Monday, December 17, 2012

Is The Hobbit the Future of Cinema?

High Frame Rate, or HFR, is the latest "new thing" being pushed to try to draw audiences into the movie theater. The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey is the first blockbuster film to be shot and released in 48 frames per second (fps). It does this in combination with being shot stereoscopically for release as a 3D movie. The HFR of The Hobbit doubles the long-time US film standard of 24 fps (in Europe it has long been 25 fps). So is this the future of cinema? Well, I've got a theory about what has worked so well about the long-time cinema standards of 24 fps and 25fps.

Allow me to make some general observations about this first film of The Hobbit trilogy. I'm not going to review the film in depth. In fact, my friend and movie critic Daniel Carlson does an excellent job reviewing the film and the problems brought about in dedicating the same amount of screen time as was given to the whole of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to this one much thinner precursor to the epic saga that is LOTR. You can read his review here.

I liked the film overall in the end--maybe more than Carlson did. But I do see definite problems with the first half of the film and I suspect the first choice to make two movies out of the novel The Hobbit would have been a superior choice in terms or pacing and story structure. Possibly, had Peter Jackson and company set themselves the limitation that each of these three films could not be any longer than two hours, we might have had a tight and well crafted trilogy that is exciting and well paced. But as it is,  and as much as I really love a deliberately paced movie (I am a Terrence Malick fan after all), the first half of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey quite literally nearly put me to sleep at times. It was a conscious effort to stay awake and invested during the first 45 minutes.

I made a point of seeing the HFR 3D version of the film. For my camera tech-inclined friends out there, the film was shot with duel RED Epic cameras at 48 fps. Having been a long time fan of RED's cameras, I see once again how the cameras really do not disappoint in creating amazing visuals. But I must admit that with this film as with so many 3D films I have seen in the last few years, the addition of 3D does not add enough to the experience to justify the choice or added ticket price, in my humble opinion. Cinematography by its very nature has always been about creating a three-dimensional image through lighting, depth of field, camera placement and movement. 3D is supposed to create a more immersive experience for audiences. Yet, something about 3D movies feels forced and unreal to me. I remain mostly unimpressed and unconvinced that 3D is where we should be headed with cinema. Rare exceptions are animated films like How to Train Your Dragon

So what does this have to do with my theory about why 24 fps has served cinema so well? Well, a few years ago I picked up the book The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact by philosopher Colin McGinn. The book is fantastic and I highly recommend reading it. The basic premise that McGinn spells out in his book is that one fundamental reason why cinema has so effectively drawn us in is that our minds interact with the movies screen much the same way our minds engage in dreaming. This is natural territory for the brain--a familiar language. McGinn makes some pretty compelling arguments in his book (published before Avatar and the current crase over 3D movies) that anything that takes cinema away from its dream-like qualities and tries to make it more real ultimately makes it unappealing to us. He specifically sites previous attempts at 3D movies and explains that trying to make movies more life-like will ultimately strip films of their power to draw us into them as they cease to be the lucid-dreams they once were. The point of cinema, it would seem, is not to be virtual reality.

So here we are facing a similar issue with HFR. Already we hear that James Cameron is planning his Avatar sequel with the intention to push the HFR envelope even further by shooting and releasing the film in 60 fps. And 3D of course. Don't believe me? Check this out. It would seem that HFR may well be the future of filmmaking if James Cameron and Peter Jackson have anything to say about it. Well, I at least hope it is not.

Let me express why I feel this way by explaining what did and did not work about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in HFR for me. First of all, there is an inherent drama and emotional weight that comes with the standard film frame rate that gives us a specific dream-like quality in that moving images seem to at the very same instant both move slower than reality but somehow magically in fact move in real time. More on that in a moment. But The Hobbit in 48 fps lacked that emotional weight and visual drama that I feel belongs to the fantastic and epic lucid-dream that should be a film of this nature. Instead, it often felt contradictorily too real which made it feel fake. Especially on many of the sets that are clearly built on sound stages and carefully lit, the 48 fps lent the movie this cheap, soap-opera look that didn't help the sets and characters look real. Often, in those moments  I felt like I was watching not the film itself, but the behind the scenes footage. And of course, that pulled me out of the experience of the story as I found myself wishing I could watch the "actual movie" ... until I reminded myself I was watching the "actual movie."

Any time the camera moved, panned, or followed a character, the movement felt too much like video (normally shot 30 fps) and gave it this documentary or home-video feel that I, at least, don't find all that appealing. The way characters moved in 48 fps dialogue scenes felt too much like a soap opera (again, lacking the emotional weight and drama inherent in 24 fps). Some action scenes felt too much like a cartoon or video game. The movement felt comical. Many of the VFX shots felt hyper-fake because of the hyper-real nature of 48 fps. And that really bugged me.

The scenes that worked for me were ones with little movement where I could forget I was watching a 48 fps movie for a second but could still appreciate the amazing clarity and enhanced details of having twice the amount of information available to my eyes and brain every second. But once the camera started moving again, I wasn't as drawn in.

So all of this got me thinking as I watched the movie. First of all, this is my biggest complaint about the whole experience. I did not lose myself in the movie watching experience. The whole time I was keenly aware I was watching a movie and I couldn't help but analyze and ponder things as I watched. So ... all of this analyzing got me thinking: What is it about 24 fps that has worked so well?

As I mentioned above, I agree with McGinn's take on 3D and anything else that might move cinema to a more "real" experience that the likely result is the opposite effect of making movies feel more fake. My friend who I went to the movie with expressed he often felt he was watching a play instead of a movie. Pushing to make movies "more real" will strip films of their inherent connection to how our brains dream.

In addition to this, I recall that as a child who was always very interesting by all things visual, that when the sun began to set, I could move my hands and wave them in the air, and there was a distinctly different quality in how they looked and moved as daylight gave way to night. The way my eyes and brain worked together to interpret the images of my hand moving infront of me caused an increase in motion blur. In a way, with the decrease in light, it was as if my brain and eyes had to compensate by seeing the world at a slower frame rate. And this added motion blur to my movements. This also added intrigue and interest to my moving hand (I swear I never got high as a kid) and all moving objects in low light.

If McGinn is right and cinema draws us in so naturally because it mimics the dreaming state of mind, and he even makes the connect that movie watching seems to be something we are most inclined to engage in at night, than it makes perfect sense to me that one potentially important reason 24 fps has worked so well for movies up to this point is that 24 fps mimics the way we see the world at night as we wrap up our days and head off to sleep, to dream.

So is HFR the future of cinema? Dear Lord in Heaven, I sincerely hope not. I go to the movie theater and make movies to experience grand dreams. HFR feels like yet another gimmick that's right up there with the 3D gimmick. Hopefully, talented filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron will eventually abandon HFR and return to the much more powerful "gimmick" that keeps audiences coming back to movie theaters again and again: grand, beautiful, moving, and expertly well crafted storytelling.

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