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My Hobbit review (or why HFR isn’t as bad as some would have you believe)


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I’ve been meaning to write a follow up to my previous Hobbit article after seeing it, but with the holidays and some other things going on in my personal life I haven’t had the time. I’ve taken the time to read a few other really good reviews since then, but wanted to take the time to share my experience.

First off, I decided to see the movie 3 times. I had booked a ticket for a late showing on the Friday of the release, then a friend decided he wanted to see it right after work, so I went ahead and bought another one. Both of these showings were in HFR 3D in the same theater. In the first showing, we sat in the very back to avoid having anybody behind us. I wanted to see it immediately after in HFR as well to see how it would feel after getting used to the frame rate.

For the second showing I sat much closer. Sitting all the way in the back, I felt like my eyes were a bit crossed the whole time due to how far away the image was. Sitting closer definitely made watching the 3D a lot more relaxing and enjoyable since it filled up much more if my field of view.

WHY HFR?

The big change of course if the HFR (high-frame rate). I had a lot of friends ask me about HFR and what it meant. I spend a lot of time reading and talking about this kind of stuff, so sometimes I forget not everybody knows about things like frame rates. Pretty much all films as long as most of us have been alive have been shot at 24 frames per second. Peter Jackson and his crew decided to film and project The Hobbit at 48 frames per second. This means there are twice as many frames – or twice as much temporal resolution – as your typical film. The goal behind this technique is to make the motion much more smooth. A lot of the problems people have with 3D stem from the motion blur inherent when you film at 24 frames per second, so combining 3D with higher frame rates should make things much easier to watch.

From the moment I saw the MGM and Warner Bros logo zoom into view at 48FPS, I could tell what I was seeing was different. A lot of people are comparing the motion to a soap opera, and more than once I’ve seen the word “teletubbies” used in reference to the effect. But I disagree. I know where the argument comes from. Studio TV cameras shoot things at 60 frames per second, but they are interlaced frames. So while the motion is smooth, The Hobbit doesn’t feel EXACTLY like a TV show.

First, the cinematography is completely different from anything on TV. So to say it looks like a soap opera or a kids show belittles the work of countless people who gave us some incredible artwork on screen. Second, to me, the motion felt more like a really beautiful video game cinematic. It’s interesting to me that there seems to be a generation gap from the people that enjoy the HFR and those that don’t. Also I tend to split my time between filmmaking blogs and tech blogs and it’s pretty apparent that a lot of filmmakers don’t experience HFR the same way as people who’ve seen their fair share of cinematics generated from video game engines.

A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

Here’s why I think there is such a big difference in opinion on HFR depending on experience. It’s a social trigger. Everybody associates 24FPS with the “cinematic” experience. People who grew up only experiencing higher frame rates on lower budget productions associate it with TV. Gamers associate higher frame rates with things like faster video cards, faster CPUs and low response times on LCDs. When you play games at faster frame rates, you feel like you are thinking faster. And at a certain point it feels like the game is actually keeping up with how fast you can move your eyes around screen.

This is what I experienced after watching The Hobbit in HFR twice in a row. Yes, the motion seems a little “too smooth” at times, but overall I felt a great sense of relaxation watching it in this format. Especially when it comes to 3D, HFR seems like a necessary extension of that experience. I didn’t feel like I was watching a screen, I felt like I was watching a live performance. All the little micro expressions from the actors faces felt so much more alive and present. I found myself grinning from ear to ear for most of the movie.

What was most interesting was what I experienced the next day. After watching HFR for around 6 hours, when I woke up the next day, I felt like I was experiencing the world in a completely new way. This is really no different than how you feel after being on a boat all day and taking some time to get rid of your “sea legs”. By the end of the day I stopped noticing this, but I will say that it was a pretty nice feeling. It felt like everything was a bit more clear. With Peter Jackson experiencing this for the better part of 2 years, I imagine that’s how he feels every day.

A few days later I watched the movie in 2D format. While I enjoyed it, I think it suffered a bit from the conversion. Since it was filmed at 48FPS, there is inherently less motion blur in each frame than a film shot at 24FPS. This isn’t something that can be re-introduced in post, so it still didn’t feel like a regular 24FPS movie. I’m not sure if it was because it was my 3rd time through this incredibly long movie or what, but I was pretty ready to leave the theater about halfway through. Overall it did feel more “cinematic”, but since it’s been a couple of weeks since I saw it last I can tell you if I was going to see it again, I would much rather go back and see the HFR version.

WHAT NEXT?

All of this makes me wonder what the future holds. There were scenes where I definitely noticed the HFR seemed weird (especially at the beginning in Bilbo’s house), and there were other times it really seemed to work well. I’ve heard there are plans for variable frame rates. Maybe that will be the answer. After all, photographers regularly choose different shutter speeds depending on the subject they’re shooting, so it seems only natural to eventually be able to change your frame rate for the same reasons.