Before we get any further into the arguments for and against the technology, it’s probably worth exploring a bit of the science behind it.
When we look at an object, we don’t see all of it. Our eyes scan around it in tiny, imperceptible movements, building up a picture through persistence of vision. These tiny eye movements, known as ‘saccades’ happen between 40 and 120 times every second, and are a key part of the mechanism of the brain that allows us to perceive smooth movement, even when looking at a series of static images.
Where this becomes interesting is that, the closer a frame rate gets to the frequency with which our eyes saccade, the more realistic the image looks. This is why TV, shot and played back at 50 frames per second looks so much more immediate than film. There is also a heightened emotional response. When Silent Running director Douglas Trumbull developed his 72fps Showscan technology in the early 80s, he gathered biometric data from audiences while they watched the footage. As the frame rate increased, so did their reaction to what they saw on screen.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why a director like Peter Jackson would be drawn to making a film using this technology. It’s also easy to understand why it would draw such a visceral reaction from those who have seen it. When a short clip was screened to audiences at CinemaCon earlier this year, most reacted badly, complaining that it looked like TV. Our own straw poll of journalists, reproduced in full below, garnered complaints that it “distracted from the film”, and that the realism made everything “look like props and sets”, and even led Guy lodge of HitFix.com to remark, “If this is the future, the future looks very ugly indeed”, but it also found some strong supporters.
Chelle Johnson of Hello magazine was effusive in her praise for the technology, “It was absolutely beautiful, really. The clarity was fantastic and I thought it smoothed out a lot of the problems I’ve had with 3D. The colours were brighter and lighter, You know that feeling when you put the glasses on and everything goes dark, and you feel like you’re wading through syrup just to watch a movie, you don’t get that with this, everything was absolutely beautiful.” While Brendon Connelly, film editor of BleedingCool.com has taken to it with an almost religious fervour,
“It feels like a veil has been lifted up from in front of the screen. There’s nothing inferior about it at all, it’s just people’s sentimental attachment to artefacts. Imagine Arnold Schwartzenegger’s in a film, and he’s got to run across the screen; it takes him one second to cross that space. That means that at 24fps, there are only 24 images in there. That screen’s 50 feet wide, he’s going 2 feet each time. That’s how you get that fence-posting effect. Good riddance to that I say, we don’t need it. 48 frames is the future. If all filmmakers said tomorrow that they were never going to work in 24 frames again, I’d be happy.”
So will it take off? Or will its use in the Hobbit trilogy just be an interesting footnote in cinematic history? Thus far it seems that the latter is a great deal more likely than the former, but a much more interesting possibility is put forward by Renn Brown of Chud.com, who argues that the technology should be seen as a tool rather than a format,
“Imagine, if you will, a universe in which the Sam Peckinpahs and Zach Snyders never existed and slow-motion was a technology that had either never been thought up, or was never easy enough to manage. It’s as if, in that universe, Peter Jackson signed on to direct a film shot entirely in “new slow-motion technology”, and we’re all in that universe discussing how it doesn’t look the same, whether slow-motion is going to catch on with audiences, and if all movies are going to be shot in slow-motion in five years. It’s the same thing if you switched out “slow-motion” for “steadicam” or even ”anamorphic”. This discussion is examining 48fps not as the acute filmmaking tool it can and should be, but instead as an entire filmmaking platform, which it shouldn’t necessarily be.”
Personally, I find myself firmly on the fence. Certainly there were moments in the Hobbit that looked like a low budget TV show. The 48fps also served to make the CGI action sequences look even more like a video game, but for about a third of the film, it looked magnificent. The experience was unlike watching a movie, and much more akin to something else – a more visceral, lucid experience. At some stage, when the technique has really been tested, and becomes consistent, it really will transform cinema viewing, but until then it’s an interesting experiment – just one that probably shouldn’t be tried on a near-three hour movie.
A selection of comments from journalists who disliked the technology are below.
Darryl Webber – ChillidogMovies.com and The Essex Chronicle:
“The problem with the High Frame Rate 3D Peter Jackson uses in An Unexpected Journey is that it actually detracts from the cinematic feel of the film.
“In the opening scenes in the Shire you feel ‘too close in’ on the characters, everything is too immediate, too domestic. The 48 frames-per-second technology may allow for smoother, clearer movement but it made me feel like I was watching a soap opera or an on-set video diary. In fact, it made me think of 1990s BBC children’s series, The Borrowers; maybe it was the Ian Holm connection. Things got better when the story switched to battle scenes, action set-pieces and sweeping shots of the New Zealand landscape but I still wasn’t completely convinced.
“I know film-makers are always looking at ways of enhancing the cinematic experience but for me HFR 3D wasn’t immersive; it made me think about the technology being used rather than being transported by the story. It just didn’t have that epic, big screen feel to it that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so memorable.”
Jeff Galasso – LondonFilmFanatiq.com
“48fps is incredibly distracting and it’s a dubious choice for a fantasy film. Yes, it makes the world look more realistic, but in this sense that means props look like props and sets look like sets. The style looks better during fast moving sequences when your attention is drawn away from how stagey it all looks. The 3D looked a bit better, but for my money, I’d go with the aesthetics of Life of Pi, which employs terrific 3D while managing to look both cinematic and gorgeous”
Cassam Looch – Lime Magazine/Movie Vortex
“I felt that every time I looked away, I had to spend several minutes trying to get my eyes readjusted. It makes you feel like you are right there…. But not right there in Middle Earth, right there on a set in New Zealand”
“I can see that the technology enables a sleeker movement and brightens 3D, but at far too great a cost: It removes all texture from the image, as if putting a film’s craft elements under fluorescent light, and lending everything the hard, dully even sheen of daytime TV. If this is the future, the future looks very ugly indeed.”