Hobbit Versus Hobbit

Unless you've been living down a hobbit hole, or care nothing about movies and technology (in which case, how did you get here?) you've heard about The Hobbit and it's magical new "High Frame Rate": 48fps. This doubling of the traditional movie framerate has gotten much hoopla, with director Peter Jackson claiming it's the best way to see his new film.

So with an open mind, and a slightly emptier wallet, I saw The Hobbit in IMAX HFR 3D, and then a few days later, in "regular" 24fps RealD with Dolby Atmos. The difference was not subtle.

One of the most common expectations of HFR is that it would look like the motion interpolation on high refresh rate LCDs (120 and 240 Hz). I didn't expect it to look that severe, but I did expect it to look more like more like old BBC shows that were shot on video (50 Hz). The moment before the movie started, I really hoped it would be different from what I expected, that it really would be a window into a new world.

Then it began. The smoothness is readily noticeable. With double the number of frames available, there is less blurring of motion. This is especially noticeable in fast pans, where everything stays in absolute focus. Characters moved with a smoothness you've never seen on the silver screen.

I didn't hate it, at least not so far as the motion went. I suppose that after a while, I could get used to it. However, there was a much larger, and more fatal issue. I couldn't suspend disbelief. Not in the slightest. Not for a second.

Our entire lives we've been conditioned to accept the aesthetics of 24fps "film" as fiction, and higher framerates (like "video") as reality. Think local news versus any movie. "Reality" TV versus scripted primetime TV. There is no technological reason why TV dramas and comedies are shot at 24fps (or are tweaked in post-production to look like they were). Yet, they all are. I think this is why Blair Witch Project captivated so many, it was shot on video, and was therefore "reality." It's also why a movie like Cloverfield didn't grab on that level. Despite pretending to be "found footage," it still looked like film, and therefore "fiction" (that was a missed opportunity, in my book).

There's more to this than just the framerate. The detail with motion is a large part of it. With everything so sharp, my brain rejected it as fiction and started trying to judge it as real life. But only for infrequent moments, and these moments were limited to single shots or a random few seconds. But of course, it isn't reality. It's actors in costumes on sets. I couldn't see past that. And if you can't see past that, if you can't suspend disbelief at the fiction, that's it. You're done.

So it's either all that, or perhaps something more, something even more subconscious, that made me loathe this movie. It was the worst movie-going experience of my life. I couldn't wait for it to be over. I didn't care about any characters. I didn't care about the story. It was images on a screen, and I wanted it to be DONE. All 3.5+ (seeming) hours of it.

And that, I'd say, is a colossal failure of a technology that is supposed to facilitate storytelling, since it did the exact opposite. So I didn't hate HFR in itself, but it ruined the movie for me.

24fps and Dolby Atmos

With a few days to cleanse my palate, I went back to see The Hobbit a second time. My expectations were a crappy script and an overlong, meandering movie. I figured I'd hear how the Atmos sounded, see how different the movie looked, then bolt.

Except. . . I stayed and watched the whole thing. Interesting. I was absorbed into the world, quite effortlessly, just as I was with Lord of the Rings. I'm not a fantasy or Tolkien guy, but I love me some big epic filmmaking. I still felt the movie was a little long, but I never felt the urge to leave like I did with HFR. I enjoyed it, which is rather shocking considering how much I hated it just a few days before.

I did notice a few interesting differences. It seems that Jackson, knowing he had a higher framerate to cover him, did a lot of fast pans. You don't see a lot of fast pans in movies. The 24fps can't handle it and it gets juddery and jumpy. There are several such pans that looked fine in HFR (and I remember thinking at the time they would be way too fast for 24fps), but fell apart in 24. One pan, early on, when the camera takes a dive away from the throne room in Erebor down into the mines, is exceptionally choppy in 24fps.

Another difference was the 3D, though I can't say this is specifically the HFR vs regular because the regular theater used RealD (circular polarized) while the HFR was IMAX 3D (linear polarized). The IMAX HFR 3D was easily the best 3D I've ever seen, twice making me flinch as something came out of the screen. I haven't had that happen since Captain EO. The 24fps RealD was much more subdued. Was this because of the HFR, because of the different 3D methods, or something else? I don't know. Too many variables to say for sure, but the 3D was impressive in IMAX, and not in RealD. Further testing needed, I suppose.

Lastly, there's Atmos. I wish I could say this was a good test for standard surround vs Atmos, but I was so distracted by HFR I really didn't get a chance pay attention to the audio enough to make mental notes to compare. Judged on its own, though, Atmos worked with this real movie exactly as it did in the demos I'd heard at Dolby. The scene with the Brown Wizard and the spiders had the spiders sounding like they were actually overhead. In another scene, a bee buzzed near the roof of the theater's ceiling. I pulled myself out of the movie to try to remember these examples for this article. The rest of the time the audio was a seamless, enveloping blend with the video, which is exactly how audio should be. Atmos is a definite improvement over standard audio. HFR is not a definite improvement over 24fps.

Bottom Line

I tried to keep an open mind with HFR, I really did. I would LOVE a technology that makes a movie more involving. The mini-IMAX theaters that are springing up everywhere are great: bright, decent 3D, and massive. I'm willing to try HFR again (Avatar 2 in 60fps?), but I will not be seeing a movie I've been looking forward to in HFR first. I won't let HFR ruin a movie for me again. When it comes down to it, this new technology is pushing against human perception. You can certainly argue this is a learned perception, but what movie lover isn't indoctrinated into 24fps=fiction at this point?

There are certainly going to be some people who don't mind, or even like HFR. Perhaps these are the same people who like motion interpolation on LCDs. But judging from other reviews and my experience, HFR is a destructive force on storytelling for many people, and is therefore a failure.

But then again, I felt the same way about 3D, and we know how that turned out.