The Hobbit Part 2

The-Hobbit-poster-2

 

Although I managed to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 24fps around a week after I saw it in 48fps, it turned out the Christmas and New Year got in the way of writing up the second part of my post until now. The advantage to this is that I’ve had the chance to catch up on a lot of the dialogue around the difference between 48 and 24fps as well as reflect on what it does for the 3D experience.  Below is a short list of some of the articles that have interesting points to make about the various technical incarnations of this film before I go on to develop further my own ideas about what it felt like to see the film in 24fps 3D.

 

Ted Schilowitz from RED (the company that made the cameras used on The Hobbit) asks audiences to be opened minded about higher frame rate but also explains a lot of the technological considerations for exhibition:

http://www.3dfocus.co.uk/3d-news-2/3d-film/be-open-minded-says-schilowitz-from-red-about-hfr-3d/11469

 

An interesting tech-heavy pieces that suggest the 3D 48fps version of The Hobbit won’t be available for viewing on Blu-Ray:

http://3dhd.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/the-hobbit-1920×108048-per-view-cannot-be-viewed-from-blu-ray-3d/?goback=.gde_3671_member_197400685

 

Gareth Daley, the 3D camera supervisor, explains what it was like to work in the new format:

http://www.3dfocus.co.uk/3d-news-2/3d-film/3d-camera-supervisor-the-hobbit-talks-high-frame-rates/11443

 

Jason Gorber from Twitch Film suggests The Hobbit looks like broadcast video but also offers a balanced approach to how the visual experience will be received by different audiences:

http://twitchfilm.com/2012/12/an-unknown-journey-the-hobbit-brings-high-frame-rates-to-the-masses.html

 

Jen Yamato takes a cognitive-perception studies approach to explaining why 48fps looks ‘bad.’ While I think there are some fundamental flaws in the arguments presented here and the response comments take this up in full, it is nonetheless an interesting piece:

http://movieline.com/2012/12/14/hobbit-high-frame-rate-science-48-frames-per-second/

 

Popular Mechanics explains how the 48fps threw up some new challenged for the 3D effects and how these were overcome. For example, the filmmaking team could no longer cheat the difference in height between Gandalf and the dwarves in the way they had previously:

http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/digital/3d/the-secrets-behind-the-hobbits-3d-wizardry-14851524?click=main_sr

 

Cnet’s poll of 3000 viewers on whether or not they liked 48fps:

http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-33199_7-57559560-221/poll-did-you-like-the-smoother-hfr-hobbit/

 

Vincent Laforet is another writer who attempts to use scientific theory to explain why 48fps is unsatisfactory.  Although I don’t agree with many of his points, he does offer a very detailed breakdown of the viewing experience in 3 different versions of the film:

http://gizmodo.com/5969817/the-hobbit-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-why-48-fps-fails

 

Devin Faraci offers an initial breakdown of reviewer reactions to the new format:

http://badassdigest.com/2012/12/04/does-anybody-like-48fps-in-the-hobbit/

 

423 Digital hosts a discussion between various experts on the technical considerations of HFR3D and how it worked in The Hobbit:

http://423digital.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/3d-experts-weigh-in-on-the-hobbits-usage-of-hfr-3d-423-digital/

 

 

martin-freeman-the-hobbit

 

One of the main reasons for shooting in a higher frame rate was to reduce the strobing or visible jerking that occurs when content is shot in 24 fps and so it was this that I was looking out for when Middle Earth appeared on screen again. The first visible strobing occurred in the marketplace at Dale towards the beginning of the film when a number of characters moved quickly through the crowded streets, normally on some kind of axis from left to right. It happened again when Bilbo ran off after the dwarves to begin his adventure and at other points throughout the film. It’s not a quality that can be seen in every scene and it does seem that you become accustomed to it as you do to other visual elements such as the stereoscopic effect or computer generated chacters. Although the strobing didn’t ruin the visual experience, it was easy to feel my eyes reacting to and trying hard to process the scene in a way that hadn’t occurred in the higher frame version. It is this labour that reminds us we are in an active engagement with a visual object and not something that I necessarily see as a negative aspect of the viewing experience but it does run contrary to Hollywood’s expressed desire for immersive entertainment experiences in which the aim is, presumably, to relax into the film and leave behind any sense of effort or exertion.

 

From the beginning of The Hobbit it quickly became apparent that, compared to 48fps, it was harder to pick out details in the shots so that in the Lonely Mountain it was impossible to discern the minutia of its construction as the pans moved rapidly past the architecture. Similarly, gone was the intensity of seeing every fine hair and gently ingrained line on the close up of Bilbo Baggins’ hand or the sharp twitching in Gollum’s eyes. However, it is worth noting that this was an impression that I took away only having seen the film previously in 48fps and not something that I imagine I would have noticed if I had seen it in 24fps first. To think about what you lose with only 24 frames per second is to assume that there is something worth showing in a higher frame rate.

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 

In my previous post I wrote about the way that it was the lighting that immediately called attention to itself in the 48fps version of The Hobbit. Many critics have spoken about the glaring, television soap opera aesthetic and the best reason I could find for this was due to the way highlights, lowlights and contrasts functioned in the film. Unsurprisingly, then, I spent a lot of time trying to focus on the lighting when I watched the 24fps version (not easy with the intense action happening in each shot and the fast cutting between them). What I noticed this time around was that Gandalf’s hat no longer seemed to have the distinct halo of light bouncing off its rim. Inside Bilbo’s house lighting sources seemed to blend together rather than form distinct, competing, points. Balin’s white hair no longer has a sharp bluish tint that extends beyond it but instead seems softer and more golden. However, I did notice that when the dwarves were camped for the night, there was a blue tone over the mountain crop were they rested that itself looked eerily unfamiliar and similar to something you might find in a videogame.  Nonetheless, there was overall a visual flow between objects, scenery and characters in 24fps that seemed less off-putting than the 48fps counterpart.

 

It is strange, then, to find this quote from the director about the work done with the 48fps footage, “The whites were being clipped, and we weren’t getting the dips and the shadows, which were giving it a slightly electronic sort of video look,” said Jackson. “We’ve completely re-designed the way we convert the data from the camera into the image. The highlights and shadows roll off more, giving it a much more filmic look.” My feelings are that the highlights and shadows are still not rolling off sufficiently and are thus drawing attention to themselves but, rather than leaving me pessimistic about the higher frame rate technology, it gives me a lot of hope that its visual performance can be modified and improved into something we haven’t yet been able to imagine. We only need to look at the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) to realise how far CGI has been able to come. It would be a shame not to allow higher frame rate technology the same opportunity to develop.

 

ilm03_young-sherlock

 

I think that there are also criticisms of the CGI that can be levelled at each version of the film which become more noticeable on multiple viewings. It pains me to write this because I admire Weta Digital for its ground breaking work on numerous productions and was particularly impressed by the digital imagery in Prometheus (2012) and The Avengers (2012) this year. Nonetheless, I found that the introduction of Azog and other creatures during a battle scene made it clear that these were digital manifestations from a different world than the human actors shining through make-up and costume. There was that uncanny feeling of smoothness so often seen in CGI creations that flashes warning to your eyes that you are seeing something not quite possible in our own visual world (an effect not given by the prosthetic enhanced dwarves, elves, hobbits and wizards). The distinction was made particularly prominent when the battle scene featuring Azog and orcs was intercut with scenes of Balin telling the tale of the events. Balin was quite clearly not digitally rendered, making the digital scenes on the battle field more overtly different. Had the scenes not been intercut, it is quite possible that my eyes would have accepted the digital world as an aesthetic in its own right but the direct comparison between the shots forced me to try and consider why I seemed to be looking at two different worlds. The digital effects also seemed to let down the numerous scenes with rain as they looked as if the liquid had been a digital add-on, even in the 24fps version. Similarly, the artificial backdrops, particularly Rivendell, looked like matt paintings that, while sophisticated in their use of colour, lighting and flowing waterfalls, could not be mistaken for real landscapes. This is a shame because the film does have the best version of Gollum to grace cinema thus far and the work on his scenes are stunning; even more so when enhanced by the detail afforded by 48fps.

 

bilbo-rivendell-hobbit-trailer-280x170

 

Watching the film in 24fps allowed me to consider the use of 3D again and to come to the conclusion that there is a relatively conservative use of stereoscopy in The Hobbit. Often when people refer to conservative 3D effects they mean that there are less objects thrown around in negative parallax. While this was the case, it is also the case that a somewhat shallow depth of field is employed throughout. This was noticeable in Bilbo’s house but even in the landscape shots there was a sense of stereoscopic effect but not the sense that I was witness to a fully three-dimensional landscape. Yet even with this in mind, there are some great extreme close-ups that utilise the contouring effect of stereoscopic filming, such as those on the Dwalin’s head where his bald curves shine magnificently above the rough protruding edges of his beard. Later when Bilbo wakes up after the dwarves’ dinner party, he is stretched out fully across the screen space. There is something in the moment as he hangs slightly in negative parallax that makes him seem incredibly touchable. Even without the same level of details as 48fps, when the trolls’ heads poke out into the auditorium, they seem remarkably present.

 

trolls

 

The visual techniques and unique aesthetic employed in the 48fps version of The Hobbit has provoked more debate than any film of the last few decades, even the much discussed Avatar (2009). For me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of cinema: the potential for constant renewal and change. What will become of The Hobbit is yet to be seen but as I write it has already nudged beyond the $800 million box office mark and that is before its China release. Although it seems an indulgence to draw out The Hobbit’s short story into three feature length films it offers a wonderful opportunity for the development of a significantly new style of visual storytelling.

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