HFR3D: An Uncertain Future

HFR3D Jackson HFR3D: An Uncertain Future

This Friday marks the first theatrical release of a full-length film shot in 48FPS aka HFR3D. Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is a three-part adaptation of the novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Jackson decided early on that his new series would look distinctly different than the previously shot Lord of the Rings series, because he chose to speed up the frame-rate and shoot at 48 frames-per-second, opposed to the traditional 24 frames-per-second. The result is an unbalanced mess of reactions, with some landing positive, but most remaining somewhat negative and questionable. Here’s my initial reactions to seeing the format on the big-screen for the very first time.

I guess it’s worth pointing out early on that I am one of those rare fans of the motion-flow technology found on many new HDTVs. I enjoy the higher refresh rate, because I think it enhances the clarity while also keeping the colors popping and remaining crisp. Sure, some TVs look like soap-opera garbage if you work with out-of-the-box settings, but with a little tinkering and lots of movie-watching you’ll soon realize the true capabilities of your new high-definition set.

That’s still just a fraction of what Jackson is doing with this new HFR3D format. He’s not warping the image or adjusting it to make it faster; he’s actually shooting the film in native 48FPS. This means that “normal” 24FPS screenings of the film are actually getting “dumbed” down, with added motion blur, to help make them look like an average film.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is far from an average film. It’s actually one that brings back good memories from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while also adding a much lighter tone to the mix. I’m not here to talk about the film though. I’m here to talk about the viewing option that director Peter Jackson has presented us with. To read a review for the film feel free to check out our official review when it launches on Friday.

Now, the biggest question asked about the format is in regards to how the technology effects the movie. I’m here to tell you that it never lessens the impact of the actual film, but it only tampers with the viewing quality. This simply means that even if you absolutely hate HFR3D you still shouldn’t have a problem with the movie. You’re biggest complaint would simply be that it looked “weird” or “unnatural” and that the rest of the film worked just fine.

That’s because for the most part, The Hobbit just doesn’t feel like the right film for Jackson to roll out this new buggy piece of tech. He’s already established a trilogy of films that co-exist with these new Hobbit films and randomly deciding to change the entire way we look at the film is the worst choice he could have made. He really should have waited for his next big project to roll this out with, but he didn’t, so we’re left with accepting that this entire Hobbit trilogy will be viewable in HFR3D and hopefully the kinks get fixed as the trilogy progresses.

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I bet you’re probably sick of me ranting about imperfections without actually reading about them. Don’t worry, because everything that follows is a direct response to my first reaction with the format. Please let it be noted that I’ve never seen HFR3D before and that this was my first viewing of the film as well. So, chances are high that the format could “grow” on me or perhaps get worse with multiple viewings. My eyes were still adjusting to the entire experience halfway in, so my response is that of a fresh one and one that could change over time.

The absolute worst thing about HFR3D is the most important thing directors must follow when making a movie. We need to feel like we’re in the movie. What HFR3D does is it scrubs away that cinematic look and feel and exchanges it for a presentation that looks waxy and over-polished.

Characters look like actors in costume, wearing make-up and fake ears and wigs. Most of the first hour is spent in the home of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and that means you’re treated to lots and lots of up-close shots of characters in a small space. This means that everything is smoothed out and sped-up, so while fast movements may look almost surreal and eye-popping, the rest of the stuff encompassing the scene looks phony. Sets look like built sets and not actual locations and some early CGI sticks out like a sore thumb. I wouldn’t go as far as calling this a “soap-opera” experience, but it does lessen the usually visually pleasing locations and sets.

It’ll initially knock you back, because characters move so much quicker that you’ll begin to think that the film will be over in the blink of an eye. But once their movements become normal you’ll soon realize the other slight distractions, like actors contact lens’ or a costume that’s supposed to look naturally dirty and aged, but instead looks like a piece of new clothing that received some add-on paint or smudging.

Again, the only reason these minor things are getting so much detail is because HFR3D is intended for smoothness and quickness and there’s nothing in the first hour that calls for such enhancements.

The rest of the film operates fine with HFR3D and actually becomes even more immersive as a 3D experience. Battle scenes are now completely watchable and defined, with dirt and dust and giant set pieces actually rendering within the frantic fight sequences. The camera moves freely from character to character or location to location and not a single shred of detail is viewed as blurry or hard to make out. Everything is instead constantly focused on, which gives your eyes almost too much to pay attention to in one viewing.

Your eyes might get sore from the lack of blinking, because at one point deep in the film’s second half you’ll truly start to believe that you’re standing right next to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) or Gollum (Andy Serkis). This is when the format prospers and this is when you start to realize what Jackson was trying to accomplish all along.

It feels like a game-changer and something that could create an entire new wave of hyper-realistic cinema, but it still makes you question why Jackson introduced the tech with this specific film. At one point Jackson even mentioned in an interview that HFR3D could be like IMAX, meaning that some films could switch frame-rates for specific scenes that would benefit from the quicker process. I like that idea a lot, because the second half of The Hobbit is spectacular to look at. But the opening hour lacks the proper look and feel.

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And this is where the debate rests. You have one half of the camp siding against the format, because it has its imperfections and it certainly only caters to specific scenes. But when used properly it really does help bridge that gap from watching a 3D movie and being a part of it. The arguments against the tech aren’t wrong though, because like all new things this could potentially get forced upon us on a large scale, which could lead to even more surcharges and studio up-conversions.

That would be horrible, because a film should be designed with the format in mind from the creation and not added on as a last minute rush attempt to grab a couple extra bucks. Studios will more-than-likely use this approach, because that’s what they do. They capitalize on everything, even if it doesn’t fit the film that they’re attaching it to. Just see any 3D post-conversion.

The other side of the argument is for the technology and all that it has to offer. This could give filmmakers an entirely different way to shoot their movies, which means an entirely different way for us to experience them. Imagine how this technology could change animated films or action movies that are full of constant motion. Could this technology even lend a hand to the shaky cam found-footage genre or would that only give you a bigger headache?

This is all very sacred ground, because the world of actual film is slowly dimming. Film cameras are being swapped with digital and projectors now feature state-of-the-art 4K projection. Some hate this forceful shove out the door that traditional film is getting and most tie that in directly with the adoption of HFR3D.

I see no reason why the two can’t exist together, but knowing how Hollywood works I can see why most fear the technology and all it has to bring. Children growing up now might consider HFR3D to be the only true source of viewing media, meaning that actual film could be viewed as outdated and not as good, much like how some ignorant folks view black and white or silent films. All this means is that we film-lovers need to do our job in help spreading the wonderful history of cinema.

For all we know HFR3D could fail miserably and quickly shift its way out of theaters and most of the spotlight within years. Or it could be the future of the industry and something that’ll change what we consider normal when viewing media. There’s no reason why we should have to pick one or the other, because both have their boundaries and both give off a very different (but intended) feel. It’s all just a matter of taste and personal preference, with artistic merit getting blurred in the middle, with no real marker for clarification.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fit title for Jackson’s film, because the visual experience is out of left field and something that’s unexpected and takes time to warm up to. Was it the right choice for Jackson to test out this new format on an already established property? Probably not. But Jackson’s doing it anyways and what matters now is how he tweaks the format to make sure we’re seeing the best version of The Hobbit possible. HFR3D proposes an uncertain future at this point and it really is too early to call it a winner or a loser.

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  • Alex Lowe

    Very interesting article. I’m quite tentative when it comes to HFR3D as I still am to 3D as a whole (call me old fashioned.) I’ll be seeing it in HFR3D tomorrow night, but i’ve already committed to going back shortly afterward and seeing it in the standard 2D, regardless of what I think of the film, so I can compare. After reading this I’m pretty nervous about tomorrow night.