The Hobbit‘s HFR Reviews Are In, and They’re Not So Good
Peter Jackson knew this day was coming. Last night at midnight, the studio embargo on reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was lifted, and the first pieces began appearing on the web. Based on early reaction to a screening of 48fps high-frame-rate (HFR for short) footage from the film, the Hobbit team knew that first reactions to the completed film were likely to include negative comments on the new technology, which some observers have variously complained makes the film look cheap, sped-up, and-or nausea-inducing. And it's true — writers seem to have mostly gone out of their way to pan the format, with critics for both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety saying the cons of HFR outweigh the pros.
Some web-based reviewers were harsher, while a few more seemed to reserve judgment, noting that the negative effects of HFR seemed to be lessened over the film's running time and suggesting that moviegoers will eventually grow accustomed to the process and its improved temporal resolution. And it's worth noting that many heavy-hitting publications and writers — The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Rogert Ebert, to name a few — have not yet weighed in on the film, which opens next week.
To be fair, it should be noted that film critics see a lot of movies, year in and year out, and may be especially sensitive to changes in the look of the medium. (Some critics remain skeptical of digital acquisition and projection in general, let alone at 48 fps.) The real test will come when paying audiences fill HFR screenings and react, positively or negatively, to what they see. For now, here's a sampling of the notes on HFR and The Hobbit that went live this morning.
An initial comparison of the two formats weighs against the [48fps] experiment. The print shown at Warner Bros. in what is being called High Frame Rate 3D, while striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film a oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home. For its part, the 24 fps 3D version had a softer, noticeably more textured image quality.
The film's 48-frames-per-second digital cinematography solves the inherent stuttering effect of celluloid that occurs whenever a camera pans or horizontal movement crosses the frame — but at too great a cost. Consequently, everything takes on an overblown, artificial quality in which the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious, while well-lit areas bleed into their surroundings, like watching a high-end homemovie.
48 frames per second is essentially harsh-looking and disconcerting…until it isn’t. It’s incredible how discordant and off-putting the increased frame rate appears to the human eye initially, but as Jackson himself has asserted, audiences will tend to forget (and or tolerate) once they’re absorbed into the story (though admittedly it takes a good hour, and the experience will be both subjective and divisive). And becoming engaged in The Hobbit once the adventure truly starts isn’t difficult. In fact, by the third act when the action is at its thunderous peak, the 3D/48 fps visuals are wholeheartedly spectacular. Indeed, a few moments of panoramic action vistas are as stunning and gorgeous as anything seen in Avatar, Hugo or Life Of Pi.
This decision to film at a higher frame rate really ruins the movie. You do adjust to it eventually, but almost every scene requires some sort of adjustment and the human brain can't do that and escape into a fantasy world at the same time…. We recommend avoiding the 48 fps experiment if at all possible.
I'm half-convinced that there was a projection problem when I saw the film, because I have trouble believing that what I saw reflected the desires of Peter Jackson and his team. Throughout the entire film, there was a strange Benny Hill quality to sequences, with things that appeared to be sped up. It happened in both dialogue and action sequences, and the overall effect was like watching the most beautifully mastered Blu-ray ever played at 1.5x speed. It doesn't make any sense to me that this process, which is supposedly all about clarity and resolution, would create that hyper-speedy quality unless they were doing something wrong in the projection of it.
What the 48 frame-per-second projection actually means is flat lighting, a plastic-y look, and, worst of all, a strange sped-up effect that makes perfectly normal actions—say, Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins placing a napkin on his lap—look like meth-head hallucinations. Jackson seems enamored of 48 fps, but I can't imagine why. To me, it turned the film into a 166-minute long projectionist's error. I wanted to ask the projectionist to double-check the equipment, but really, I should just ask Jackson why he wanted his $270 million blockbuster to look like a TV movie.
It felt like watching daytime soaps in HD, terrible BBC broadcasts, or Faerie Tale Theater circa 1985, only in amazingly sharp clarity and with hobbits.
[HFR] gave the entire production a strange tangibility, like of that of a BBC TV show or uncalibrated HDTV. In the dialogue scenes, it put the audience in the room with the actors, even making the CG characters look more real. Only in the film's swiftest action moments was there blur. An interesting experiment that mostly works, but perhaps a tad distracting for those who want to sit back and lose themselves in Middle Earth.
Even at 24 frames, this gorgeous film marks an enormous breakthrough in VFX production. It has astonishing digital scale and scope, but often falls victim to the-more-pixels-the-better syndrome. I do recommend seeing it at 48 fps in 3-D–even though scenes shot in full daylight look like horrid television video–in order to understand the film's foreground/background depth and design. You get used to it.
Not only did the movie strike me as better [on second viewing] — faster and more entertaining, though still padded and at times silly — but the [HFR] format wasn't as bothersome. I still think the high frame rate takes you out of the movie at times, particularly in scenes that feature well-lit actors prominently in the frame. But about half the time, the format came closer to justifying Jackson's experiment than it had seemed on first viewing.
At times, the film looks immaculate. Regular landscapes and normal shots with static digital effects look so beautiful, it’s almost as if you could press pause and step through the screen. However, when there are a lot of effects on screen, or they move quickly (as when animals are present, for example) they look overly digital and obviously inserted. Fortunately, even with this problem, the look of the film never took me out of the story. I left feeling that HFR is a technology with a promising future, but it’s not quite there yet.