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The Resolution Was So Good I Saw Through the Movie - The Hobbit in HFR

dwarf with shades
Photo: Ain't It Cool News

The Hobbit, directed by Peter Jackson, was filmed in an advanced film technique called High Frame Rate (HFR) which doubles the number of frames seen each second from the standard 24 to 48. The technique offers a marked increase in technical visual quality including smoothness of motion, clarity, and alleviates an array of motion artifacts that are particularly troubling to 3D films.

Unfortunately, even though the technical improvement is not in dispute, the resulting movie experience has disappointed many. Even with the obvious benefits most people had a hard time immersing into the movie and a fair number of critics and fans actively disliked the effect. According to the research firm Fizziology, 60% of the conversations on social media platforms about the HFR technique used in the movie were negative, 30% were neutral, and only 10% positive.

So if HFR provides a technically superior visual experience why doesn't it provide a superior movie-going experience in the case of The Hobbit?

Whether it's live theater, experience fiction, photography, or film, anyone who has ever tried to produce fantasy from reality understands that the two must be uncoupled. Somehow the real world movie set must become another world and the actors must become fictional characters. It's the art of cinema. A traditional movie is layer upon layer of artistry and manipulation all in the attempt of creating "the right look". The process includes makeup, elaborate sets, tens of thousands of watts of lighting, a vast array of physical cinematic techniques, intricate sound manipulation, computer animation, massive VFX budgets, 3D projection, color corrections, digital effects ad infinitum, editing, and very little of this has to do with fidelity and the capturing of the real world. The "cinematic look" that people talk about is what lets the screen reflect our inner world, and not focus on the reality of the people and things the movie is using to create its story. It turns film from representational to symbolic.

So even though the HFR technology creates a more realistic experience, fidelity is not what fiction is about. It isn't about the accurate recording of what is "out there" but about creating an illusion that allows us to see, reflected, what is in our imaginations. Less esoterically, I don't want to see beautiful actors and intricate masks, I want to see elves and monsters. If film were just about recording faithfully what was before it, movies would cease to be an art.

If things become too "real" or representational, they can only represent themselves. When I see a real ring sitting on a dresser, that's just what it is. When I see a ring in a film, especially one based on Tolkien, it may represent many many things including, perhaps, the ultimate evil power in the universe. Or at least the ultimate evil power in my own internal universe.

This HFR technology is just too good for the current movie set and post production routine. The new technique produces an "uncanny valley" effect which creates an experience that is part movie and part movie set. Sometimes I was watching Gandalf, and sometimes I was watching Ian McKellen acting the heck out of Gandalf. Sometimes it was Smaug, and sometimes it was an excellent animated model of Smaug. Right now the HFR technology is giving the screen more information, more accuracy of movement to work with, and more definition to play with, but it is exposing the cracks and the reality inside the illusion.

hobbit acting with gollum

Fiction, no matter how "realistic", exists internally, and thus at some remove from the "real world". There is a reason fairy tales start with "once upon a time..." and not "Earlier this afternoon at work..." The elves of Middle Earth live in an epic world far far away in time and space. Internally. If the technology makes them them seem like they are in the room next door, the likelihood is that they will become mundane, like the room next door. Our sense of reality is incredibly strong so it is usually easier for us to transport ourselves to a land of wonder than it is for us to transport wonder to our own reality.

Whether or not this technology can eventually be used successfully will depend on whether or not the cinematic artists can create technologies on the set and in post production that can bewitch this level of clarity back into fairyland. Really it's an incredibly exciting chance to examine what it is that creates the illusion of fiction. What points to the characters and what points to the actors? What reflects the story world, and what shows us reality in film?

Of course this seems like a lot of work. So why can't we just stay with the current level of technology? Why push forward at all? Why bother trying to trick higher and higher resolution cameras into seeing a dream instead of the reality of the movie set?

The answer is that just as we have the drive to see and interact with our own dreams and imagination through fiction, we also have the drive to move "closer" to them. We want see them with more definition, and clarity, and intensity. The history of cinema is full of constant innovation and advancement. From silent to sound, from black and white to color, regular to HD, 2D-3D, standard to IMAX, etc.

green screen of The Hobbit

There are two opposing forces keeping each other in constant tension. We want higher resolution of our dreams and fantasies but to capture that we need technology that exposes our current level of "magic making" as trickery and illusion. Then we pay more attention to detail, pour more art and technology into whatever was exposed, and start again.

The important thing to remember is that the audience's drive for more resolution and technology is not driven by the desire for fidelity of the natural world, but resolution of the internal world. Every increase in resolution, dimension, sound, etc. must be accompanied by another equal increase in manipulation and artistry.

Out of the two drives however the need for our stories to be "unreal", reflective, and "magical" always wins out over the definition. Just remember that even though we love IMAX people will still watch a movie on their cell phones if they have to. But they will not watch that movie if it doesn't "work" as a movie.