The Hobbit: An Unexpected Frame Rate
by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)
James Cameron loves his 3D. Christopher Nolan loves his IMAX. Peter Jackson? Well, he loves dabbling in higher frame rates. His latest film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of a trilogy (which is completely unnecessary, but that’s another column) and the first film period to use a higher frame rate for filming, leading to what’s supposed to be a truer to life video transfer. The big question on everyone’s mind (well, at least the minds of technophiles) is whether or not the new filming process makes the movie better or worse.
Before getting into the analysis of the film style, a brief primer is probably in order. In the past, films have been shot at 24 frames per second (FPS) and that standard has held true for almost a century. US television shows air at 29.97 FPS, while European shows air at 25 FPS. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey clocks in at an astounding 48 FPS, thanks to an array of high-resolution RED Epic cameras that record the video at 5,120 x 2,700 pixels.
Now that you’re an expert when it comes to video and resolution, was the 48 FPS necessary for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? Yes and no. Sadly, the answer isn’t so cut and dry.
On the one hand, the movie did have parts that were staggeringly beautiful. The Shire looked gorgeous, as did other locales in Middle Earth. There were times when you really did feel as if you were in Middle Earth, accompanying Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves on their quest. With the HFR 3D, there was never any chance of missing any of the action for whatever reason. Every frame ran smoothly and allowed even the most granular details to shine through flawlessly.
For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to remember the last time you were so impressed with water droplets, such as those in Rivendell. Another instance of fantastic detail is Gollum. There are a few scenes that seem to do nothing more than just showcase Gollum’s new range of facial expressions. Some of that can be attributed to better motion capture technology, although saying the HFR 3D didn’t help would be doing a disservice to the filming style.
The HFR also made the 3D feel less gimmicky and more natural. 3D itself is moving past needing to rely on creating unnecessary peril by simply “throwing” objects at both the characters and the audience. It’s become more refined in that now it’s better served in presenting differing depth perceptions. The 3D coupled with the HFR works wonders for really giving you the sense of scope in a world like Middle Earth. Characters stand out amidst backgrounds ranging from dank goblin caves to moonlit forests, all of which—again—remind you of the incredible detail poured into the world.
On the flipside, that attention to detail has some drawbacks. There are times when the CGI looks fake and suspends the reality of the film. Yes, this is a fictional world based on a work of literary fiction itself, but the HFR makes things such as the hawks and trolls appear to be almost caricatures of what they’re supposed to be. These are subtle details that would likely go unnoticed before and the HFR almost forces you to notice them. They don’t detract from the overall experience, yet at the same time you can’t help wonder if the HFR is too much.
For all the praise lauded on HFR for making those scenes feel smoother, there’s definitely an orientation period. There are a few scenes in the beginning that seem fast forwarded, such as one where Bilbo removes a book from a drawer. There doesn’t seem to be a reoccurrence of that phenomenon later in the movie, but it’s unclear if that’s because your eyes are just used to it or if they really don’t exist.
Unfortunately for 3D haters, there’s no option to see the HFR version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in anything but 3D, which is a shame. 3D seems a little unnecessary and adds a darker filter on the film, courtesy of the glasses you’re forced to wear. The HFR version might have felt more natural had there been an option to view it sans plastic glasses. The majesty of scenes such as the introduction to Rivendell is dulled somewhat because of the glasses.
Overall, the HFR version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is interesting to behold. There’s a marked improvement when it comes to picture clarity; an improvement that comes at the cost of the film looking rather cheaply made at times. The best comparison would probably be watching a stage play. There are some parts of the film that looks stunning and others that just look cheesy. It’s not bad per se, but the technology definitely has to go through some growing pains before it can become a go-to for filmmakers.
Perhaps The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn’t the best film for Jackson to try a shiny new frame rate on. A film that relies so heavily on CGI really shows that reliance thanks to the smoother video. Like it or not, the next two films will have the same option for viewing. Hopefully one (or both) of the next two films will offer HFR without 3D, but that’s about as likely as Smaug just walking away from a gold horde.