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The Hobbit: A Passionate Defense of the Unfairly Maligned High Frame Rate

Most critics and friends told me I would hate it. Peter Jackson’s decision to present his Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at 48 frames per second was disastrous for a myriad of reasons, which I’ll detail below. Yet after experiencing what can only be described as blissful excitement for nearly three hours, largely due to the higher frame rate, I’ve rarely felt more removed from the opinions of those I respect. The Hobbit is utterly delightful from beginning to end, admittedly lighter in tone than the original trilogy but enchanting nevertheless. Its problems as a story told on film are essentially the same as the first three’s problems– a pacing issue here, a CGI issue there– and the added sense of familiarity makes it less of a discovery and more of a revisit, which could be irksome to those who weren’t over the moon about the originals. However, the 48 frames per second creates a whole new level of wonder, both for the story itself and for the cinephile in me. It made it a completely different filmgoing experience than anything I’ve ever seen before. I now can’t imagine seeing it in the standard frame rate, and as a movie lover, I was nothing short of giddy thinking about this technology going forward and its potential to create an entirely new style of cinema. Its brief hiccups in quality didn’t affect me in the least. The Hobbit is a journey you owe it to yourself to take in 48 fps.

Before running down the arguments against high frame rate that I flat-out disagree with, a brief summary of the story. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a Hobbit lives a simple life in the Shire: he enjoys reading, smoking, cooking a nice meal, and quiet evenings at home. A wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen) changes all of that one day, marking his house and inviting a company of dwarves to help themselves to his food and hospitality. The dwarves once had a proud kingdom, but a dragon named Smaug attacked their home and drove them out. When some evil Orcs slayed their king and left them in disarray, some castaways, led by their prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), plotted to return to their kingdom in due time once Smaug had potentially left and attempt to seize it back. To find the entrance, Gandalf suggests, they would need the skillset of a Hobbit like Bilbo. While Bilbo resists at first, he joins them on their quest… but, as would be expected on an adventure like this, they encounter much peril, including trolls, goblins, and those dreaded Orcs.

The film on its own is plenty charming. It doesn’t have the immediate emotional hook that Frodo and his friends gave us in the original trilogy, but Martin Freeman is an actor with great comedic timing and a sympathetic demeanor. In an early shot, when he runs off screaming, “I’m going on an adventure!”, his earnest quality makes his energy infectious. McKellen as Gandalf is one of the great characters in fantasy film history– he has mischievous line delivery I could simply listen to all day. He also possesses a hefty gravity (we all remember “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”), so when he gives a monologue about how Bilbo gives him courage when he’s afraid, I found myself getting surprisingly emotional. Peter Jackson knows how to turn a phrase and time it with Howard Shore’s gorgeous score to tug my heartstrings and push me to the edge of my seat every time. It’s also an impossibly difficult task to help us get to know so many dwarves (they number twelve or thirteen) in a short period of time, but they are all distinctive enough that when it seemed one or two of them might die early on, I found myself extremely invested despite not remembering their names. Early moments drag– in particular, a bookend sequence with older Bilbo talking to Frodo– but the near-three hours flies by once Bilbo’s journey is underway.

Here, in list form, are the complaints I heard about high frame rate that I take issue with, personally:

1. It looks like it’s in fast forward.

I totally admit that the first fifteen seconds or so, I felt this way. It doesn’t really help that our introduction to the high frame rate is through close-up shots of movement. The movement in high frame rate is smooth in an “uncinematic” way– by that I mean the blurring that occurs with fast movement at 24 frames per second vanishes in this format. However, my eyes adjusted to this almost immediately. I was usually acutely aware of the frame rate as the film went on, but usually marveling at the clarity of picture and movement it presented instead of grumbling about how it looks. Check out the way a flickering fire looks in 48 fps, or how the waterfalls flowing in Rivendale move. You’ll never want to see a “cinematic” flame or waterfall again.

2. It looks like a soap opera/BBC television program, i.e. stagey.

Again, it took some initial getting used to the fact that when Ian Holm and Elijah Wood are standing there talking, it *really* looks like they’re standing there talking. It does appear stagey in the sense that you might feel like you’re watching theater instead of film at time due to the how crystal clear it all is. Yet this was thrilling to me. After a conversation early on, the camera pulls back and reveals the Shire, with all its homes and other characters enjoying their day. It’s no longer theater in the traditional sense, but interactive theater, in which this city that I’m sure isn’t real is there in front of me. It gives the 3D the color clarity and gorgeous detail that lets it live up to its potential to “put you in the frame.” If cinema is supposed to transport you to another place and time, 48 frames per second contains the ability to immerse you far greater on a purely visual level than 24 frames per second ever will. Certain shots are oddly lit, a peril that comes with being the pioneer in shooting big-budget film in this brand-new format. I forgave these shots almost instantly, as they were usually followed by moments that took my breath away.

3. With a few exceptions, most people simply can’t process 48 fps, and they’ll never accept the way it looks.

This is easily dismissed, as my packed movie theater contained zero walkouts, and a quick conversation with the manager revealed zero complaints during the first day or during the midnight showings. Either all of the exceptions in America who can process 48 frames per second went to the Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade, or the pseudo-science that attempts to “prove” that 48 fps is bad is merely the desperate reaching by those hoping to back up their personal preference with something they can vainly label as “the facts.”

4. It makes performances worse, because the crystal clear picture makes it harder to create the illusion.

Funny, I’d argue it makes performances better. It demands more from the actors, who live up to the challenge. The occasional makeup or costume inconsistency pokes through, but considering the challenge at their feet, I’d nominate both groups for an Oscar in a second. It makes every performance feel more personal, more transparent. Maybe if you weren’t liking the film from the start, you’d try to blame the frame rate for your own negative opinions. Yet as Russ Fischer pointed out at slashfilm.com, imagine Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln in the high frame rate. Imagine any great performance, emotionally naked in such high definition. It’s beyond exciting, in my personal opinion.

5. The special effects look bad, like a video game.

This is the one that TRULY baffles me, to the point of inducing anger. Yes, some of the effects are obviously CGI, much like the other three Lord of the Rings films, and much like the overwhelming majority of films that use CGI. This has nothing to do with the frame rate. The high frame rate does demand more detail and perfectionism, and at times, the film can’t quite live up to that standard… but GOOD LORD, there are scenes that boggled my mind due primarily to the quality of the special effects in 48 fps. Characters such as the trolls, the goblin king, and Gollum (Andy Serkis returning to reprise his role in a fantastic couple of scenes) are so perfectly realized that it’s almost disconcerting. Here are things that you know are fake… yet… they’re not. You’re looking at interaction between high-definition humans and high-defintion creations, and it’s so convincing that I wanted to applaud every time. There is a Stone Giant fight sequence, in which our heroes are located on the bodies of giants that are pummeling each other. The camera movements combined with the performances combined with the sheer baffling quality of the effects work left me bowled over. I could feel my heart rate rise… I was seriously concerned for the safety of these characters, even though I knew they were actors, and I knew this was fake. It looked like home video footage, it was so clear. Words can’t express how much this excites me as a fan of sci-fi/action/fantasy. 48 fps can elevate the capabilities of special effects beyond what we’re currently accustomed to.

6. Cinema looks better at 24 fps, period. We’re used to it a certain way, so why change it?

Because just like the use of color and the use of sound, it is an artistic choice. Peter Jackson felt that 48 fps would create a more immersive experience, and by God, I believe he was one thousand percent correct. Although it feels unfairly dismissive to describe The Hobbit in 24 fps as “just another Lord of the Rings movie” (as if that could be an insult), that’s what I feel it would feel like now that I’ve felt the power of 48 fps. There were flaws and hiccups: certain shots lit oddly, certain effects not quite working, certain camera angles not quite flattering to the format. Yet if you can’t see an artistic function going forward for an adjusted frame rate, you are in willful denial. Jackson just scratched the surface here, and the results are already astonishing. Imagine what he can accomplish when he figures out which camera angles to avoid, when to avoid close-ups, how to keep lighting consistent. It’s amusing that a year after a film about embracing new technology in cinema in order to avoid irrelevance wins the Oscar, countless critics and cinephiles lambast high frame rate. Those resisting 48 fps and attempting to dismiss it as a pointless fad should see the writing on the wall– there’s no getting rid of this. This isn’t Smell-O-Vision. This is an exciting new box of toys for filmmakers to play with. It increases definition, it improves 3D, and it potentially creates a level of immersion into the world of the film we’ve never seen before, whether you thought The Hobbit effectively achieved this or not. If you don’t watch the Stone Giants sequence in this film and feel like there’s a place for this in the world of cinema, then there may be no helping you, I’m afraid. I was bracing for the worst from The Hobbit because of these ridiculous slams by critics and friends. What an unexpectedly wonderful journey it took me on instead– a journey on a brand new path of opportunity for my favorite artform. An adventure, indeed.

The film itself gets 3.5 kernels… but for those of you with the opportunity to see it in 48 fps:

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~ by russellhainline on December 15, 2012.

7 Responses to “The Hobbit: A Passionate Defense of the Unfairly Maligned High Frame Rate”

  1. thank you for writing this! i feel the same way about the movie as well. i took my little ones to see it last weekend and they loved it. i loved it lol. I really saw nothing wrong with it, being in 3D or 2D. All tho I’m not a big fan of 3D.
    At any rate, just wanted to say thank you for writing this review!

  2. Reblogged this on Nerdy Life of Mine.

  3. thanks for this review. was thinking of whether to go to the movie. but now definitely going.

  4. […] Cosmopolis 6. The Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas 5. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln 4. Peter Jackson, The Hobbit (in HFR) 3. Joe Wright, Anna Karenina 2. Ang Lee, Life of Pi (in 3D) 1. Leos Carax, Holy […]

  5. Thank you for writing this. I could not agree more. I have read so many negative reviews about HFR and I simply can not believe what I am reading. I have seen the Hobbit five times now and in every format. The most recent time was at IMAX (standard frame rate). I used to love IMAX but I almost had to walk out after seeing the Hobbit twice in HFR and being totally used to it. The standard frame rate in IMAX looked truly terrible. It was likle watching a strobe light through frosted glass. I really can’t emphasise enough how bad standard frame rate looks when you get used to this new amazing clarity.
    I advise everyone to go and see it and specifically ask for HFR. Please dont listen to all of these fools who think that HFR makes it look “cartoony” “Home videoy” etc. it simply makes it look very very clear. That is all!

  6. It is really obe if my best movies. Althiugh i’m kore used to lord if the ribgs’ charectars, this movie is outstanding too. I’m wautibg for the other seasons . Reblogged

  7. Reblogged this on rawoon92's Blog.

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