I sat anxiously in the theater waiting for The Hobbit to start, everything I knew about what to expect from high frame rate had me nervous. Would it look like I was watching a 60fps soap opera? Would it have that tainted aesthetic of every consumer digital video camera from the days before the 24fps 35mm DSLR revolution? I had made a pact with myself though. Throw away any preconceived notions about the format and simply watch it with an open mind. Think about it, a very respected filmmaker thought this was the way to present his vision to us. Not to mention the people who wrote the check for roughly $180M to make the film thought it was a wise investment.
Luckily my favorite theater in the area supported HFR (high frame rate) as well as an added bonus of XD (2K DCP on IMAX-ish sized screens) Real 3D and the brand new Dolby “Atmos” sound. That is a mouthful. Picking your movie-going experience is sounding more like a complicated coffee order at Starbucks.
The theater went dark and the message prompting you to put your 3D glasses came on ensuring you could see the 3D trailers that were about to start. (I’ll point out that I don’t really like 3D, the only film that came close to being enjoyable was Avatar. I personally saw Peter Jackson’s approach to 3D as the last chance for 3D for me.) I slipped on the glasses and remembered why I hated 3D so much. You can definitely tell that whoever made the graphics for this theater chain had no idea about convergence or all the other technical considerations required to gently trick your eyes into seeing 3D. It was brutish and gimmicky. The trailers played, most riddled with strobing and awkward eye-crossing 3D. I will note that I specifically remember the Man of Steel trailer as looking the best out of the bunch. Anyway I digress.
I wont spoil anything plot related about the movie but I will describe a few of the shots in regards to their composition and look.
The film opens with a shot of a hand reaching into the frame and lighting a candle. In those few seconds every fear I had about it looking odd was confirmed. More shots of Bilbo moving about the house followed and the shock value of HFR was no-doubt comparable to what you would see on a show shot at 60fps. There was no evidence of motion blur or at least how we are used to seeing it at 24fps and the room looked awkwardly real. I reminded myself, give it a chance. Some time passed and the shock value wore off for the most part which allowed me to stop analyzing and start watching the film for what it was. This is when I realized that the 3D was there. It was convincingly there. No weird strobing, no eye-crossing awkwardness as your brain struggles against it’s natural understanding of depth perception. It simply looked real. As I scanned the frame I started to notice that not only did it look convincingly 3D but there was also a sense of clarity that I have never seen before in any film. You could make out subtle details like you were actually there, standing in the quaint home of Biblo Baggins of Bag End. Another 5-10 minutes passed and I had completely forgot about all of this HFR technical debate and instead found myself immersed in the film in a way I have never experienced before.
Simply put, there were moments in the film that I can describe in no other way than magical.
I was grinning ear to ear like a kid. At times it felt as though I was standing against the beautiful backdrops of Middle Earth. It would be raining in the film and I was standing beside the characters with the most convincing rain I have ever seen. Dialogue sequences offered an intimacy like never before, subtle gestures and facial expressions as detectable as if you were talking to your friend. Water trickling in a nearby stream looked so real that you wanted to touch it. The CG characters were incredibly convincing due in part to HFR in addition to the advances in VFX techniques from WETA. The Atmos sound had a dimensionality to it that had you occasionally wondering if the sound you heard was in the theater or the film. The whole experience left me wanting tactile sensation and smell to be added to seal the deal. That is where the real beauty of this new approach to filmmaking becomes evident. I was 100% immersed in the world Peter Jackson had created, for better or worse. I wasn’t thinking about what lens was being used, or if there was any noise in the blacks. I was participating in the journey that the characters were on.
Don’t get me wrong The Hobbit’s use of HFR had it’s issues but if you view this film as the genesis of this new way to make movies, you have to take it with a grain of salt. There were times where the intense clarity made set pieces in some scenes look too-real and other shots where matte paintings felt flat and lacked the indescribable depth that the real helicopter plates from New Zealand had. Some of the camera movements also felt “off”. I think this new format is less forgiving on all aspects of filmmaking. Wardrobes, set pieces, makeup, VFX, and camera movement will all have to become more realistic to meet the challenging bar HFR has set. I also want to point out that I don’t think this process makes sense for every movie. However, I do think this is the future for 3D movies.
This movie was an adventure! I highly recommend seeing it DCP HFR with the Dolby Atmos. Go in with an open mind because it is a jarringly different process and it will throw you off at first. I think if you let the story speak for itself you will enjoy the ride because there has never been a film like this one before.