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.