The Hobbit – 3D HFR Impressions

HFR refers to a method of shooting and projection that uses a ‘high frame rate.’  In the case of the Hobbit, the filmmakers shot the film at 48 frames per second instead of the traditional 24. In addition, this material is then projected at 48 frames per second as well.  That being said, a fair number of theaters don’t project the film at the higher frame rate, as a lot of digital projectors are not compatible with that method.

Since the Hobbit was originally shown in this format to the press, there has been major backlash over the technology.  Many people don’t mind it, but many people hated it.  They claim that the soap opera look is very distracting, and the motion looks unnatural or sped up.

Being curious, but very skeptical, about the technology, I decided to watch the film in this new format as an experiment.

Here are my impressions:

The high frame rate was not nearly as distracting or unsettling than the 3D, but it was still a very odd effect.  In scenes of action, motion simply looked unnatural.  It’s not quite that I’m not used to the effect, but rather that moving objects looked almost swimmy or watery.  It looks very similar to the system that some TV’s have, which interpolate frames in order to smooth out motion.  The difference of course is that this ‘new’ method is actually capturing more frames, while TV’s simply create new ones.  The advantage to actually capturing more frames was simply not as clear as proponents of the technology would have you think.

One of the supposed advantages of this technology is to decrease eye-strain during a 3D film.  However, I found that it actually had the opposite effect.  With the smoother motion, objects that are moving too fast for the 3D effect to take advantage of became more of a distraction due to the increased temporal resolution.  The best example of one of these types of objects is something that passes in-between the camera and the subject.  These objects now have more presence, so my eyes were naturally drawn more towards them, which easily increased the strain on my eyes.  With 3D technology, generally you want to keep the audiences eyes focuses on the plane of the screen, and avoid placing important details in front or behind the screen that would draw the audiences eyes away from that plane.  The reason for this is simple: there is a natural relationship between the convergence of our eyes and the focusing action of our eyes.  In nature, our eyes always focus on the same object that they converge on.  However, in a 3D film, whenever a subject or detail is placed either in front or behind the screen, our eyes have to converge on that object, but remain focused on the screen in order to keep the object in focus.  This is because the 3D image is in fact two images being projected on a 2D plane.  With the high frame rate, I found my eyes drawn more and more to details that were not the subject, objects that would have otherwise been interpreted as inconsequential.  Because of this, my eyes quickly felt strained, far quicker than they did when I was watching Avatar (probably the previous 3D film that I had seen).  So to me at least, the supposed advantage of using a high frame rate for a more comfortable 3D experience was entirely lost.

Also, the reason I think the motion looked weird is that it’s still technically a lower frame rate than our eyes can resolve.  With 24fps, my eyes typically interpret each frame as a wholly different frame, and I can more easily accept the illusion of motion.  However, at 48fps, each frame tends to blend more with adjacent frames because it’s simply too close to the capabilities of our human eyes, but far enough away that the illusion of motion actually breaks down a bit.  It results in objects having a ‘stair-stepped’ look to their motion.  Perhaps one could liken this to the uncanny valley effect, and maybe 48fps is simply too slow for the effect to be convincing.

All in all, watching the Hobbit in this format was not a pleasant experience.  The film almost didn’t look like it was designed to be in 3D.  The camera cut far too often, the film was long, and the majority of subjects were placed to far in front of the screen, especially in close ups.  The most successful shots were the ones in which the camera was still or moved slowly, and the camera was backed away from the subject a bit (wide angle shots).  These shots were typically the ones that were more subtle in their 3D, and had no ‘positive’ effects (objects placed in front of the screen), but rather started at 0 and descended away from the screen.  Typically they were landscapes too.  The unsuccessful shots were undoubtably the ones that had objects in front of the screen, over the shoulder shots, close-ups of actors’ faces or hands, action scenes, etc.  Of course, the successful shots were vastly outnumbered by the unsuccessful ones.

As much as Peter Jackson has praised 3D and high frame rate technology, it almost seems as though he didn’t think this through quite enough.  It  would have been good for him to do a lot more R&D, including throwing his tests up in front of audiences in order to find what worked and what didn’t.  Many of the rules that James Cameron outlined during his experimentions with 3D were broken in the Hobbit.  It was almost as though Jackson had far too much faith that the high frame rate technology would allow him to break these rules.  I am of the opinion that Cameron’s rulebook is still 100% valid.  Love him or hate him, Cameron at least takes his research and rules seriously.

-Nicholas Coyle

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