to push the format and experiment with expanding the tools of cinema on their own, HFR is a tool that filmmakers can "choose" to use to challenge themselves with to enhance the experience. To make it seem real and even, one day, perhaps hyper-real for some crazy sci-fi action movie. After going to see The Hobbit in HFR 3D, just imagine what Star Trek 2 would look like in HFR. (Also, I do realize by the time most people see The Hobbit at release, they will have seen the Star Trek 2 IMAX 3D prologue, too.)
When first seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, while I was enjoying the introductory experience at hand, I was also thinking of the future - in terms of the next two movies and last half of the story yet to come, and the progress of technology in the meantime (as we wait for this trilogy; and James Cameron to make Avatar 2). Don't forget that Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit on 48 RED 3D cameras, and they captured every last damn detail. With HFR now introduced to the masses, it will allow filmmakers to enhance cinema in the ways they choose to make their artwork feel more like an adventure or experience. I expect this is only the first of many HFR movies we'll see in the near future, much to the unhappiness of many critics I'm sure.
The most I can say is, try to get used to it, give it a shot. Is it so bad? Am I the crazy one here? Maybe I was gazing too far into Peter Jackson's palantír and got lost on the other side with James Cameron, because I enjoyed most of the experience, especially the spectacle of epic visual storytelling. Maybe not as much as Fellowship (maybe an extended cut will fix that?) but I must see the next two movies to really round things up. By mid-2014 when the final film in the trilogy hits, don't expect The Hobbit: There and Back Again to get a limited HFR release in 400 theaters. I expect it in 3,000 — as long as the audiences are in for the experience like they were with Avatar a few years ago. We'll find out soon, they decide the fate of HFR now.
Whatever the fate, Peter Jackson has once again sucked me into his Middle Earth series for another round of waiting. The Desolation of Smaug, which is a hell of a title, arrives in only 373 more days. Though I wouldn't call An Unexpected Journey perfect, the world he's (re)established for us to visit is perfect. The characters he introduces us to are all wonderful, ready to be molded. There's a growing Aragorn vibe from Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, who is the film's badass. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) & Bilbo (Martin Freeman) are great. Balin, played by Ken Stott, is one of my other favorites, almost the elder of the company, such a heartfelt character. There are 12 others they're turning into Pippin & Merry all over again.
My suggestion with An Unexpected Journey: just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's only a part of the complete journey, it's only part of history. The first feature-length HFR movie released in 2012. Will audiences go for it, or will this High Frame-Rate format be deemed a disaster? Does it even matter? Filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron may keep it alive anyway. Which is why I believe, based on what I saw, we'll be seeing a lot more HFR in the future. Even if it's just the occasional animation, fantasy or sci-fi movie, they're going to look amazing in HFR 3D, if the filmmaker can use these visual tools in effective and exciting ways.
At the most basic level, High Frame-Rates (48FPS or 60FPS) enhance the experience of 3D by minimizing technical issues caused by modern 3D projection. Essentially it prevents flickering in the image, eliminates any extra motion blur, and prevents the loss of any brightness or clarity. This should prevent viewers from getting sick, but a couple of headlines make it seem that's not the case so far. The point is, it helps make 3D really look the way it should, and it's clear by watching the smoke from Gandalf's pipe in a few The Hobbit scenes that it can really make cinema look even better, more realistic shall we say, than it ever has before.
I'm already excited to see the next two movies in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. I'm excited to see where the future of HFR goes. I don't have many complaints any more, especially after two nearly-three-hour Hobbit viewings. Will audiences enjoy it, will critics come around, or will it go down the drain like HD-DVD? I'm excited to see how HFR pushes filmmakers and the overall visual quality of cinema. If this is only the first of three movies showing us once again how cinema technology can push the storytelling experience, I'm even more anxious to see what he's going to show us the next few years. As Gandalf says to Bilbo, "the world is not in your books and maps, it's out there." HFR could be the future, or not. Only time, and money, will tell.