Archives For Film

Let’s Talk 48fps

December 15, 2012 — 9 Comments

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Oy vey, you probably don’t even want to hear about 48fps anymore. Ever since the first screenings of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit, the interwebs have been inundated with all kinds of opinions on the high frame rate employed on the film. Well, I wanted to put my two cents in. Why? Well, because this is the Internet and what else is the Internet for if not to intellectually masturbate all over a personal blog? Also, I feel like a lot of the talk surrounding this new “cinema” format has been either to extreme, too ignorant of the fact that this is the first film to ever use 48fps, or too technical in its praise or trashing of the format.

I went to see The Hobbit in 48fps 3D earlier today and the first thing I want to get out of the way is that it’s a shitty movie. No, not because of the 48fps, though that doesn’t help matters—I’ll get to exactly why in a moment—but because Jackson has done a remarkable job of taking a fun, light story, stretching it out to the point of lunacy, while draining the film of all stakes, urgency and even character. It’s a disaster of a film, and the thought that there are two more of these things to go fills me with a special kind of dread often reserved for the next Kevin James offering.

Now, onto the 48fps. Originally, even after seeing the film, I’d have argued that there is nothing inherently wrong with 48fps as a shooting format. Jen Yamato’s interview with James Kershwin delves into some of the science of higher frame rates. Now, some of the science Kershwin claims as solidly proven really isn’t. A lot of the theories involved are very difficult to pin down. The crux, though, may actually hold serious water, at least in terms of how we perceive cinema as an art form. That is to say, when we watch a fictional film we understand its unreality. That is a given. Our suspension of disbelief comes in part from how filmmakers use that inherent unreality to create what amount to illusions of believability. A film like Children of Men doesn’t actually resemble the world we see when we look outside, but it creates an engaging atmosphere that draws us in and feels believably real. Any good film can do this, or, conversely, go for surreality. The 24fps, with its motion-blur and other artifacts, is part of what makes this possible. 48fps gets in the way of this latitude by forcing things to look more real.

Kershwin discusses theories about how the brain perceives high frame rates, but what his argument ultimately comes down to is that the higher the frame rate, the more “real” the visuals look and thus the more they bump up against a sort of uncanny valley. Things look real, but also just off from actual reality, and this is unnerving. I can definitely buy into this theory, especially since I got exactly that unsettling feeling while watching The Hobbit. But I also don’t think it’s as simple as all that. Kershwin claims that the science soundly proves that despite some variations in viewers’ adaptability to the high frame rates, as a whole human beings will never be able to take it. This part of it I have a harder time accepting. Even as the movie wore on I became more accustomed to the format and it began to feel natural to the images being created on-screen.

But it was never full natural, and this is where I think there are a combination of factors at work. Part of it is the uncanny valley Kershwin describes, but much of it seemed to come from the filmmaking and not the frame rate itself. The most clear issue was the overall visual style and cinematography. To put it lightly, the film looks atrocious. The truth is, the Lord of the Rings films never had the best cinematography out there, and it’s quite possible, based on having seen the trailers in 24fps, that in the slower frame rate the film looks fine. All that says to me, though, is that 48fps requires a completely different approach to shooting and lighting. This makes sense. 48fps begs for a new language. A new cinematic approach.

For example, one of the things 48fps does is make lighting seem brighter. If you stick a key light on a person and just look at them, chances are it’ll look unnatural. Film that person at 24fps and the light doesn’t appear nearly as harsh. Well, 48fps makes things look more like they appear in reality, which also means that the lighting will look as harsh as if you were right there on set. There are many scenes in the film where in certain shots the lighting is just right, and despite the oddly smooth motion the film actually looks very good. But then the shot will change and the lighting will suddenly be too harsh, and what looked before like a believable fantasy film now looks like a stage drama with obvious sets and costumes. And it’s not that the sets and costumes look bad or cheap. They look great! Except they are lit so harshly that you feel like you’re in a soundstage with overly bright lamps overhead. From my perspective, this is less an inherent problem with 48fps, and more of a learning curve.

The place where the lighting issue was most clear to me was in the “Riddles In the Dark” sequence involving Gollum. The motion-capture and CGI technology has come a long way since 2003’s The Return of the King and Gollum looks better than ever. Not only that, but because the 48fps gives the film a more palpable and believable sense of depth and dimension, the perfectly textured and animated Gollum actually looks like he’s there on set. I swear, there are some shots I was almost convinced he was actually there. The effect is that good. Weirdly, though, in that same scene, the shots of Bilbo, while not as bad as at some other points in the film, look overlit and too much like that stageplay or BBC effect you’ve been hearing so much about. The biggest difference, so far as I could tell, was that Gollum has no real lighting. It’s all virtual. Added on when he is rendered. Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, is lit with practical lights, on a set, and that’s exactly what it looks like. Maybe the quality of CGI still isn’t quite there to make the lighting look real or harsh enough, but whatever the case, the digital artists clearly “lit” Gollum in a manner that feels more natural to a film than a soap opera. In fact, almost all the CGI creations, even the ones that look a little less believable that Gollum are benefitted by the 48fps.

The other major problem in a 48fps film is the acting. When the image appears so real, false acting appears that much more false. There are several sequences involving all the dwarves where a couple of the actors feel like believable characters, but the rest come off as poor theatrical stage performers. This, combined with the British accents, is probably one of the reasons a lot of people are jumping to the BBC comparison, because that’s how it feels.

Similarly, bad sounds effects were more noticeable. What’s that? 48fps makes the film sound worse? Yup! Who knew? When everything looks so damn real, and when there’s less blur to hide the actual motion, rudimentary foley effects no longer sound like they’re coming from the objects they’re meant to.

Then there are the psychics. Again, the motion looks so smooth and realistic (once you get used to it) that any physics that don’t look real, well, they aren’t believable. When those dwarves are throwing plates all around the house and the plates seem to be defying gravity, well, unless there was some magic spell going on that I missed, it just felt like badly done plate-throwing physics. Bad effects. Again, 48fps, assuming it’s a neutral format and not inherently bad, is far less forgiving of these bits of fakery that 24fps can so easily mask.

And so we ask ourselves. Is 48fps the future? No. I doubt it. Is Kershwin right that 48fps can never work because our brains can’t handle the dissonance? I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to see a couple more movies done in 48fps before I can truly decide on that one. What is clear to me is that 48fps now exists. It’s a tool in the toolbox. I don’t think The Hobbit was the right film to try it on, though. For loads of reasons, but primarily the fact that Jackson underestimated the degree to which the realism of 48fps would undermine the unreality of even his most lavishly created soundstage sets. The best shots in the film, aside from the CGI ones, were often those shot outdoors, with the beautiful vistas and the characters more naturally lit.

So where should 48fps go from here? Well, I’d like to see it tested out in two specific areas. The first is in CGI. Somebody should do a computer animated film in 48fps. In fact, maybe James Cameron will be the saviour of the format when he does Avatar 2. The first film was already mostly an animated film trying to pass itself off as a real place. If the Gollum scene is any indication, Cameron could definitely “shoot” the sequel at a higher frame rate and thus enhance the illusion of physicality in his computer generated world. On the other end of the spectrum, it might be interesting to see a film entirely shot in the wilderness using 48fps. I would kill to see a big screen, HFR version of Planet Earth. Or, if you want to stick to films, maybe make something like Peter Weir’s epic survival story, The Way Back, which other than some sets at the beginning was shot entirely in the wilderness being portrayed. Match the reality of the content with the reality of the shooting locations and capture it through the reality of 48fps and you might be onto something.

Those are the kinds of experiments that should be done. I saw far too many people saying of the 48fps in The Hobbit that the format represented the death of cinema. I don’t believe that to be the case. The technology may never go anywhere, but it certainly won’t take over or even come close until filmmakers actually learn how to make films suitable for it. The Hobbit was not the film to do that, though it shows glimmers of possibility even still. At the very least, get me one of those nature docs in 48fps. Please. It would be incredible.

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There have recently been a spate of articles and blog posts discussing whether certain movies require multiple viewings. It’s all spurred by Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a film that many critics and cinephiles have claimed requires multiple viewings in order to reveal its many layers and ultimate meanings. Dana Stevens wrote about watching the film three times, and how that made the experience of The Master a more complete one. Stephanie Zacharek wrote a piece at the AV Club questioning the notion that certain films require multiple viewings as well as the notion that certain film are more self-evidently deserving of such treatment. Today, Ryan McNeil wrote a post comparing re-watching movies to listening to a song over and over before finally falling in love with it.

I saw The Master twice. I’m biased immediately. In fact, I watch lots of movies twice, sometimes three times, sometimes even more, often seeing films multiple times in theatres. I also saw Looper twice. I saw The Dark Knight Rises five times, including three times in 15/70mm IMAX. I saw Paranorman twice, Brave twice, Prometheus twice, Moonrise Kingdom three times, The Avengers twice, Monsieur Lazhar twice, 21 Jump Street three times, The Cabin in the Woods twice, and that’s all re-watches in theatres and only this year so far. (To be fair, I work at a theatre, so most of these re-watches were free.) But why would I watch these movies so many times? What do I get out of re-watches? Click to read more.

TIFF’12: The Great Wrap-Up

September 18, 2012 — 6 Comments

Another year, another TIFF. The first movie I ever saw at the Toronto International Festival was Juno in 2007. It was the only film I saw that year, and my friend and I chose it completely on a whim, not knowing anything about it until we got to a wifi hotspot to check it out. The next year, 2008, I saw ten films, including Synecdoche, New York and Slumdog Millionaire. Each year since, I’ve pretty much gone “full TIFF” and seen as many films as I could fit in. This year, 2012, I broke my record from 2009 for the number of films I watched. It was also the most exhausting year of TIFF for me, not only because of the number of films, but because I squeezed that higher number into fewer days.

Seeing so many films in so few days has its advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious are the disadvantages. I’m sure anyone who has seriously done a film festival has been subsequently asked by others, “can you even remember all the films you watch?” Well, yes. Yes, I can. But there is a kernel of truth to the question/accusation. Ask me which films I saw at TIFF’12 and I’m going to start drawing blanks. Remind me of a specific film and it’ll all come back to me, but when I consider them all in a group it’s difficult to separate one from the other. The other major disadvantage is the exhaustion. Watching twenty or thirty or fifty films in a little over a week sometimes sounds to people like an easy vacation. Sit back, in the dark, watch movies. Only, at a festival you aren’t usually there to watch films passively. The mind is constantly working and processing and that’s tiring, especially when hours get thrown out of whack and it becomes so hard to find time for a meal that you sometimes forget to eat at all. Watching a silly movie like Ghost Graduation might be okay when you’re exhausted, but what about when it’s a new Terrence Malick film? Was my reaction to that film too heavily influenced by the fact that I’d rather have been sleeping? It’s hard to say.

Still, the advantages are there. Seeing films with like-minded people is one of the best things about the experience. For the most part, the people who come to a movie at the festival WANT to be watching a movie at the festival. These aren’t the chatters or texters or other sorts of assholes who regular ruin the moviegoing experience. At TIFF, generally, it’s an appreciative audience of fellow film lovers. They’re respectful to the films and to the people around them. There’s also something to be said for being in a cinematic state of mind. Normally, throughout the year, I intersperse movies amongst all sorts of other things. During the festival it’s all movies all the time. My brain is set to movie-mode. That’s what I’m built to think about and process and enjoy. I could never do that year round, but for about eleven days per year it certainly works. And none of that touches on the chance to see films that either may never be released or may be months or years away from coming out. I saw The Loved Ones at Midnight Madness back in 2009, and it only got a release in the US this Summer, and is finally coming out on DVD here this month.

But enough thoughts about film festivals in general; let’s talk TIFF’12! CLick to read more.

TIFF’12: Day 9

September 17, 2012 — 3 Comments

Finally! I have come to it. The end of TIFF’12. Okay, so there were actually two more days. But I skipped them! Including Day 9, I saw 29 films and a special live event. That’s 30 ticketed events in 9 days. I know some people who do more than that, but those people are crazy and my load just about killed me. But before I could officially call it quits, I did have to, you know, watch some more movies.

For my last day at TIFF I decided to go all out. I had four tickets, plus I planned on rushing one of two possible movies. It would be a long day, beginning with a movie at 11am and ending with a movie starting at midnight. I was also pretty confident that my line-up of films would be stronger than the last couple of days. As it turns out, I was right. Click to read more.

TIFF’12: Day 8

September 17, 2012 — 3 Comments

Ah, what a pleasure it is to only start my day in the evening. Of course, that didn’t stop me from waking up early for no reason and being extremely exhausted throughout the day, but at least I could sit around and do nothing until 6pm. I’d considered heading down to check out the new Barry Levinson horror film, The Bay, but despite the solid word-of-mouth I just didn’t feel like sitting through a found footage movie.

I won’t make any bones about it. The back half of my TIFF’12 experience was not as great as the front. I mean, sure, I was still having a blast, but the films were mostly not as good. I attribute this to my front-loading  the films I most wanted to see in the hopes that I’d add in several films with great word-of-mouth for later. I did do that, but I was also still adding in random films that fit my schedule and looked decent. Either way, my Day 8 started very well, but took a sour turn. Click to read more.

TIFF’12: Day 7

September 16, 2012 — 2 Comments

I had to wake up early for Day 7, not because I had a movie to see, but because I wanted to head down to the festival box office to exchange some of my back-half vouchers for tickets. I went ahead and did that, but then had nothing left to do, so I decided, to throw in an extra screening for the morning.

It’s not always easy choosing a random option at the last minute, especially since many screenings are already “rush line only.” I didn’t have too many screenings to choose from, and ultimately I settled on something with a director I didn’t care for, but a cast I loved. Continue Reading…

TIFF’12: Day 6

September 16, 2012 — 1 Comment

Day 6 was a slow day for me. And by slow I mean I only saw two movies. Actually, it was kind of nice to bring it down to just the two. Of course, that doesn’t mean I got any extra sleep or felt any less exhausted, but I suppose it provided a bit of relief after a few more busy days.

Of course, the risks were piling on, even in this day of only two movies. To the Wonder, the new film from Terrence Malick, was already getting some very mixed buzz out of Venice and various press screenings. Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers looked good, but then so did his previous film, Kill List, and I was decidedly unimpressed by that one. Still, I was prepared to jump in, and in fact I was expecting to enjoy both. Click to read more.

TIFF’12: Day 5

September 16, 2012 — 3 Comments

Going to a film festival involves risk. Specifically, the risk of seeing bad films. It’s going to happen. If you’re doing more than just a few films you can’t avoid it. My first bad film of TIFF’12 was Hellbenders, but I suppose going into that one I knew the risk of badness at Midnight Madness would be higher than normal, and honestly I didn’t go to that film expecting it to be any good.

It’s always more disappointing when you expect a film to be good and it ends up not only disappointing, but being outright terrible. A good example for me would be Tyrannosaur last year. I went in fully expecting to like it, and considering the huge standing ovation the film got i suppose most people felt it delivered. I, on the other hand, hated the film. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t believe the positive reaction the film was garnering around me. But that’s the risk. You can’t enjoy every movie. Sometimes there will be bad ones. Sometimes you will come out of a movie loathing it. That’s what happened to me on Day 5. Click to read more.

TIFF’12: Day 4

September 16, 2012 — 2 Comments

Day 4 and already I’m hit with film festival exhaustion. It might sound like an easy thing to do nothing but watch films for several days. I’m here to tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. Films require a kind of mental attention. Watching more than two in a row tires out the mind. Factor in the fact that at a festival as big as TIFF you’re also running all over town, standing in line-ups, getting up early, going to sleep late, and by the end of it you feel like you’re going to collapse.

All that being said, a film festival is a gloriously fun thing. It’s exhausting, but also rewarding. And even when the films themselves aren’t rewarding, the people you meet and hang out with make it all worthwhile. The night before I’d stayed up until 3am finishing off Cloud Atlas so that I’d have read it all before seeing the new film adaptation. It was worth it. Click to read more.

TIFF’12: Day 3

September 16, 2012 — 1 Comment

Weather in Toronto is a funny thing. It’s a city with a pretty wide range of climate, and it can often be quite random. For example, while I was nearly dying of heat in line for the American Beauty live read on Thursday, standing in line for Frances Ha on Saturday was a cold, rainy experience. That’s not to say the weather put a damper on the day (it didn’t at all), but it’s one of the factors that makes TIFF a simultaneously fun and frustrating experience. You just never know what you’re going to get day-to-day from the clouds above.

Day 3 was another “take my mom to TIFF” day. Got up reasonably early, ate some breakfast and went down to stand in line outside the Elgin/Winter Garden in the rain. Luckily, we found a spot in line with some cover. Matt Price also showed up at some point, and finally the line let in. Click to read more.