Saw “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” last night in 3D HFR/48 fps (The so-called “eXtreme Digital Cinema” version.)
Naturally as a photographer and digital content creator, I was just as intrigued by the technology as the chance to see another one of Tolkien’s beloved classics adapted for the screen. There has been a lot of talk about the aesthetics of HFR since Peter Jackson first showed a segment of the film last year, with a lot of folks complaining that it looked too much like video…An often-used analogy seems to be that the finished product looks a lot like a BBC documentary.
Ouch. True, but ouch.
It’s true that the there is a video-like quality to much of the live action plates…The only way I can describe it as looking like a TV series shot in HD, when the lighting is off, and you can instinctively tell it’s not film. The dynamic range and contrast of the imagery just doesn’t approach that of film, or digitally acquired media shot at 24 fps. Again, one mostly notices it in the live action plates, as opposed to fully CG images, and particularly in high-contrast or dimly-light sequences. It just doesn’t look like what a paying customer should expect as professional-quality cinema.
A lot has been written/said about the HFR choice by Peter Jackson, and others, including Jim Cameron, opining that this is “the future of cinema”, and it well may be. The key take-away here being that the future isn’t here yet, and this tech has a long way to go before it is suitable for any paying audience, let alone one that is paying upscaled prices for stereo projection (I think my ticket for last night ran about $17, including electronic “convenience” fee.) Audiences are basically paying to see an advanced prototype, and, as a viewer, that’s just not acceptable to me.
Cameron managed to take digital cinema, and stereo projection, to the next level with “Avatar”, but also managed to deliver a product that was visually compelling in a state-of-the-art, game-changing (can I work in any more cliche’s here?) way, and not one that says “Hey, guys, this is the future, and it will be really be cool in a few years if you let us continue to go down this road by subsidizing our sub-par product until we can get it right.”
Okay, so I guess I’m not on board with this.
On the plus side, the overall reduction in motion blur is the real win in this technology. There is no longer a moment of dizzying disorientation when the camera does a whip-pan, and long, intricate, camera movements are crystal-clear and free from motion artifacts. Since the likely standard for HFR will probably be 60 FPS, this will continue to improve, and this is probably the key aesthetic improvement to be gained from high frame rate technology…Once the dynamic range and contrast issues are sorted out.
Motion blur is an artifact of that lower frame rate technology that we have all bought into over time, one that filmmakers and VFX people put a lot of time and money into compensating for on CG features, as we actually have to create fake motion blur in CG animation to match the motion blur inherent in the live action photography. It’s just another aesthetic convention that we’ve all become used to over time, as part of the inherent trickery of creating cinematic images…The same could be said for the look and color of film.
It’s said that the net result of this will be more realistic imagery, but whether those images will be better, or aesthetically interesting or appealing to audiences remains to be seen. There are reasons that audiences like the look of Kodachrome-y images…Those better-than-real life recreations of a world that we wished we inhabited. While HFR technologies bring the promise of more realistic digital cinema imagery, the question that still remains to be answered is whether or not audiences will find this new realism more satisfying. In any event, we’re just not there yet.
Also, “The Hobbit” isn’t representative of some of Weta Digital’s best VFX work. The FX were very uneven, and a lot of the digital doubles work, particularly in the cave battle sequence, clearly reads as cg animation…And I think the HFR deficiencies highlight, and call attention to, any defects in the VFX work.
Tech considerations aside, “The Hobbit” is more-or-les classic Tolkien, with some liberal alterations to plot and story structure. The translation of the book into 3 films is giving us a very detailed adaptation tfor the screen, which is fine given Tolkien’s finely-detailed world and character building. “An Unexpected Journey” takes its time in establishing the story, and introducing the gallery of characters, including the corps company of 13 dwarves, elves, hobbits and wizards. There are some great fight scenes, plenty of orcs, goblins, trolls, and wargs, and it sets the stage well for the eventual encounter with Smaug, the big bad of the story. It’s a well-told tale, even if the visual elements kind of pull you out of it from time-to-time.