I’ve decided to skip doing a full review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (4 out of 5 stars) since fans will go see it no matter what is said, and Peter Jackson has offered up something far more interesting to talk about: High Frame Rate 3D. I plan to go back to see a 2D or regular 3D show so I can watch the movie and not the technology, but, as far as new technology goes, it is worth experiencing.
The new format took almost an hour for my mind to adjust, and until then the picture appeared to be on fast-forward. This was not helped by the film’s clunky prologue, but Martin Freeman soon arrived to save me from Ian Holm and Elijah Woods’s bizarrely bad performances.
The format allows for extremely detailed high-def images and it removes motion blur entirely. This leaves the action on screen looking as close to reality as is possible. This would be spectacular for a filmed stage play, or really for any film that doesn’t include giant wolves, orcs, and goblins. Every time a CG element appeared on screen it stuck out like a red flag. The doubled frame-rate doubled the standards for visual accuracy, and it felt like seeing something made in the early 1990s.
The one saving grace of the film’s CG cast was Andy Serkis playing Gollum. This is likely a combination of a great actor and a familiar character. I know what Gollum looks like, so I didn’t feel myself analyzing his character design like I did for the Goblin King. I accepted his reality in the (brilliantly-scripted) scene. And this gave me hope for the new technology.
I think that the HFR Hobbit is a sacrificial lamb, a bit like The Dark Knight was with its use of IMAX. There was no way that Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster was going to fail to sell on Blu-ray, but the screen changes sizes between the different camera types, which is somewhat annoying. It still sold, though, because the imperfect technology cannot damage what is a great film. This has resulted in IMAX gaining wider use in Hollywood, which is good because IMAX offers unparalleled image quality. The Hobbit was going to make a lot of money even if it was horrible (it isn’t), so to introduce the HFR on a surething means that the technology will proliferate sooner instead of dying on arrival. Despite how much I disliked it for this film (a lot) I think that the HFR format, just like IMAX, should be used again.
So what purpose does it serve? I mentioned before that it would work for a filmed stage play, and I think that is a key scenario. But it can’t be filmed like a movie. Peter Jackson tried to have his cake and eat it too. He used his new technology to heighten the reality of his film, but he also framed his shots and edited his scenes like he did in The Lord of the Rings. All the 3D film directors have been doing the same thing, but the HFR has brought more attention to it.
No matter how innovative or edgy or “Quentin Tarantino” a director may be, there is a basic form of framing and editing that all films share. Dialogue scenes generally have establishing shots and move closer to the actors through a series of different angles cutting between the speakers. This is the language of film that audiences understand and follow best. When filmmakers start on an extreme close up or on an empty set with people talking off-camera they are playing with that language for a particular effect. This language exists to guide the audience’s thoughts and emotions into believing in a world that exists only as a flat image on the wall.
3D shares elements of 2D film language, but its ability to reach out into the audience or back into the depths of the image has altered what is possible. Fast cutting between close-ups is not as effective in 3D as having a pair of actors on screen, in focus, together. The director cannot point our eyes exactly where he wants in the same way when, instead of a photograph, we are looking through a window. 3D’s similarity to reality means we are less willing to hand our eyes over to a director who wants us to focus on something specific, and our mind is slower to re-adjust when a cut takes us from one location to another.
It is understandable, therefore, that many critics writing about the HFR have praised the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Bilbo and Gollum. It is the best scene in the film in terms of performance, motion capture technology, script, and story. But it is also the best for 3D because it is an extended scene in a single location that uses long takes and shows most of the character in the frame. It is a stage play. And for this reason it feels more real than anything else in the movie.
Now imagine a feature film that is entirely made of scenes like this. No extravagant special effects to scrutinize and no fast-cutting action scenes. Just quality performances with a smart script, high story stakes, and an immersive HFR 3D picture offering absolutely realistic images. It could be the ultimate combination of film and live theatre.
3D is here to stay. That was clear the moment Avatar passed two billion dollars worldwide. But we are still in the experimental period where new language is being discovered. Like the 1930s adjusting to sound, the time is soon approaching when films like It Happened One Night, All Quiet on the Western Front, and M will show audiences how new technology can be used to tell a story instead of just showing off how new it is.