An Unexpected Resolution

For you, fair reader, I subjected myself to three more hours of cinema, this time to see the 3D, High Frame Rate version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I'm very, very glad that I first saw the film in 2D, at 24 frames per second. The HFR was distracting, and a portion of my brain kept telling me that this was the BBC TV version I was watching. But by the end of the film that sensation was gone, and at times I wondered where the HFR went. Which means, though I loathe admitting such a thing, that the cinematographers who have been telling us "you'll get used to it" are right.

I think that the intro, in which Bilbo narrates the last days of Erebor under the Dwarves, was meant to warm us up to HFR, so that we're not distracted for the rest of the film. It was almost enough, in truth. The first thirty seconds were really rough -- it almost looked like the film had been accelerated. That sensation was gone by the time Gandalf arrived on screen.

We've been playing video games at better than 24 frames per second for years, so it's not as if we cannot get accustomed to consuming our entertainment in this way. Still, it's jarring. The best favorable comparison I can offer is the introduction of 4-color process printing in comics. The bright colors of the golden- and silver-age books were supplemented with a much richer palette, and comics, to my eye, got more enjoyable as a result. Was it jarring when that was introduced? I'm not sure. I wasn't there. But when I look back at the best comics of the 70s, they seem primitive. 

Thus, my read on this is that HFR is what's coming. The transition is going to be annoying, though, and not just because we'll have to get used to it. Down-framing from HFR desperately needs the introduction of motion-blur via software. If you've seen The Hobbit in 24fps, you might remember the stuttering during some of the pans in the City of Erebor during the first five minutes of the movie. Ouch! Those were absent in HFR. Losing half the frames for some theaters is going to be annoying if the industry goes HFR without good motion-blurring.

One thing many people have reported is the feeling that they're seeing through the illusion, getting too many details, seeing props as props instead of as swords, or armor, or whatever, and that the HFR movie fails at immersion as a result. I don't want to tell people what they are thinking, but I believe additional detail is not at fault here. At fault is our long association of 30fps and video game frame rates with sub-cinematic production levels ("Hello, daytime television! I hate you!"). Put a gourmet sandwich in a McDonald's paper wrapper and plenty of people will think McDonald's new gourmet sandwich is still crap. 

Well, I tried (and tried and tried) to see through the illusion, and I never got farther than "that sword looks really sharp," "that bedroll cannot be comfortable," and "I swear, that pony HAS to be a horse wearing fake hair, but I can't see where the pony ends and the horse begins." Gandalf's pores looked wizardly, and I still couldn't see Galadriel's. Immersion failed because part of my brain kept drawing comparisons to BBC TV and General Hospital. Give me a few more films with HFR as the standard, and I'll come back to The Hobbit in HFR and have no problems at all.

But for all my HFR apologism, I did not, by any measure, enjoy this viewing as much as my first one. HFR is wonderful, but we need to un-train our brains before it can entertain us properly. Spending three hours on that exercise is not nearly as much fun as just watching The Hobbit.