UPDATED: See below in bold
The history of cinema and projection speed is very interesting indeed. Silent films up until the late 1920’s were projected at all sorts of speeds, anywhere from 12 to 26fps, but most often at 16fps. At this speed, the human eye can perceive the general sense of motion, but it is more of the jerky type, not smooth and fluid like. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the proper framerate. Thomis Edison believed that 46 fps was the minimum to avoid strain to the viewer. By 1930, a standardized 24fps was adopted for 35mm sound film and has stuck for over 80 years. There are many reasons for this. From a technical standpoint, 24 was easy for the film cutters to work with; half a second was 12 frames, a quarter was 6, and so on. 23 or 25 fps does not give you these dividends. From an aesthetics standpoint, many people feel 24fps gives a very fluid, “cinematic” feel; blending fast movements and action scenes. In gives us a viewpoint on reality that we cannot see through our own eyes outside of the theatre, a truly unique visual experience.
And then came the digital revolution! The ever growing line of digital cameras has given filmmakers more creative options to shoot their projects than ever before. But for whatever list of reasons, 24fps has stuck as a standard for digital as well. Even with the advent of 3D, Hollywood was adamant at projecting all films, even the super blockbusters like Avatar and Prometheus, at 24fps. It was then when I started to think, sitting there watching Avatar in 3D, being utterly amazed by what I was witnessing, that something visually was missing. For all the amazingly incredible action sequences and vistas of Pandora, the slow framerate was somehow impairing the magic of it all. The lens blur made it hard for me to focus, hard to really feel like I was right there in it. That is of course, until I saw THE HOBBIT.
Peter Jackson’s first entry in this trilogy is the first wide release of 3D HFR. I must say the first 10 minutes made me question Jackson’s decision. It all seemed like a live performance on stage; motion blur was almost entirely non existent, as expected but still surprising. About an hour in however, I got used to the new look and became immersed in the story; I must say I felt like I was really there in Middle Earth. The action scenes felt so realistic and the animated characters, particularly Gollum, were the best I have ever seen in 3D, hands down. The image from the RED Epics was so crisp and so sharp that the extreme attention to detail required for makeup and the sets can only be imagined. The vista shots of New Zealand reminded me of watching the BBC series Planet Earth in HD for the very first time. I left the theater feeling like I had just witnessed something that will truly stick around. HFR provides a vast improvement in the 3D viewing experience. No more lens blur, no more eye fatigue. I plan on watching it again in 2D, I’ll post an update on my thoughts then.
Check out The Hobbit Production Diary #4 at the top. Jackson gives some great insight into how and why he chose to shoot it at 48fps in 3D. I personally commend him for doing what others have feared to do, even though there has been some very harsh criticism towards the HFR release. People, for the most part, don’t like big change. We saw this when 3D first emerged, we see it now with HFR. It takes time for a new style to be tested and find its niche. I agree that many films use the “3D” catchphrase in attempt to make higher profits at the box office, and this has proven to fail in recent years. But there are several films in which 3D helps enhance the visual telling of the story, Life of Pi and Avatar are two prime examples. James Cameron wanted to release Avatar at 60fps, and I think that the 3D experience would have greatly improved.
HFR is a tool that I strongly believe, allows filmmakers to achieve a greater sense of reality, at least in 3D. Perhaps a sense of reality is not the best way to put it; rather a sense of believability. A sense that what you’re watching on screen could actually exist, if not here then on some planet or in some galaxy far away. But of course, even with all the technical wizardry in the world, the heart of any great film has the foundation of a great story.
Last night, I went to see it in 2D 24FPS, and a couple of things really stood out to me:
Firstly, the amount of blur in the action sequences, specifically the goblin tunnels, was just too much for my eyes. When you’re trying to focus on the images flying around on the screen in front you, the motion blur makes it next to impossible at 24fps; and I didn’t enjoy it as much. With the 48fps, as I’ve said earlier, I felt like I was right there in the action, the movements were swift and clear, and I could focus much, much easier.
Secondly, for the 1st hour of The Hobbit, quite a few of the scenes really stood out to me as if they had been shot on a stage. Of course in many cases indeed they were, but the point and ultimate goal is to fool the audience into thinking it actually does exist. I thought the 48fps version was the culprit for this look, but in the 24fps, it did not make a difference. Instead, I question whether the DP’s lighting in those cases was intended to look more like a stage performance than cinematic. Perhaps that’s due to the 3D shooting technic, but I’m no expert on this…yet ;). Particularly the scene in Bilbo’s Hobbit Hole, I found the candle light to be far too bright. The characters faces were lit so much in some cases that it was hard to believe it was coming from a few candles and over head lanterns. But again, maybe because of the 3D, they needed as much light as possible for the right effect. Or maybe its because I was paying way more attention to these details than I should have been ;).
In summary, watching The Hobbit in 24fps really cemented the idea that HFR is practical, in the very least, for fast-paced camera work and action scenes. Watching it in 3D only adds to its practicality, I would even go as far as to say it should be required viewing.