The Hobbit in 48p 3D - Technological Hero or Flop?

First reactions to this new HFR format on the big screen...
Jeff Foster
By Jeff Foster 12.29.12

There has been much anticipation for this holiday release of The Hobbit - not only in bringing this classic novel to life from the team that brought us a success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but to experience the new technological advances of 3D on the big screen at 48p. But is HFR (high frame rate) really ready for "prime time" or are we just not ready for it? I share my first reactions after seeing it myself and connect with other sources/opinions in attempting to make sense of it all... and this is going to be a heated debate for years as subjectivity and viewer feedback will win out in the end.

The Hobbit Bts

Image from EOSHD article: 48p The Hobbit - British and American Critics verdict The Hobbit ©2012 MGM

 

First - Some Background on Technology:

Originally, 24fps was established shortly after "the talkies" came onto the scene after years of silent films that were shot around 16fps - mostly to accommodate the playback of the audio tracks recorded to the film stock. Higher frame rates have been experimented with film in larger formats up to 65mm with less than desirable results and directors have opted to maintain the 24fps standard for decades. And we've seen so many variations of video recording/playback speeds - the most recognized of course are 29.97 for NTSC standard/HD and 25 for PAL as broadcast standards. HD sports have been broadcast at 60i (interlaced) that reduces motion blur for sports action and giving a more "realistic" feeling of actually "being there". Most prime time network TV programs and made-for TV movies have been shot on film at 24fps and telecinied 3:2 pull-down to 29.97 for broadcast - which is why they look different than say, a childrens' program, the evening news or a daytime drama or talk show. Many soap operas have been shot and broadcast in 60i. The older production video cameras of the 1970s shot at of 50-60 fields per second in SDTV and had a shorter shutter angle and a much lower dynamic range which gave a higher contrast and brighter than real life image quality to the production, such as you may see in older British dramas and TV sitcoms in the era. The image was indeed "clearer" with more detail but suffered from the playback rate in quality - especially on CRT TVs at the time.

Today, higher frame rates in recording are most often done for purposes of smoother playback when the footage is played back at 24p or 30p for slow-motion effects. Playback in the native 48p, 60p, 120p or 240p often look strange to us - something unrealistic about the footage. But are we just comparing it to what we've grown accustomed to seeing on the big screen or on TV, or does it not accurately emulate what we see in the natural world?

In the real world, our eyes see motion blur. For a test, while focusing on the text in this article on the screen, quickly wave your hand back and forth in front of your face. Do you actually see your hand in perfect focus throughout the path of motion or does it blur and the text is still legible? Now look at your hand and focus on it - move your had from left to right and back and follow it staying focused on it, panning your head left-right as necessary to follow it. Can you still read the text on the screen? Of course not. Not only are you focused on your hand which with binocular stereo vision will change the convergence of the focal point forward, plus the DOF changes in your eyes, but the motion itself doesn't register the same as what you're focusing on. Motion blur makes motion look fluid and realistic to our brains.

This is why motion blur is as important in film/video as is DOF and proper 3D convergence and parallax.

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Motion blur example - Photo credit: ozoneeleven.com

 

As far as playback speed fps (frames per second/fields per second) are concerned, it's a matter of content. For example, a very slow pan across a neutral wall with no detail or a slow fog bank rolling in, a slower frame rate won't register any difference between say 12fps and 48fps. The image from frame to frame just doesn't register much change. Think of it like video image compression. Why do some videos compress so much smaller than others when they are the same frame rate, dimension and length? It's because one may have less pixel data change from one frame to another, such as a bird against a blue sky or a single set of car headlights in an otherwise dark frame. Other than physical motion or change of shape of the objects, it would be difficult to discern actual playback rate by viewing it alone.

The best explanation I've seen of this phenomenon is this article from 100fps.com

So in theory, the 48p production should at least produce clearer 3D viewing, at the cost of the HFR playback which eliminates motion blur and a soft palette, right?

 

Anticipation:

We've all read the anticipated reports around the release of this movie and the proposed reactions people may have in viewing the 48p experience - especially in 3D. Some stating it will be the new industry standard in big-screen filmmaking while others feared the gimmick effect will make the film look like cheap video. 

As a long-time 3D enthusiast since childhood, I was really looking forward to the experience to see if it was going to deliver everything the hype was promising. I was first interested in 3D with my Grandmother's Stereopticon cards and View Master reels and as I got older, experimented with 35mm 3D imagery - including building my own twin-camera rig where I could set-up my shots looking through two DSLR viewfinders at the same time and syncing the cameras to give me the exact same exposure and Auto-Focus levels and wasting much less film in processing as a result since I wasn't "guessing" at my shots. (I still have this camera rig and intend on using it for years - as long as I can get 35mm color transparency film). But I digress... not everybody loves the 3D experience, regardless of how it's shot.

While the 3D aspect of movie making these days is met with a divided enthusiasm (or dismissal as a fad) I still find the RealD experience comfortable and delightful when properly executed. After seeing James Camron's Avatar in IMAX 3D - which was produced entirely with the intention of creating a purposeful and planned-out 3D experience, I thought this is what the future of filmmaking as we were going to look ahead to. I've never seen it in 2D or on a smaller, TV screen since - but for me the 3D experience was superb; even reflections had the correct depth to them and the edits were thoughtful and not jarring for the brain to follow. I didn't get a headache or eye strain the entire time as I usually do with IMAX 3D features. The same was true for Martin Scorsese's Hugo in 3D. Beautifully crafted and edited brilliantly to fully engage the viewer INTO the film - not forcing it on/at you! So you can imagine my excitement and anticipation for this new epic film release - that would purportedly blow away all other previous 3D cinematic experiences. 

But - back to the 48p aspect of this endeavor, will it really deliver as Jackson claims and change the way filmmaking is done going forward? I've tried to ignore the naysayers with early reviews such as Jen Yamato's preview on Movieline in early December and more from Grace Johnson on Movieline or even earlier, the feedback shared by critics back in April to a prescreen 10 minute clip Critics React to The Hobbit 48fps Footage on YouTube. James Camron is cautously optomistic about the 48p experiment as well, thinking about adopting it for Avatar 2 in this write-up in the Huffington Post in early December.

I wanted to wait to comment until I personally had my own experience to base any conclusions or commentary. After all, Jackson has the latest technology gurus and a huge Hollywood bankroll behind him with everything at stake, so this HAS to be an awesome advancement, right?

*Download the 48p Trailer here (courtesy of the fxphd Production Blog) - or a higher-res 1080p verion from Luke Letellier's blog download here

Hobbit 48 Fps Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit ©2012 MGM

 

My Initial Reactions Upon Viewing:

First, let me address the 48p playback - in a single word: ugh. This is where there will be great debate from viewers for a long time - especially when divided into two main camps: "old fogies" like myself who have enjoyed decades of rich cinematic experiences on the big screen and through all phases of television/video formats from B&W sets with broadcast from the early 1960's to present - and those born after the late 1980's who grew up with computer games and more HD in their lives. *Note that I've yet to watch this film release in a standard theater projecting 24fps in 2D as a comparison - I hope to soon and will report an addendum to this article at the end.


While I felt the look of the 48p did offer a much brighter screen image and clarity, the things that bothered me most were extremely distracting and totally took me out of the story/experience - the loss of cinematic fantasy. The costumes, makeup, wigs and sets were mostly distracting - like I was standing on stage of a theater performance instead of watching an epic film. I couldn't help but think of the cheesy BBC costume dramas from the 70's - or even Behind the Scenes videos showing the action of a scene through some B-roll shot on video, and kept waiting to see what the same scene might look like on an actual film. I didn't feel like I was part of the movie as it didn't grab me - but I actually felt repelled by it. I missed the softness and inherent graininess of film - and motion blur. I kept wondering why they didn't at least run some motion blur filter over the footage to lessen the hyper-strobing effect of action on screen - but I realize that was purposely eliminated to keep the 3D experience as pure as possible. I feel it failed and was really more of a distraction instead of an enhancement. I'll explain why in more detail in the section below about the 3D experience.

And I'm not alone in my experience. I've panned and polled in various forums this past week - from the average moviegoer to industry professionals in film and video production forums on LinkedIn, to get their honest feedback. While some of the younger responders stated they thought it looked more like the video games they play on a high-end Playstation or XBox, they weren't as bothered by the 48fps playback and though us "old guys" need to just accept it and get with the program - most of the seasoned pros and film aficionados shared the same experience as I in that it looks like a cheesy soap opera or HD video of a stage play than it did a cinematic film they could "get lost in". 

The bottom line for me, is that the critics were right about 48p - at least as far as my own experience goes. Please feel free to flame me in the comments section below - I really do want to hear what other's experiences are in viewing this film in 48p, and whether or not this should be pursued for feature films going forward?

 

 

My Reactions to the 3D Production:

Aside from the inherent affects from the 48p viewing experience, I had to look at how the 3D was shot/editing/produced. While some of the production seemed appropriate and well crafted, often aided by nice shallow DOF which really made the viewer focus in the "sweet spot" of the frame on a character or object, I was often distracted by either poor parallax decisions in CG shots (too wide - which combined with the 48p made some "epic" fly-over scenes look more like Mr Roger's Neighborhood) or two narrow where the rules of 3D production were obliterated - violating the 3D viewing window. At times it made me "wince" and either look away or I'd have to take off my glasses a moment and rest my eyes. I haven't had to do this often in a RealD theater expect possibly some poorly shot IMAX or older anaglyph movies from the 50s. I'm not talking about silly animated 3D gags like things flying toward the viewer intending to look like they're jumping off the screen either. I'm talking about poor production, lousy planning and editing decisions that shouldn't have been made.

Some shots went from what seemed like a 50mm prime with a rich shallow DOF over the shoulder with two characters, cut to a dolly-zoom combo on a lead character where your eyes were drawn to the cheesy painted Styrofoam rock wall instead of the character standing there. I actually burst out laughing in a few inappropriate times because I was more focused on seeing the loss of the "magic" in the film because everything was so exposed. Just when I was lost in a rich dolly move in Rivendell with a bubbling brook atop the mountain I was jarred to a hyper-stereo wide shot of the valley that looked more like a painted backdrop - then cut to a character where you could see the texture of their wig.

Note that not everything was horrible, mind you - some shots really worked well and were delightful. There were moments I could have sat there and studied a shot for hours - looking at all the tiny details I was taking in on the screen, but the editing quickly jarred you from one camera shot to another and getting your eyes to adjust to a completely different 3D scene and POV moved too quick to register between cuts at times. 

What the 48p process did accomplish at times was often the lack of motion blur and/or DOF in a shot where everything was in complete focus and confused your eyes where to look on the screen. As in any epic cinematic production, the larger than life scenes are something to be explored and long shots of 10 seconds or more allow you to discover the beauty and details within a shot. When this is distracted by the 3D production or lack of DOF, the effect will be lost and you're left trying to figure out if you're looking at a table top model or a flat matte painted backdrop.

Hobbit Frame

Still frame from The Hobbit ©2012 MGM

 

Overview

As expected, there is definitely a lot of detail exposed in the 48p theatrical release - sometimes it works and looks beautiful, but often it was cheesy and just looked like something was "wrong". This sentiment is mirrored all over, but is also equally discredited as a resistance to new technology over familiarity of cinematic experience. As I stated, I do not play video games at high frame rates (HFR) but always think there's something really wrong with the way they look. I understand that video games are rendering 3D in real-time and effects like motion blur can't be realized, so the HFR is necessary to emulate smooth motion and feedback to the controls. But why do we have to move that direction with our movie viewing experience when it's so "unnatural"?

The job of the cinematographer is to help tell the story through the lens of the camera - focusing our attention on the character or objects of importance in the scene, while framing that action with the environment. When the environment is given equal importance in the frame, then that focus is lost - along with the story they're trying to tell. The overall inconsistency left me scratching my head... why did they get it so right in some shots and so blatantly wrong in others? Some of the mid-range shots were splendid with rich DOF that really enhanced the 3D effect and made you feel like you could walk right into the scene where others looked like models or a video game.

As far as content goes, I personally felt many scenes went on way too long and put me to sleep. The fight scenes were not only gratuitous and comical (more like an animated Disney feature) but were boring and distracted from the story. Since this was part one of a three-part series, I personally would have thought it would be best served cut down at least 30 minutes with more continuity between scenes - or possibly telling the story in a two-part series instead - but that would be harder to make money on than another trilogy, right?

Overall I must say the one thing that stood out to me from the very beginning shot right up through the entire 3 hour production was the great lighting and color grading. I'm not sure how much of this was achieved in-camera or in post, but everything from the candle light on Bilbo Baggins' table to the rich environments wherein they traveled, the lighting and color were spectacular! This alone makes me want to see the 24p theatrical release - where hopefully, they added some motion blur back in post.

Again, I welcome all comments and feedback - this is only my opinion and experience as a viewer of the film and am no way connected to the production of this film or the studio.

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Jeff Foster is a published author of several how-to books and training videos in the motion graphics, animation and video production industries and is an award-winning video producer and artist. Visit his web site to learn more about his training methods, tips & tricks at PixelPainter.com