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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.

We’ve entered a new age. It’s an age where stars and story no longer run Hollywood. Instead, everything is at the beck and call of the almighty franchise. Can this world be extended through multiple films? Are the characters likeable enough for audiences to follow? Can we plant information in the first film that will come back in later films? Is it a property a set of fans already care about and will want to see made into a series? The Hollywood machine is ever focused on properties. Building on top of identifiable ones, and creating new ones. But in this new landscape and even more devious kind of film has emerged: the pointless movie.

2012 has had its share of pointless movies. Wrath of the Titans, Battleship, The Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy. Previous years have brought other pointless movies. But what is a pointless movie? What do I mean when I say that The Bourne Legacy was pointless? It’s a tough line. It’s almost a gut feeling, and depending on your reaction to the actual movies, you’re likely to disagree on a film-by-film basis. I guess the easiest way to explain it is that the pointless movie is that which fails to justify its own existence beyond a corporate decision. Click to read more.

Children don’t always have the best taste in movies. I know this because I see what kids watch and they watch a lot of crap. I also know because I remember the movies I watched as a kid. There is some real garbage there. I don’t think it’s that kids are bad judges, but that the interests and needs of a child are quite different from an adult. Children are more open to the silly and the fanciful, which in a way is actually a great thing. It also means, though, that kids are more easily pandered to and thus entertained.

When I look back at the films I used to watch when I was six or seven or even ten years old, I look back fondly, even at the bad films. Some of those films I look at now and feel almost a sense of shame for having loved. Some of them bring no shame at all, and some of them I shamelessly love to this day. I’d like to share those films with you. Maybe if you’re my age you’ll have the same sense of nostalgia for them, or, if not, you’ll gain some insight into what being a young kid in the 90s was like from a cinematic perspective. Click to read more.

Last night’s tragic events in Aurora, Colorado are pretty much beyond my comprehension, let alone within my ability to speak to them. All I can really express are my condolences for the victims and the families of those killed.

There really isn’t anything else to say about what happened, but I have heard some people online and in person express concerns about going to the theatre. Such an incident creates fear. It reveals what we all have generally considered a safe haven for entertainment and escapism is just as prone to the sharp and horrific burst of reality as anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean we should be fearful. It doesn’t mean we should stop living our lives. A movie theatre is a magical place, and none of that is lost, even in the light of such tragedy.

And so I’d like to be positive. I’d like to remind myself why we shouldn’t have fear. I’d like to express why I love going to the movies. Click to read more.

I think the biggest story in the online film world this week, outside of the forthcoming release of The Dark Knight Rises, was probably the vitriolic response that a number of critics got from Rotten Tomatoes users to their less than 100% positive reviews of that film. There’s been plenty of writing on the subject of Batman fans’ reactions to those reviews, and the whole story is wrapped up nicely by Matt Singer over at Criticwire. Some have said that these responses, which have included horrible misogynistic comments and death threats, are the result of some sort of insanity specific to Batman and Nolan fans. I don’t take this view, maybe because I consider myself a huge fan of Nolan’s work and his Batman films, and I also consider myself a fairly reasonable person.

I don’t think it’s fair to single out Batman fans. We saw the same sort of thing happen to several critics who dared to point out the flaws of The Avengers before that film came out. You know what? I kind of sympathize with those terrible fans. I kind of get where they’re coming from. I love Nolan’s work and I love his take on Batman. I look at The Dark Knight Rises, which I haven’t yet seen, and I do very much want to enjoy it. I want it to be great. When I see a negative reaction to the film from a critic, I don’t want to believe them. I don’t want them to be right. I consider their opinion, and even if it’s just for a moment I forget that it’s an opinion and my mind assumes they must be wrong. It’s a silly thing, but I get the impulse. It’s not that I know they’re wrong, or that they can even be wrong, but that I just don’t want to believe I might end up agreeing with them.

Given, then, that I somewhat sympathize with these so-called fans, why then am I not so vitriolic? Well, I think the answer lies partly outside the fans themselves, and at the online, fan-centred, movie news industry and blogs. It’s us. We created the monsters. Click to read more.

I’ve got a disease. A sickness. If you have a Netflix Watch Instantly subscription, you probably have it, too. I call it NNDS, or, Netflix Non-Decisiveness Syndrome. It’s a horrible affliction; a relative of such other awful illnesses like Overwhelming Video Store Disease, Too Many Channels Syndrome and Sizeable DVD Shelf Disease. All of these are the same. You’re presented with with a large, but nonetheless limited set of options. You can watch anything you’ve got in front of you, but how to decide?

It’s a serious problem. We need help. Netflix has thousands of movies and TV episodes, all right there, available to stream with the click of a button. It’s a fucking disaster. A ‘first world problem’ of epic proportions. Who on Earth came up with an idea so dastardly as to give people so many options? Don’t they know that human beings are not built to make these kinds of decisions? Click to learn about the symptoms.

The Alamo Drafthouse blog decided to re-ignite the discussion over texting in theatres by writing a post calling for theatres to unequivocally ban texting. I agree. Texting is a scourge and shouldn’t be allowed. People who text during a movie are awful. The Drafthouse gives three reasons for why texting shouldn’t be allowed, and though I agree with the overall sentiment, I actually only agree with one of their reasons.

The third reason they give, which is the one I agree with, is that texting is disrespectful to the rest of the audience who have paid to see a film, not to be distracted by the blindingly bright light coming from your iPhone screen. In fact, that’s pretty much the only reason there is the not allow texting, and it’s more than good enough for me. The second reason they give is that it’s condescending to think that 20-somethings today can’t sit down for a 2-hour movie without distracting themselves. That may or may not be true, but it really has nothing to do with whether or not texting should be allowed. But it’s the first reason the Alamo Drafthouse gives that caught my ire. Not only do I think it’s a poor reason to ban texting, it’s a terrible ethos. Click to read more.

The Criticwire Survey this week covered the topic of critics’ most watched movies. This isn’t best movies, or favourite movies, or guilty pleasures, but purely the movies that critics keep going back to over and over. A couple oddball choices are in there, like Certified Copy, but for the most part the choices reflect the ultimate quality for a re-watchable movie: fun. Films like Die Hard and Pulp Fiction show up, as do Ghostbusters and Star Wars.

These movies are all lots of fun. Even when they get serious they’re still a lot of fun to watch. Sure, there are movies I love to re-watch, like No Country for Old Men, that give me pleasure more through theme and character than pure entertainment, but those are rare. It’s far more likely that a movie like Drive comes along, which I find endlessly fun to watch. In fact, Drive is probably one of the most recent films to crack into my “most watched” category, or at least it’s well on its way, as is The Muppets. I just can’t get enough of these movies. Click to read more.

The Summer Hype Cycle is quickly shifting over from The Amazing Spider-Man to the true juggernaut of July, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. As such, I’d like to look back at the previous film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight. Specifically, I’d like to talk about how that film’s true strength lies in its nonsensical plotting. In most cases, a plot that falls apart under any kind of closer examination is a serious problem, but Nolan subverts that, building it into the characters and the themes.

Where the plot all falls apart is with the Joker. Not the portrayal of his character, which is memorable and amazing, but specifically how he relates to the plot. The only thing that makes sense about the Joker is his motivation, and even his motivations are weirdly unmotivated. Christopher Nolan has described his Joker as being like the shark from Jaws. He’s a force that cuts through the film with little explanation; there only to bring chaos. The Dark Knight is all about chaos and the various responses people have to chaos. The plotting of the film reflects that. Click to read more.