The Hobbit. Story and HFR

I finally had a chance to drag myself away from work and parenting to go and see a film in the theatre. As a screenwriting teacher I always find it important to go see current films so I can have a reference point for the students. As much as I would love to discuss 'The Godfather' or 'The Third Man' most of my students haven't seen these films so I am just gratifying myself. I know, as film students you would think they would have embraced these films with curiosity and excitement. It does make me wonder why they are going to study film when they have no idea of the history of film. Then I have to remind myself that some are as young as seventeen and eighteen years old. That is not a lot of time to have a well rounded film education (and a reason they have come to film school, to learn). But I digress.

I went to see 'The Hobbit' in the new HFR (High Frame Rate) and I found it a very interesting experience. There are plenty of blowhards all over the internet that have dismissed this 48 frame per second format comparing it to Masterpiece Theatre, Theme Parks and Monday Night Football. Vincent Laforet wrote a whole piece as to why this format has failed in it's infancy. Stu Maschwitz at Prolost just posted a link to a video where he declares 24 frames per second essential. A bit arrogant. Vincent Laforet's scientific evidence is that he enjoyed the film much more in 2d 24fps than in the HFR format. I'll come back to this in a minute.

First, the film. I quite enjoyed 'The Hobbit' but it takes over an hour to get going. The reason for this is twofold. First, as the first film in a much longer narrative the first act is jam packed with character introductions and excessive amounts of exposition. There is a big story to set up here and it takes a while. 'The Lord of the Rings' also has a long first act but there is more tension and a simpler idea at play. Frodo has Bilbo's ring and he is to take it to the Inn to meet Gandolf. The first goal is simple and it get's complicated by Gandolf's imprisonment and the Nazgûl hunting Frodo and his companions. Characters are introduced slowly along this journey and we slip into the story comfortably. The stakes are incredibly high as well as we understand the importance of this ring, not only to the characters of the story, but to the entire Middle Earth. The first act of 'Fellowship of the Ring' ends an hour and a half into the story with Frodo submitting to carrying the ring and joining in the journey to destroy it.

This brings me to the second point. Frodo has to carry the ring. It is too powerful for his 'corruptible' companions to carry. They will succumb to it's power. Frodo, being a pure and good Hobbit, must carry the ring or all is lost. There is no going back. In 'The Hobbit' Bilbo's need to join in the fight is much weaker. This isn't to say that he has no motivation to join the Dwarves on their quest but it is far less of a necessity than it is for Frodo. In turn this makes the first act lag as it doesn't have the same imperative as in 'The Fellowship'. What happens to Bilbo if he doesn't join? Nothing. What happens if Frodo doesn't join? The corruption of man and eternal darkness. Not to mention that the Nazgûl are on the trail of "Baggins" and "Shire". If Frodo stays he will surely be killed. The stakes are high off the top and there is much more tension in 'The Fellowship'. Once the story picks up in the second act and the goals become clearer, 'The Hobbit' does a great job of finding it's legs and getting the audience involved. Even Bilbo's extended interaction with Gollum is riveting (and looked great in HFR).

So back to the HFR. Laforet says that he was more into the story in the 2d version and I believe him. I found the HFR version distracting as well because I was so aware of the new format that I was constantly thinking about it. It's a brand new format for God's sake. How can a filmmaker go into it without being distracted by the high speed format? We are painfully aware of the format and we are distracting ourselves by over analyzing it. This isn't the fault of the format but of the viewer trying to make sense of the format. Imagine the movie audiences when they first saw colour film? Or heard a synchronized sound track. When the 'Jazz Singer' came out they called sound films a fad! Knee jerk reactions.

Did I like the HFR 3d format? I'm not sure. Under certain lighting conditions I thought that it was very beautiful and engaging. At times I found the 3d to be more distracting as there seemed to be a lack of middle ground. There would be an actor in 3d separated by what seemed to be a totally flat background. No depth between the subject and the flattened background. At times it did feel a lot like video, especially in the Shire. I wonder if they were learning how to shoot with the HFR format while they were shooting. They are doing a research and development project after all. How did cinematographers and production designers adjust to colour film? Black and white films were about texture  and gradients while a colour film is a different beast altogether. Colour film didn't need the same kind of design as there were three separate colour layers that provided a lot more information and a different kind of texture. The question for the filmmakers was how to best use the format? Does low key lighting work better than high key lighting?

On top of this is the cameras themselves. How does the Red's own digital acquisition affect this? All cameras have different characteristics so how do you determine how much of the look is being affected by the sensor of the camera. The Alexa has a different feel than the Red camera as HD Cam has a different look than the Panavision Genesis. CCD versus CMOS. How does this have an effect on the HFR image? We don't know yet.

I do prefer a 2d image to 3d still. The current filmmakers are doing an interesting job of experimenting with the format but it seems to lend itself to a certain kind of film that is designed for it. 'Avatar' and 'Prometheus' worked very well with the 3d format. What is strange about 'The Hobbit' and the other 'Lord of the Rings' films is, ironically, their sense of realism. They sucked us into this world and made it feel real and dramatic. I wonder if 3d films work better when you want the hyper realism. Watching the HFR version I thought that it would work better in James Cameron's highly stylized world of Avatar. When you are trying to show a version of 'our' world in a realistic way 3d seems to diminish it. What I loved about the original films was that they did feel realistic, dramatic and horrific. Peter Jackson has done a great job of making us believe in this world and HFR 3d might work against it. I'm not sure that this is a product of the high frame rate or the 3d or the combination of both. I kept trying to take off my glasses to see the image in 2d with no luck. And there were moments especially in the third act where I thought it worked wonderfully. Even in Christopher Nolan's Batman series he has tried to create a three dimensional character out of a comic book character and adding a three dimensional treatment to the film itself would take it out of that realism and put it into the world of hyper realism. It works against the idea that he is trying to make Batman a dramatic action thriller as opposed to a fun action adventure. This is where Jackson is left in terms of the tone of his films. Is he wanting to make a fun action adventure or a dramatic action thriller? The first three films felt like the latter. This tonal shift is also what turned older audiences away from the Star Wars prequels. A film like 'Empire Strikes Back' has the weight of drama and the prequels have the weight of a fun adventure. Oddly enough, the series was inspired by the silly cliffhangers Lucas adored as a kid. There is a very real need to balance the tone of the movies and it appears that the format you choose can greatly affect that tone.

At the end of the day a filmmaker is left with choice. You choose your colour palette. You choose your lighting scheme. You choose to shoot your widescreen 1.77 to 1, 1.85 to 1 or 2.35 to 1 (or Imax if you are Christopher Nolan). Now you can choose your frame rate. The exciting part of the digital world is you can choose to vary that frame rate. If close-ups and certain lighting setups don't feel right you can shoot it at 24 frames and then shoot your vistas and other elements that work great at 48 frames. In the end it's more choice and I think it's awesome that Peter Jackson decided to jump in and do the hard work for the rest of us. This pioneering spirit is what moves the technology forward and I think it's ignorant to dismiss something before you really see what it can do for you. As Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds". I'm always surprised how many small minds there are out there.