The Hobbit: The Great Frame Rate Debate

There are two parts to this post. One is a perfunctory glance over the Hobbit– because, lets face it, everything that needs to be said has been said by others in ranty, highly-partisan, 3D technicolor detail. The other is of more interest to me- that elusive beast that is “High Frame Rate” (HFR) cinema, that Peter Jackson, among other heavyweight filmmakers, believe is the future of cinema.

Unfortunately, I think PJ has it wrong on both parts. I don’t see the guy in the same way that Belibers like generic Canadian pop, but hell, he made Lord of the Rings. And I’m sorry if you disagree but Lord of the Rings is one of the most awe-inspiring symbols of the collaborative potential of film, ever. I’ll try and keep the hyperbole to a minimum but lets just say that the LOTR trilogy is extremely emotionally, educationally and entertainingly empowering for me.

I’ve been extremely busy this Christmas break. But I’ve made time to work through one of my family’s prized possessions- the entirety of the LOTR extended edition, including all the special features. It says something about the power of the thing when I get a little bit emotional watching the making-of documentaries, but they mean a lot to me. And what strikes me most about the entire LOTR saga is the incredible levels of detail that motivated the film. “This needs to feel like our past”, said ole’ Pidda Jicksun. “It needs to have the texture of reality to it”.

Look closely at the detail on Gandalf’s sleeve. That pattern goes all the way up the inside of the undergarment. Where it will never, ever, be seen.

The Hobbit lacks this. Whereas the original trilogy took detail to the level of working out the practicalities of Gandalf’s underwear (And then making it. No, seriously, watch the making-of DVDs), my great problem with the new film is that it feels like a slickly spun piece of gimmickry that retains Jackson’s “bigger is better” mentality without the extraordinary macrocosm of detail that made the film convincing. The set-pieces are enormous. Vast armies rendered via their revolutionary MASSIVE software (pioneered on pre-production of The Fellowship of the Ring– 14 YEARS ago!) meld satisfyingly with the horizon. Whether you like them or not, they have managed to make 13 dwarves look like 13 individuals, which is tricky given, to paraphrase Tolkein, dwarves are so notoriously tricky to tell apart it was long believed there was no such thing as a dwarf woman.

Filli, Killi, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Oin, Gloin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Balin, Dwalin and Thorin. You won’t believe me, but I did that from memory. Don’t ask me to put names to faces though.

And yet…. that’s all surface. This is a gloriously shallow film, if you’re into that. Its a pantomime. It even has two “Its behind you!” moments that made me take off my annoying 3D glasses and shout at the screen. It is colourful popcorn Christmas blockbuster entertainment. It is not the first in an epic trilogy. The Hobbit (written in 1937 for his son) was never meant to be that. So there is a fundamentally mixed message here, putting out a ponderous, badly weighted triad that attempts to capture the quintessential whimsy of the book whilst pumping it full of the overblown grandeur of its bigger brother.

Tolkein and Jackson share one fatal flaw- both are notoriously bad editors. They can’t bear to leave stuff out. Tolkein was asked to write a sequel to the Hobbit, and by the time he’d worked out what that meant it was 12 years later and he’d handed in all 1200 pages of The Lord of the Rings… plus 200-odd pages of appendices. Since making his name and moving beyond fun, disgraceful schlock horror, Jackson hasn’t made a short feature. He nearly killed a large population of New Zealand through stress by not finishing Return of the King until a week before the premiere.  Many people can’t stand this. I don’t have a problem with it… when he has a story to tell. I enjoy the depth and complexity of his vision. But the Hobbit is neither deep nor complex. It is a children’s bedtime story, an excellent one at that, and if you want the sort of backstory Jackson tries to shoehorn in, read The Silmarillion. Don’t try bringing it in here. Because Jackson has wedged in content from a world he couldn’t bear to leave behind, tried to dress it up in 3D and call it “backstory”. It isn’t.

ANYHOW 

I’ll stop winging about the content, because I’m aware that I’m aware that I’m looking at this film through LOTR-tinted spectacles of such a strong prescription its bringing me to tears every time I think about it. Lets look at the fascinating technical debate that is rolling in with The Hobbit.

It is a very rare, and very bold, step to take for a tentpole film such as this to attempt usher into the mainstream a piece of technology that made half its audience feel sick on first appearances.Whilst everyone whose ever looked at a television screen will have experienced frame rates as high as 2000 fps watching nature or sport footage, that is always manipulated for the benefit of slowing down action for the benefit of the viewer. We have psychological pre-sets from a century of habitualised ideas that 24 fps IS, definitively, the soft-edged blurry face of cinema. TV, we long ago decided, looks cheaper because it fires more images at us in the same space of time- thus, the eye does not need to trick itself quite so much into believing the pictures are moving. Thus, less blur, less noise, less unwanted visual artifacts such as tearing and other nasty sounding idiosyncrasies that we hold to our breast as the lovable medium of movies.

In this respect, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and all those other directors are quite right in saying that there is nothing special about 24 fps. It was merely the cheapest effective speed to run a convincing motion picture at. Where they are wrong, however, is in declaring ipso facto that because they are the faces of modern moviemaking, their idea of a technical innovation must be a milestone. The deal-breaker. The “New Medium” of Movies.

Do you trust this man?

This is, quite frankly, bollocks. Cameron made exactly the same arguments about 3D, along with a legion of Hollywood marketing donkeys with dollar bills replacing carrots on the end of their sticks. The idea that because 3D films can now be retrofitted to any production does not mean that I want my classic movies badly stereo-scoped so I have to  put on cheap plastic glasses to watch them unconvincingly force my eyes to look at an unnatural piece of computer gimmickry. It DOES NOT WORK.

“HFR”, as it is being sold on The Hobbit, is not so much of a dead-end. It was extremely frustrating that it was only sold in cinemas as part of the “HFR 3D experience”, to make the 3D receipts go through the roof and giving the lagging 3D market in the Western Hemisphere the illusion of being popular again, as curious film-lovers like me went to see what all the fuss is about. Peter Jackson made a big deal that HFR “solved” the problems that 3D faces- namely, the unavoidable doubling up of all those 24fps idiosyncrasies, layered over each other so they clash and make the whole problem worse, further exacerbated by the 30% light loss all those idiots effectively wearing sunglasses in the cinema suffer. The higher framerate soothes that problem. The film was clearer and crisper than any other 3D film I’ve seen to date- although that is probably equally due to the RED cameras Jackson used being so phenomenally bright in their recording that the sets had to be painted unnatural colours to compensate- and the movement was certainly easier to discern. It wasn’t a blurry, nauseating mess the whole way through.

The problem is, in partly solving the issue, it dampens down the nauseating effect of the 3D. Reciprocally, the 3D sunglasses and the stereoscopic double-later of the 3D print numb some of the immediacy of the HFR, whilst making the fake bits look very,very fake. 24fps has some advantages. It covers neat transitions between filmed reality and computer trickery. The LOTR trilogy is a case in point. It also allows unrealistic situations to look filmic-which, of course, is cinema-speak for convincing. The motion blur adds resonance to images that, quite simply, we need in order to believe it. So when the Eagles show up at the end of this part of the Hobbit, they look like computerised cutouts flapping overly smoothly around our real-life characters. And because of the the 3D, they weren’t just part of the fantasy environment- they stood out horribly from everything else, each eagle a horrible, unwelcome cameo from two technologies desperate to hog the limelight.

There’s a lot going on here. I’m not convinced I’m going to like the rest of it.

HFR has the potential to be incredibly useful. I’m going to leave you with a short youtube film by Doug Trumbull, the maestro responsible for the incredible FX on Bladerunner , Silent Running, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. He believe s that HFR isn’t the new “medium of cinema”, but a tool we can use to make it better. Watch this, and try not to be convinced that he’s got it right- and unfortunately, watch Jackson’s decision to whitewash the whole of the Hobbit start to look hopelessly shortsighted….

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