The Hobbit: An Unexpected Masterclass in Why HFR fails, and a reaffirmation of what makes cinema magical
Peter Jackson, a terrifically talented film maker and pioneer of new cinema technology, has given the world of cinema a very important, and perhaps unintended, gift with his latest film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", as we wrap the year 2012.
Tonight I went to see his latest film in all three flavors of its release: 3D HFR, Standard 3D, and in 2D.
On one end of the spectrum I had one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences in recent memory, and on the other extreme I fell into the film and enjoyed it very much – all watching the EXACT same film mind you…
I recommend any filmmaker out there try doing this – as it will reaffirm so many of the things that make film "magical" and ultimately what differentiates the medium from all other forms of entertainment and visual media. For some, HFR will be a potential new tool in their arsenal for telling certain types of stories in a new and exciting way, while others will be reminded of why the 2D format at 24 fps has stood the test of time for so long.
With his latest film, Jackson shot the film not only in 3D, but also at twice the normal frame rate or "HFR" which stands for High Frame Rate – in an effort to make the film feel more "immersive" in his own words. Ironically – I think this new technology accomplished just the opposite for me, in terms of becoming immersed in the narrative and connecting with the actors on many levels.
In my opinion, film is not necessarily about WHAT you see – but it’s almost more an exercise in what you DON’T or CAN’T see. The best Directors and DPs show you only what is relevant to the story and never introduce a random shot or character if they can at all avoid it. I’ve always preached that a director or photographer should INCLUDE elements in a frame or shots that add to the story, and EXCLUDE elements or shots that detract from it.
The reason the standard film projection rate of 24 frames per second works so well, is that it’s just a few frames faster than what the brain needs in order to be tricked into seeing what are effectively still images, appear to move on screen – it’s called the "Persistence of Vision Theory." In tandem with that important theory, the motion blur you get by shooting at 24 fps and (on a standard 180 degree shutter) at 1/48th of a second, is just as important in making something look "cinematic" as the lack of depth of field we get by using larger sensors, and bright lenses at large apertures. This is precisely why one should shoot at 1/50th of a second on their HDSLRs and use ND or neutral density filters to makes sure they don’t have too much depth of field and can also ensure they aren’t forced into shooting at higher shutter speeds.
In the past few years we’ve been pushing the technology envelope pretty hard – trying to get higher frame rates, greater resolution, more dynamic range, more bit depth, more throughput/bit rates and RAW.
Yet for some reason, many top cinematographers and even directors out there still prefer shooting in 2K or 4K/5K… And why is that?
Well I’ll try to address that in a bit, but first an anecdote:
In the opening hour of The Hobbit shown in 3D HFR – I don’t recall hearing a single sigh, or laugh. Not one. When I went to see the exact same seen with an audience of the same size on a 2D projection – I heard regular chuckles and laughter… why? Again more on that in a bit – but this was palpable and very interesting for me to witness. All of the jokes seemed to be falling flat or being missed in the HFR projection.
First – let me discuss the 3D HFR projection. For those of you who don’t know, Peter Jackson shot the Hobbit with dual RED Epic cameras on a 3D rig – and he chose to shoot it at 48 frames per second (twice the normal rate) in an effort to render a sharper, more "realistic" image if you will, notably when motion is involved. With 48fps comes a new shutter of 1/96th of second if shot at the traditional 180 degree shutter – or an image with an image that has half the amount of motion blur relative to shooting at 1/48th at 24 fps and of course twice as many frames projected every second. You can read more about this process here and another great article on FXGuide here. With the Hobbit Jackson shot at 1/64th of a second on a 270 degree shutter to split the difference if you will and get a bit more motion blur (and light.)
Many of you are likely aware that when a motion picture camera pans or moves too quickly – it can be painful for the audience’s eyes. In fact on a 30-50 foot screen it can be impossible to see a sharp image or for the audience to lock onto something with their eyes if the movement is too fast. This is something filmmakers and experienced DPs keep a very close eye on – in fact there are tables that show how fast a camera can move given any given lens before this blur happens.
Therefore Peter Jackson decided to shoot the Hobbit in 48 fps to try to counter this effect, and to render a more realistic or what he deems "immersive" 3D experience if you will.
And he has indeed accomplished that – but in doing so, he’s killed a lot of the magic of what makes a film entrance an audience if you will, at least in my opinion. I did find myself become more "immersed" in the 3 dimensional environment and all of these details – but to the detriment of the film and the narrative itself.
I should say there are indeed a lot of fans of this out there… I’m just not one of them. The opening numbers for the movies this past weekend are record breaking – but I don’t think that speaks to HFR at all. These are fans of one of the most anticipated releases and extremely successful film franchises that would have gone no matter the format it was shot in.
Now before I go ahead and criticize 3D HFR – keep in mind that almost all of these harsh criticisms I’ll state below, were eliminated when I saw the film in 2D. And if you think I’m harsh – read a series of the harshest reviews from critics that I think I’ve ever read. This must have been tough for even Jackson to stomach.
And before I criticize the method – I would be remiss if I didn’t applaud Peter Jacskon for sticking his neck out there, and putting it all on the line to try this new method in filmmaking out. Without people like him pushing the envelope – we would never get anywhere. Although HFR combined with 3D is a failure to my senses – I was a very necessary experiment to carry forth, in an effort to try to cure the above mentioned issue with motion blur and 3D.
I knew I was in trouble the moment I saw the MGM logo move even before the first frame of the film was ever projected. And then I proceeded to spend the first 30 minutes of the film trying to figure out how to describe the "Monday Night Football" viewing experience that was so clearly not cinematic to me…
I came up with a few:
1. It’s like being on a film set in person: all of the magic is lost. You get to see behind the curtain and you’re no longer under the spell…
2. It’s like being on a Universal Studios "4D" Ride … where everything is painfully fake, but at least THERE you’re moving fast enough on that ride to forget that and you can let yourself be distracted by the thrill of the ride.
3. It was like watching really, really, really atrociously bad state run TV show… a bad Canadian, British or Chinese TV series that just looks plastic (I’m not trying to offend any of those nations – many are shot at high frames rates on small sensor-sized cameras and just look horrific despite the acting etc.) And no – not ALL Canadian, Brit and Chinese shows are bad – not at all what I’m trying to say here lest I offend anyone. The BBC and Canal + in France are two entities that produce world class content.
4. It was very much like being an audience member in one of those plays where you get to choose the actor you follow around in a building… not like watching a Broadway show mind you as you are sitting and not able to move around. But very much like being able to follow an actor around a series of rooms and looking at any of the details in the room you choose and if you get bored, you can always decide to follow another actor.
One of the first things that struck me: the lighting looked awful – almost amateurish (I’ll very quickly back away from that statement right now, by saying that it didn’t at ALL feel that way in 2D. The lighting, tonality were actually quite gorgeous – I still don’t truly comprehend why my mind reacted the way it did and blamed the lighting as much as I did initially. I think it had something to do with the fact that in person and on set, you can look at lighting and see of all it’s faults… but when you frame something up, you experience a small section in a completely different way in terms of dimension, compression, angle of view and of course depth of field.) Keep in mind that at 48fps at a 270 degree shutter they lost 2/3 of a stop of light, with the mirrors they used on the 3D rig another stop, so their Epics that they shot at 800 ISO were in effect rated at 250 ISO which is SLOW – a lot slower than the film stock they were shooting on 10 years ago on the last film and that had to be a factor as well. That being said it looked beautiful in 2D to my eye.
Second, Every costume, makeup job, set, and VFX element was more front and center – out there naked, for everyone to see that this filmmaking biz was nothing but an elaborate hoax. Kind of like what you feel when you see the models or costumes from your favorite films in a museum or on the walls of ILM… the magic is all gone. But that’s the point: they look far too real and artificial. The makeup wasn’t as terrible as some people say, and most of the VFX were stunning but not all. When I saw them in 2D however – it was almost like seeing another film. My attention wasn’t drawn to them … As I was focusing on central action. That challenges the "Suspension of Disbelief" theory that we all need to believe what we are seeing on screen and to get lost in it…
One of my main problems with 3D has always been that the director (with the use of convergence) forces you to look in one specific spot – looking elsewhere in the frame can actually be painful to your eyes. When I see a 2D image I have the choice of where I can let my eye wander – and I find that relaxing and it allows me to get lost in the film much more quickly.
In 3D HFR – I actually found myself having a VERY hard time looking at any ONE thing for any period of time. Looking into someone’s eyes was painful at times – and I found my eyes dancing around the frame. Looking at every little detail around the scene, and having my visual cortex overwhelmed with the 3 dimensionality of the environment and the movement of the camera. So in effect 3D HFR succeeded in getting my full visual attention – but not allowing me to get immersed in it passively or with free will. I was being taken on a ride and being told "look at the entire screen and all of the details" at all times…
What was the most important thing lost?
I had absolutely NO CONNECTION with the story.
I didn’t identify with the characters at all. I didn’t care about them. I didn’t listen as carefully to they were saying or how they felt.
And more importantly I didn’t feel ANYTHING.
I was just too visually engaged to worry about that "stuff." And I think that’s why people weren’t laughing as they watched the dinning scene – not laughing at all. They weren’t connecting to the characters or paying attention to the dialogue as much. They weren’t being allowed to. Needless to say this was FAR from a controlled study of course (two different audiences of the same size is all I can claim as a fact) – but the difference was palpable.
It also felt like there was far too much depth of field… all "appeared" in focus. The depth was overwhelming. I can honestly say I found it visually repugnant at times (harsh words I know – but you have to realize I almost RAN out of the theater within the first 5 minutes.)
Yet when I saw the exact same scene in 2D guess what? I loved the lighting. The depth of field wasn’t there anymore. The image was cinematic. And this was with the exact same scenes… shot with the exact same lenses, camera moves, lighting, and f/stop. These were the IDENTICAL takes shown without the 3D HFR!
And guess what else? I connected with the actors. I was left to let my eyes wander and tunnel vision if you will to the detail or actor that I wanted to "listen" to or see. I caught every joke and chuckled. I became immersed. And I found this absolutely fascinating – even stunning to the point that I had to ask myself (even though I knew the answer) whether the same scene had been re-light and re-shot in 2D (it wasn’t – they simply used only one of the 2 cameras they shot with.) And this is coming from someone who has been studying lighting and the visual medium for 22 years. I had two polar opposite reactions to the lighting and visuals of the EXACT SAME MATERIAL.
AND I FOUND THAT TO BE FASCINATING.
I then saw the same scene towards the end of the film with Gollum in all 3 formats. In 3D HFR – I couldn’t stand the scene – everything felt plastic, overlight, and far too sharp.
In 3D – I got into it and I actually liked it just fine. The 3D was so well done that I almost didn’t even notice it was in 3D after the assault on the senses that 3D HFR can be.
In 2D – I made the closest connection with the actors even though one was but a CGI character of the pioneering and amazing actor Andy Serkis who’s defined motion capture.
The first battle scene was also fascinating and in many ways a death blow to 3D HFR for me. The purpose of HFR is supposedly to make these very fast moving scenes much easier to see. I felt like I was watching a XBOX 360 animation at the start of a video game. Every thing was in focus and semi-sharp – but I didn’t know where to look. I found it horrendous.
The same scene in 2D was easy to follow, very dynamic and poignant when the severed king’s head rolled by at the end of the battle. Why? Because of the motion blur… the head and left pan were fast enough, and there might have been a little slow motion thrown in there… to make it more dramatic. It worked. The 3D HFR. Not at all.
When Richard Armitage’s character Thorin picked up a sword to cut the main opponent’s forearm off – I couldn’t make out the sword in the 3D HFR at all ironically – and this was confusing as he had been fighting the creature with the trunk of a tree which had been split in two… I didn’t know how he’d managed sever an arm with half of a tree trunk. In the 2D version – my eye was able to "punch" in on the wider frame and easily catch him picking up a sword.
So with all of this here’s the "Master Class" that I took away, and that Peter Jackson shared with every filmmaker out there that is willing to study these 3 versions of the same film:
1. Film is just as much about what you DON’T show the audience as with what you DO. Shallow depth of field, motion blur, lack of sharpness, and movement all help to create movie magic. If images are too sharp and you see too much detail… that’s not always a good thing. The Canon 5D MKII showed us that in many ways – it’s large sensor and resulting lack depth of field combined with what was a relatively "soft" image (relative to video cameras) made it what it was when I shot "Reverie."
2. High frame rates belong on bad TV shows and perhaps sports. 24 fps is here to stay in my opinion – at least for cinema. That is unless this next generation of video game players change the rules on us of course. I can see this working for animation, sports and nature films though. I’d also like to see it used on only certain moves (fast ones) in a film perhaps and not the entirety of a film.
3. 3D combined with HFR is a total non starter for me. It highlights the weaknesses of both techniques exponentially. It’s far too real and it’s almost impossible to hide makeup / sets / VFX etc. In fact just yesterday afternoon a VFX friend of mine said, verbatim: "Motion blur is extremely important to what I do… that’s how I hide all of my mistakes and make VFX/CGI look more real."
4. This latest technological "advance’ reaffirms one of my key beliefs: We’re far too focused on technology these days we are creating a lot distractions to what can make a film truly powerful. So many of these new technologies threaten the magic of film by making the experience a little too "hyper real" if you will. Having only one of 8 characters in focus during an important soliloquy, or another person crossing frame out of focus and motion blurred can be a good thing to make the audience become more immersed in the film… they don’t need to see EVERYTHING to become "immersed" in my opinion… Something to think about.
5. I can honestly say I had a harder time hearing some of the dialogue in the 3D HFR version than in the 2D… I wonder if this a combination of not being able to focus my eyes on the lips when things were tough to hear in the 3D version, or if I was just being overwhelmed visually and couldn’t refocus my mind on paying attention to the dialogue… I notice this on the scene with Gollum pretty acutely as he was hard to understand at times.
and a few ideas for the future:
1. As we invariable move towards 4K – directors will need to make sure that things looks as "real" on set as possible. I see 4K posing an uphill challenge to all green screen, CGI, and VFX work. It’s damn hard to hide your cheats… I’d like to (selfishly) think that this will lead us to shoot things more practically than with effect shots… but I’m probably just dreamin’
2. With 4K+ as well – any camera move that is too fast, is unforgiving as is any slight focus error – there’s no hiding it. That can also prove limiting for filmmakers as they may have to chose to limit how fast they move the camera and or how fancy their moves are in terms of speed and degree of focusing difficulty. That being said if the film is projected at 2K – this isn’t an issue… Most films shot on the RED Epic at 5K (such as Fincher’s "Social Network" that was shot at 4.5K Mysterium sensor on the RED One) have only been finished in 2K – which is why people aren’t really talking about this that much out there yet. I have seen more than a dozen 4K projections: when the production value of the film is high, the makeup and wardrobe good, excellent lighting, and excellent focus pulling skills with attention to not moving the camera too fast: it looks STUNNING. If you fail to do any of the aforementioned: it can be deadly. Absolutely unforgiving.
3. Filters that soften images, or lenses that are not quite as modern and sharp… will likely find a second life with 4K+ cameras. While you can hide a fake looking set with negative lighting and lack of depth of field… you can’t hide makeup or facial prosthetics with an extremely sharp lens…. so those new Panavision lenses they’re touting may be 4K ready… but one my want to go with the ones that were made 15+ years ago that are more "forgiving" which is a polite way to say they’re not as sharp and less optically perfect.
4. I found another thing that was very interesting: it was clear that the 3D HFR version of the Hobbit was graded in away that took into account the light loss and color shift we all experience when we wear 3D glasses. A pet peeve of mine is to see 3D films that are graded mostly for the human eye (without the glasses) – and that gets a noticeable color tint and is just "dark" when you put on said glasses. In this case they may have overdone that a little bit. I felt like I was watching 3 different films in terms of grade when I watched the same projection with and without the 3D glasses, and in 2D. The 2D was perfectly graded. The 3D HFR felt blown out at times with the highlights and the colors weren’t as warm.
So if anything – I thank Peter Jackson and all of the crew and cast in New Zealand – for helping me re-affirm many of my opinions for myself on what I like and don’t like as a filmmaker, and for teaching me quite a few things by going to all 3 of these projections in one night. I think it’s fair to remind you of the obvious: these are but one person’s opinions and observations. I have seen a notable difference in opinion already in the twitter sphere and web with people in the under 30 age group. Many of them seem to very much like HFR.
I should mention that I saw these at the Archlight Theaters in Los Angeles where they have state of the art projectors.
I would also love to hear some day what Peter Jackson himself TRULY things of all of this and if his first (and THE first HFR) film lived up to his expectations or if he saw how much more challenging it is that he might have initially expected…
I know he and his team will keep working on perfecting the process over the next two films for all of our benefit. Obviously we can all choose to go to either the HFR, 3D or 2D versions!
The only loss is that you can still notice the sharper image on the 2D version (given the faster shutter speed used. But there IS software that can add motion blur back in…but it can of course be time consuming and cost prohibitive to run this process on a 2+ hour motion picture of course…)
How much of this is "Legacy Association" some might ask… in other words how much of this is due to our "old way" of seeing films, versus what younger viewers might think…
Well one example came to mind: If you look at the opening scene of the Wizard of Oz and realize that it was all shot on a stage, and that if you look really carefully at the black and white section at the start of the film for example, you can see that every set extends out 5-20 yards and then ends with a large matte painting that perfectly finishes the perspective lines in an ultimate "trompe l’oeil" … it’s pretty amazing. And when you stop to think that the film was shot under incredibly hot lights to expose the very low ISO color film emulsion… and that yes you can more clearly see the matte paintings in color than you could in the monochromatic opening… you start to think of how things eventually evolved. One important factor is that while matte painting achieved new heights in films such as Star Wars and E.T. just to name two, at the same time smaller cameras allowed filmmakers to step away from the studio lot and to go out on actual location!
That being said – my final argument to this is: I got lost in the story of the Wizard of OZ when I was young and still do today. Only when I started to analyze the film did I notice the above details. For me the techniques never overshadowed the content, the story or the acting. And that is pivotal.
For now, and I think for awhile , HFR takes me out of the film and is too much of a show stealer. It grabs your attention at the expense of the sound design, lighting, music and most importantly the acting and the connections we make with the actors/characters. And that is a mortal flaw. If the audience can’t identify with characters or story – a film has no chance.
My final answer: if HFR does become more of a standard, then we’ll all stop paying attention to the new technique, and perhaps be able to refocus on story. The points I make above about being able to choose where I look, and what I choose to focus on and getting lost in any part of the frame, and becoming more immersed by seeing "less" do ultimately make me doubt this will happen until the 3D process as whole gets much much better.
And lastly I’ll leave what has turned out to be a bit of an "epic" (in terms of length) blog post with The New York Time’s A.O. Scott’s review:
Mr. Jackson has embraced what might be called theme-park-ride cinema, the default style of commercially anxious, creatively impoverished 3-D moviemaking. The action sequences are exercises in empty, hectic kineticism, with very little sense of peril or surprise. Characters go hurtling down chutes and crumbling mountainsides or else exert themselves in chaotic battles with masses of roaring, rampaging pixels.
The Hobbit is being released in both standard 3-D and in a new, 48-frames-per-second format, which brings the images to an almost hallucinatory level of clarity. This is most impressive and also most jarring at the beginning, when a jolly dwarf invasion of Bilbo’s home turns into a riot of gluttonous garden gnomes.
Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction. But of course it will soon be overrun with eager travelers, many of whom are likely to find the journey less of an adventure than they had expected.
FOLLOW UP NOTE: This is easily one of the most popular "opinion" pieces that I’ve written on this blog. Normally this kind of traffic and discussion only truly takes place when it comes to exclusive gear reviews. Last night the post was being read by a thousand more people every 10-15 minutes at times. So far this article has been read on this blog 33,519 times in under 12 hours and on Gizmodo 61,181 times in 2 hours. What this tells me is that there is INTENSE interest with this new technique and that it’s hitting a nerve. And I’m finding (unusually respectful) dissent – with people finding they feel the exact opposite. Or didn’t notice the effect at all. While others couldn’t agree more. On average (and gain unscientific) it seems that two trends are apparent: Younger people seem more receptive to the HFR. And people that went to the film without knowing about HFR seem to have reacted much more positively than people who went in there to specifically see the new HFR technique(as I did.) Another thing I’m reading is that the technique "grew" on people as the film went on. I should mention that I did pop back into an HFR screening to see one scene AFTER I did the cycle that ended on 2D – and found my opinion had not changed at all, and that it hat not grown on me.