Thursday, December 20, 2012

Return to Middle Earth in 48 frames a second

I've learned a lot in the last ten years.  While I like to think that I'm the same as always, experience has definitely had an impact on me.

One constant is that 'The Lord of the Rings' has remained my favorite movie franchise.  It's a pinnacle in cinematic achievement and an inspiring series of movies.  They haven't lost their luster.  However, I don't care for the extended editions as much as I once did.  I now recognize that the theatrical releases are superior edits in most ways (the one exception to that is the exclusion of Saruman's death).

It was easily foreseeable that 'The Hobbit' would see its big screen debut with all the money there was to be had.  I'm glad the same New Zealand team took on the project.  Much of the world has looked forward to returning to Middle Earth through their unique perspective.

Peter Jackson did loose some credibility with his overindulgent 'King Kong' movie.  When I first saw 'Fellowship of the Ring' I knew nothing about him so he gained a lot of respect in my eyes.  By 'The Return of the King' I had done my homework and knew the director wasn't perfect, but was still amazingly gifted.  And more importantly he had built a team around him of amazing talent.

I was accepting and open to the decision of breaking 'The Hobbit' into two parts.  But I felt that one movie would still be the best way to show appreciation for the quaint nature of the book.  There's a reason why the Necromancer story remains largely in the appendices.  Tolkien did a great job of backing up his stories with an elaborate history.  It gives the stories depth.  But the magic of the actual books is a feeling of the larger world in the background while the story movies forward, not being force fed every dry detail.  Understanding Tolkien's notes is important for making the film.  But there is no pressing need to explain all of it to an audience.  In spite of all that I was willing to give them a chance to prove me wrong.

When the project was split into a trilogy it felt like the studios were overindulging  Peter Jackson for a money grab.  Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games are all franchises that began slitting up the books for no good story reason.  From a story perspective, splitting 'The Hobbit' into three parts leaves the conclusion that the third movie will mostly likely be one giant three hour battle.  After barely getting through the long battle that took up over half of 'The Return of the King' I am not particularly looking forward to the third part of 'The Hobbit' trilogy.

Another bold and controversial decision made by Peter Jackson was to shoot not only in stereo 3D, but to double the frame rate.  If you haven't already had the history lesson:  Silent films were shot with hand-cranked cameras at about 16 to 18 frames per a second (fps).  When sound was introduced 24fps was settled on as cost/quality balance.  I've heard the human eye can discern around 50-60 images a second.  This means that movies move in a different way than we perceive motion in every day life.  When digital high-definition came around George Lucas was adamant that the cameras support a 24fps format.  The Japanese Sony engineers told him 60fps is better because it's more life-like and smooth.  Part of the need for digital 24fps was that movies were still being printed on actual film and converting 60fps to 24ps is a pain and doesn't work quite right.  Also, 24fps is why movies look like movies and not soap operas or sports broadcasts.  "Better" is relative.  There's more to film exposure versus video capture but I'm not going to get into that in this post.

Digital image capture has advanced to the point of replacing celluloid.  As the technology races forward perhaps we don't need to be locked into the conventional thinking of the past.  Movie-making has always been split into different disciplines: Art, Business, and Technology.  All three play off each other for better or worse.  The technological and business decision to shoot at 24fps had an artistic implication.  Now the technology doesn't lock us into that original decision and financially it is becoming viable to change things up.  Shoot at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, or even 60 frames a second.  People all over the world will be able to watch your video.

Over ten years ago I was all for replacing film with digital high-definition video.  I love the advances in technology that democratize movie-making by making the tools affordable to anybody.  But there's always a price.  When affordable digital video cameras supported variable frame-rates I saw so much abuse by videographers who lacked in understanding of the technology.  They complained about 24p recordings largely because they captured/processed the footage incorrectly.  And the introduction of DSLRs that record high-definition video has led to even more crimes.  There's a large lack of understanding in how to properly capture an image.

Peter Jackson's team are not among those people.  They are professionals.  The decision to shoot in stereo 3D led to the idea to try out a new frame rate.  And that led to tests which brought them to informed decisions about how to properly expose images at this new frame rate.  The benefit for those of us not ready for the new frame rate is that 48fps down converts to the conventional 24fps in a simple way.

I first watched 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' in 2D at 24fps.  I've always found 3D to be distracting and with the addition of the high frame rate on top of that I figured I'd be unable to focus on the story if I saw the HFR 3D version upon my first viewing.  So I returned a second time to see the movie in HFR 3D.  There's split between people who love the new format and those who hate it.  While I don't hate it, I also don't prefer it.

This was my reaction:  At first 48fps felt unnerving, like the movie was playing back on fast-forward.  I got a bit nauseous.  But after some deep breaths I felt like I could hold on.  Half way through the film I acutally found myself enjoying a few shots here and there.  But overall it felt wrong.  By the end of the movie I had a mild headache.  When I made a stop to the restroom after the movie I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes were red.  I don't think I am ready for this new format.

While the higher frame rate probably helped most audiences enjoy the 3D by smoothing out the motion, I found it to be an information overload.  I have really become accustom to 24fps and after hours and hours of editing my brain has learned to read each image as it plays back in real-time.  Doubling the frame rate never allowed my brain to process or catch up with all the images and my eyes gave out.

I believe future generations of movie-goers will accept faster frame rates and even look at 24fps much like we look at movies from the silent era today, stuttery/jumpy.  But at the same time I believe that there is a larger-than-life magic to 24fps and it should be looked at as an ascetic choice.  It will not disappear overnight.  There is still a cost concern, high-frame-rates translate to higher data-rates and not every production has the budget of 'The Hobbit' to handle that.  It has taken ten years to replace film with digital.  And digital has taken the last five years to increase the number of pixels and in quality to surpass the quality of film.  With all of this to consider, 24fps is not on its way out the door.  Personally I'm more open to a compromise between higher frame rates and classic cinematic motion.  30fps seems to be the best of both worlds to me.  As I see it now, we will have choices in frame rates for the years to come.

As far as my review of the storytelling in 'The Hobbit':  I enjoyed the film, I even enjoyed it more with a second viewing.  But I feel it has its weak points.  I still hold to my belief that the additional material interrupted the flow of the story.  Radagast the Brown forced his way in.  Gandalf's meeting with Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman dragged.  Other complaints include: The troll with the high-pitched voice was obnoxious.  The Goblin King, while entertaining, had an over-the-top death.  The goblin kingdom fighting sequence became too side-scroller video game like for me.  And why was the main bad guy, Azog the Pale Orc, the only CG character who really stood out?

The strengths of this film are: Martin Freeman as Bilbo, brilliant!  Riddles in the Dark was really well done, Gollum tops himself again.  Overall superb visuals with gorgeous cinematography.  Highly detailed props, sets, wardrobe, and make-up, it held up even at the higher frame rate.  And the 3D, although still distracting, is the best I've seen.  In short, I was happy to return to Middle Earth.

While I do look forward to the next film, I am reserved about the third.  I am still of the opinion that one movie would have given me everything I wanted out of 'The Hobbit'.  This trilogy comes with a lot of extras I don't care for.  An extended home movie release would have sufficed as a way to include the additional content.

As I said at the start of this blog post, I have learned over the last ten years.  Another ten years will inevitably bring more change.  I don't change my opinions lightly and I hope my current perspective maintains its validity in the coming years.

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Sandy, Utah, United States
I make movies with my friends. I like to find humor in just about anything. I live in a dark cave similar to Batman's as far as cool computer equipment goes. But my cave lacks the gym, car, and suit...