High frame rate (aka HFR or 48 fps) is a new technology that has been used in two wide release films to date: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. When it debuted for the first Hobbit film last year, many critics panned it saying things like, “it creates a non-cinematic picture”, “everything takes on an overblown, artificial quality in which the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious,” and even, “other visual analogues scribbled down in my screening notes include Teletubbies and daytime soap operas.” (All quotes I sourced from this article on Vulture. Check it out to find links to those full reviews and others talking about HFR.)
I also talked about HFR in my review of An Unexpected Journey, but my thoughts were much more optimistic than most. There were a few issues with it but my ending advice was, “And while it may take some time to get used to, see the film in HFR 3D.” Fast forward one year and now the sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, is out and also being shown in HFR. The purpose of this post is to look at HFR, compare my experience with seeing the two films, and why I’m a big supporter of the technology.
To start off with, let’s discuss how easy it is to see The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3D. The answer: not easy at all. When the first film came out last year, almost all the theaters in my area had showings in this format. Both Massachusetts where I attend school and my home state of Connecticut had multiple showings per day in every major theater. This time around, almost no one is presenting the movie in HFR. Not a single theater in Boston is showing it in HFR (the closest theater is in neighboring city Revere) and just two theaters in the Greater Hartford area have a combined total of seven showtimes. Even the advanced screening of the film was in regular 3D, unlike An Unexpected Journey which was presented in HFR 3D. The reason is probably fairly simple, if not disappointing. As I mentioned before, many people vehemently disliked the format and voiced there opinions. This time around, the studio stepped back and decided not to push this new technology, which I might add, the theaters already spent the time and money installing for the first film.
But how does it look? If it’s as bad as critics make it out to be, what does it matter if there are only a handful of places to see the film? When I wrote about its use in An Unexpected Journey I broke down HFR into two main components: it produces a clearer picture and it reduces motion blur. The same remains true for The Desolation of Smaug. While the combination of the two may produce various “looks” like those listed in the Vulture article — video games, HD TV, theater, etc. — clarity and smoother motions are the two main components.
Clarity I don’t think anyone disagrees on: the detail is incredible. Take what you know about high-definition, and even 4K, and throw it out the window. The picture produced with HFR is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Many critics, including Jocelyn Noveck at AP claimed with the first Hobbit that this, “brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film.” Noveck makes two points here: the “fakery” of movies and the “painterly quality of traditional film”, both of which I disagree with. The increase in clarity of a HFR image does allow you to see an exorbitant amount of detail — the pores on an actors face, individual hair strands, the scales on Smaug — but never did I feel as if I got a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the film. I couldn’t see the makeup on the dwarves faces, nor the line where their fake beards were attached to their skin, nor any half-assed mistakes made while constructing the sets. Everything on the production stood up to the unrelenting view HFR provides down to every last gold coin in Erebor.
As for the “painterly quality of traditional film”, I agree, there’s no mistaking whether or not The Desolation of Smaug was shot on film; it wasn’t. It’s very clearly a digital look with no film grain or any other imperfections on the screen, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it makes The Desolation of Smaug look more like it should: fantastical. The film is a fantasy where everything is made up. There’s dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, wizards, talking dragons, magical rings, ephemeral necromancers, and many other “non-traditional” things. To feel that either of The Hobbit films should retain a look of traditional film is absurd. Not all films would benefit from this look — Argo, a very “traditional film”, for example would probably look terrible if shot in HFR — but for a fantasy like The Desolation of Smaug, having it look less “real” and more fantastical should be the goal and is what is accomplished with HFR.
The last component — smoother motions — is the part I took issue with in An Unexpected Journey. I was very vocal in my dislike of this aspect even going so far as to say:
Yes, it solves the problem it was meant to — motion blur in 3D presentations — but it also feels as if the film is being played at twice the speed. Right from the first shot, the HFR is instantly noticeable and I was struck with a feeling that the theater was messing up the projection. If I was not aware about HFR, I would have been convinced there was a problem.
The smoother motions helps with the clarity, especially in action scenes and especially with 3D, but the downside to it all was that the film felt like it was playing on fast-forward. You could hear the characters talk normally, but you’d look at their mouths and it would seem like they were talking twice as fast as what you were hearing. Walking also looked like people were jogging and moving objects (like the opening scene with Bilbo and the candle) seemed downright unnatural. By the end of An Unexpected Journey, and definitely after a second viewing in HFR, my eyes began to grow accustomed to it though. The film doesn’t feel as if it’s on fast-forward all the time, just when something major changes or you transition from scene to scene. This phenomenon is what left me optimistic about HFR and left me wanting to see The Desolation of Smaug that way when it came out.
Having now seen The Desolation of Smaug in HFR, I can tell you that the “fast-forward” quality of the format is definitely one you grow accustomed to and begin to not realize. In The Desolation of Smaug I did not notice, or rather perceive, any increase in speed in the motions of the characters. Walking, talking, and moving all looked the way they should; there wasn’t any unnatural quickness to them at all. Not being distracted by that left me able to enjoy the many benefits HFR provides like the increase in clarity of detail, action, and 3D. Some of the scenes that really stood out were the barrel sequence, arriving in Lake-town, and the entirety of Smaug and Erebor.
High frame rate still has some kinks to work out, or possibly just needs time to get accustomed to. While the character’s movements looked natural this time around, camera moves, especially the big sweeping pans that Peter Jackson loves to do on the vistas of New Zealand/Middle Earth, still felt too quick. Many establishing shots in general, those of Dol Goldur in particular, took me aback and shouted, “Hey, I’m special. This is a HFR presentation you’re watching right now!”
Nevertheless, I remain an ardent supporter of high frame rate and am very optimistic about its future. While it hasn’t been perfected yet, the format has only been available for these two Hobbit films. Sadly, it looks like many people made up their mind after An Unexpected Journey as it is now much harder to find a theater showing The Desolation of Smaug in this special format. I strongly urge you to take the extra effort to see The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3D if you can. Especially for a film like this, the increased clarity and crisper action scenes are a huge benefit and make the film feel more fantastical than it would otherwise. At least for me, the “effect” of HFR has only improved with each subsequent viewing to the point where the downsides (the quickness) are now minimal and the upsides (clarity, improved 3D) can now take center stage. I only hope that theaters won’t forgo it completely when There and Back Again comes out next December. High frame rate is a promising new technology that deserves the time and space it needs to grow into its own; not be written off after one viewing.