The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out! I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has its issues, which are more severe for some than for others. For my full opinion about the film, check out CineGeek where I will discuss it on our weekly webcast.
This post’s purpose though is to discuss what has gotten filmmakers and filmgoers in such a tizzy – the high frame rate of the film’s video. High Frame Rate (HFR) versions of the film portray how it was originally filmed – at 48 frames per second instead of the traditional 24fps. This is the first major motion picture to be produced at the higher 48fps.
The reason for doubling the frame rate is that the higher frame rate leads to increased image clarity and depth. The perceived drawback is that the enhanced realism takes away the “cinematic look” of film, that the increased clarity removes a certain haze that lets the audience suspend disbelief in the fantasy of film.
So which side is right when it comes to this film? Both, actually.
The HFR really delivers on its stunning and crisp image quality, which is something director Peter Jackson already knows with the preceding Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scenery is beautiful, as the New Zealand landscapes Jackson loves to show off look even better with the added clarity and depth. Action scenes, of which there are plenty, come through with amazing detail and little-to-no motion blur. And the rain, as my good friend Jon Wright remarked to me, actually looks like real rain as you can see the droplets.
The CGI in the film is particularly well-done, with Gollum being the standout example of blending the computer-generated elements with the real ones when Gollum and Martin Freeman’s Bilbo have their battle of riddles. I don’t know if it’s the HFR that helps meld the elements, or if it’s simply just the decade of advancements since the Lord of the Rings trilogy hit the big screen.
In short, this film is pretty to look at.
Unfortunately, the HFR detractors do have their point about the cinematic look and lack of immersion. The added clarity and sharpness leaves the non-action scenes, notably in the early parts at Bilbo’s home of Bag End, somewhat jarring, as if they’re too quick and life-like. It’s as if you’re watching a play instead of a film, from as close as on the stage itself. The added clarity also points out the fakeness in set design. When the film is on a set as opposed to on location, it shows.
With this initial difficulty with suspension of disbelief, watching the film’s higher frame rate reminded me of my first time watching high definition television, or even to a lesser extent Blu Ray. When video technology jumps in clarity, bringing us more life-like visuals, it seems we lose a bit of our suspension of disbelief with that sudden blast of reality. It takes some adjustment to get that fantasy haze back in our minds, but it happens because we still know it’s not real. Only each time when it happens, we have even better visuals than before to go with it.
I don’t know if HFR is the future of film right now. Perhaps we movie goers will soon adjust to the vividness of the image quality, or perhaps we will be too attached to the “cinematic look” of the standard 24fps that we give up the enhanced clarity. At this point, I can’t call Peter Jackson’s experiment with this film a success just yet, but I won’t write off HFR for what may just be growing pains.
If film production follows Jackson into 48fps and beyond, it will lead to set/prop designers, make-up artists, and costumers reworking how they do things, just as those in television had to for high definition.
However way the frame rate war goes, I’m still looking forward next year’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – both to see how HFR affects filmmaking within the year, and because it’s more Hobbit!
Have YOU seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? Did you see the HFR version? What did you think of the higher frame rate or of the movie in general?
Recommended readings on the topic: