Jean-Luc Godard famously said, "Cinema is truth 24 frames-per-second." He clearly isn’t balancing 3-D glasses on his nose and watching the fantasy action between elves, dwarves, and a low-key hobbit named Bilbo in filmmaker Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated and sparkly bright The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, shot at a much discussed 48 frames-per-second (fps) for release in High Frame Rate 3D (HFR 3D).
It’s been a decade since Jackson’s Oscar-winning The Return of the King, the final installment of his massively successful Lord of the Rings franchise and the 51-year-old Kiwi promises fans an enhanced, lifelike 3-D cinematic experience for The Hobbit, based on J.R.R Tolkien’s 1937 novel. Reuniting his creative teams from LOTR, Jackson makes a cinematic return to the bucolic Middle-earth town of Hobbiton for the adventures of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), warrior dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and recurring fan favorites Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the villainous Gollum (Andy Serkis) in the first of three Hobbit movies set some 60 years prior to the events in the previous films.
The Hobbit was just completed a few weeks ago by Jackson and his New Zealand-based production and post-production teams at Weta Digital and Park Road Post. But from the very first 10-minute peek of HFR footage at an exhibition conference last summer, industry veterans, critics, and film buffs have been fiercely debating the impact of The Hobbit’s HFR 3D release on the future of cinemas as well as the relative merits of the film’s hyper-realistic imagery.
After 30 years of hard-fought development and multiple setbacks, can HFR create a brighter future for Hollywood and keep crowds coming to theaters or is it a gimmicky flash in the pan akin to the scratch-and-sniff cards of Odorama?
Jackson’s risky commitment to HFR 3D goes back some 18 months to the start of production on The Hobbit but the HFR journey goes back to Douglas Trumbull, an effects pioneer famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and whose Showscan shorts in the late '80s, which were 60 frames-per-second in 70mm, inspired Jackson as a teen.
What Douglas Trumbull calls "hyper cinema" and his dream to achieve the movie equivalent of live performance continues with a community of filmmakers, cinematographers, stereographers, and vision researchers in effects labs in Los Angeles as well as test facilities around Toronto.
"I have I think a unique perspective on the high frame rate issue because my first job out of college was working at Showscan back in the mid-'80s," says Erik Nash, visual effects supervisor at the L.A.-based effects house Digital Domain, who continues to work on HFR tech. "I’ve known Doug Trumbull for years and got used to high frame material back when it was all analog, 65mm motion picture film shot and projected at 60 fps. It’s funny that all these years later it’s finally coming to fruition. Like so many things Doug Trumbull did over the years, he was just a little too far ahead of the times and the industry and the technology wasn’t there to make it a viable release format. So here we are, how many years later?"
The transformation to digital 3-D filmmaking and projectors led to a successful trade conference presentation two years ago of comparison footage of 24 fps scenes with 48 fps scenes shot by James Cameron and screened using makeshift Christie projectors.
And the growing popularity of 3-D action blockbusters led to a renewed interest in HFR; it was an opportunity to achieve new standards in realism by eliminating the flickering image quality of 3-D movies.
"To me, fantasy should be as real as possible," said Jackson at a recent press conference. "I don’t buy into the notion that because it’s fantastical it should be unrealistic. I think you have to have a sense of believing the world you’re going into and the levels of detail are very important."
The massive crew on The Hobbit included a potter, a blacksmith, a glass blower, furniture makers, boat builders, and a Tolkien language translator, but what really brings their craftwork alive with new intensity are the custom-made RED Epic cameras, 3ality rigs, and the "Slave Motion Control" or "Slave MoCon" allowing Jackson and returning cameraman Andrew Lesnie to film actors performing their scenes simultaneously on two sets in order to create perspective tricks in HFR.
There’s a lot to consider with a vertical revolution like HFR that touches every cinema segment from production to watching the finished movie in select theaters.
Motion-capture technicians and digital designers debate the added stress on production flow due to the additional data needs, bandwidth limitations, larger post-production tool sets, and the increased bottom line for HFR moviemaking.
But outside the ongoing tech debates, it’s important to note the immediate things moviegoers will notice different from the 24-frames-per-second industry standard since 1927.
You can make out the threads in Bilbo’s red corduroy jacket, green waistcoat, and mid-length trousers from the moment he first appears. Fast-paced action sequences featuring the wolf-like Wargs or larger-than-life rabbits pulling the woodland wizard Radagast’s sleigh pop from the screen in 3-D without the slightest flutter.
HFR fans as well as its detractors continue to choose sides. Director Bryan Singer tweets, "Just saw The Hobbit. Having some serious frame rate envy" and hints that he may shoot the next X-Men movie in HFR. Other moviegoers share their stories of eye adjustment and coping with a movie that doesn’t look like what they’ve come to expect in movies. Audiences with the 3-D glasses pitch and roll with the movie like a throwback to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery when audiences believed the Wild West gunman was about to fire his pistol from the screen. Some critics have said the effect is more along the lines of "a bad video game."
It all makes for a wild, theme park-worthy ride, although there are movie fans complaining that the birth of HFR means the death of movies as a dreamlike experience, what Susan Sontag called "cinephilia."
"There are people who are into it and think it’s the future and there are other people who really don’t care for it," Nash tells us. "I think it’s somewhat generational. People who are older and whose vast majority of their moviegoing experience is seeing analog movies shot on film and projected on film, in their mind that’s what a movie is and that’s what a movie looks like. But younger generation kids that spend a lot of time in front of gaming consoles are accustomed to high frequency and high sampling rate media. So for them, there is not a prejudice or ingrained idea of what a movie is."
Long ago, in the age of Méliès, movies felt magical and new and now, a dozen years into the new millennium, HFR arrives after 30 years in development and promises to mesmerize audiences one more time and pull them away from laptops, iPads, and smartphones with an experience meant for the cinema.
Some critics lament HFR as more proof that teen-friendly action movies will become the only movies worth making as far as Hollywood studios are concerned and question whether the Oscar-favorite dramas of 2012—Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, The Master, and Moonrise Kingdom—really would have benefited from HFR.
"I think for most people and certainly for creative types they’ll see HFR for what it is, which is option value," Paul Salvini, chief technology officer at projection company Christie, tells us from a Toronto multiplex. "It’s a new opportunity to do things in a new way and a better way. It’s not something that you have to use. It’s something that when it makes sense you have the creative freedom to use and over time we will see more directors and more cinematographers understand the medium and explore the medium."
In the meantime, moviegoers have the opportunity to experience what Jackson calls the "New Realness" and seek out The Hobbit in some 400 U.S. venues showing the movie in HFR 3D.
There will be at least two other HFR films courtesy of the sequels The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Meanwhile, Trumbull promises to debut a revived Showscan as a digital process at 24 fps, 60 fps, and 120 fps early next year. Cameron is also expressing his commitment to HFR for his next Avatar movies.
For now, one question remains. If an elf, a hobbit, and a dwarf leap from the movie screen via full-blown HFR, can you tell a difference? And does it make for a better story?