The 3rd Dimension
Thursday, 27 December 2012 11:56

The Hobbit Unexpected

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Every once in awhile, people try something crazy and new with cinema. From sound, to ultra-widescreen, Technicolor and 3D, to anamorphic projection, digital surround, digital 3D and even smell-o-vision (currently in Korea only), many of these innovations have been great improvements. Last weekend, the first change in close to a century in the frame rate that commercial cinema is projected in came to light with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

High Frame Rate (HFR) projection is supposed to bring a more natural look to film, to smooth out the bumps in pans and vista shots, and to improve the 3D experience by having a lot more frames of information to keep the illusion alive. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’ve been really skeptical as to whether this would be an improvement and not a hot mess in an epic film like The Hobbit, especially since I saw a piece of the early test footage about six months back. Was I wrong? I hoped so.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey HFR 3D (High Frame Rate) Theatrical Review

Movie: B+
3D Experience: B
Native or Conversion: Native
Depth: C+
Pop-out: C

The Hobbit Unexpected

Native 3D often has an advantage over 3D conversions, providing a smoother, more natural look to its depth and character. That worked great in 2012 3D experiences like Prometheus. Unfortunately, The Hobbit is far more Amazing Spider-Man than it is a visit to an alien moon.

I saw The Hobbit in High Frame Rate IMAX 3D, sitting in the horizontal and vertical sweet spot (center screen). The 3D effect barely registers in most of the movie, with depth levels bouncing around depending on the shot. Gigantic mountain vistas (of the kind I’ve seen be stunning in 3D documentaries) looked flat. Even Rivendell, a mostly CG creation, was flat as a pancake when it should have been reference stereoscopic porn. To be frank, the entire experience is so wildly uneven, I have to reach the conclusion that the needs of the 48fps were clashing with the needs of the dimensionality. Any time the film was sped up in editing, it looked like the entire movie was in fast forward (which includes virtually the entire introduction with Old Bilbo). There were scenes like the chase through the Goblin cave that were hugely schizophrenic, moving from a look that matched the LOTR trilogy’s color grading style to something that looks more at home on a BBC drama from the 90s. The likely cause of this is... light. Like early Technicolor productions, 3D needs an additional stop to compensate for the glasses and 48fps still another to adjust for the shutter. I don’t think that was fully taken into account in post production on the HFR side, which resulted in the blown-out look and feel.

There are good points: Bag End – when it looks 3D – has a great deal of 3D character, with well defined spacing. Pop-out, though uncommon, is more solid than I’ve ever seen it thanks to the higher frame rate (the “troll teeth” incident comes to mind). But there’s just not enough of it. The level of depth is so inconsistent that it doesn’t add a lot to the experience and therefore I feel the “C” grades are entirely justified.

I really think that most of the issues with The Hobbit are the result of insufficient time in post. In the production diary video embedded below, you’ll find hints all over it that the intense changes in the character of how images are acquired caused them a lot of adjustments and problems for nearly every department, and that’s probably the rub. Most people who are shooting native 3D augment it with post conversion, using those tools to assist the stuff that just didn’t make it into the camera the way they would have liked. Combine that with the need for a whole new toolset and techniques that 48fps requires, and you’re just asking for trouble. Throw in a re-editing only a month or two before release to make the film into three movies, and it’s just a recipe for disaster. The film literally felt like there were three different editors with three different toolboxes and techniques working on this film, none of whom had the time to learn what they were doing with a brand new technology.

Further viewing of a RealD presentation of the film in standard 24fps interestingly had a far better 3D effect which, along with the more film-look motion and color grading, made for a better experience. Others who have seen The Hobbit in 48fps RealD 3D have reported the “squashing” of the 3D effect to be much abated as well. While my experience in IMAX could be chalked up to bad calibration or issues with IMAX's particular brand of 3D (which has always excelled until now), I think that the answer at least lies in the middle. One thing I certainly noticed between the 48 and the 24 is that my points of reference (that the eye uses to determine depth) like blur were completely skewed. The resolution was too good, and on the large format this may have been wreaking havoc with the slight of hand that makes 3D work, at least for me.

So my verdict? Early 48fps is – at least when it comes to a better movie and a better 3D experience – frankly a failure. Whether it's calibration or display system issues, or simply differences in individual viewers’ perception, there are too many variables in play to give customers a consistent experience. I’ve talked to half a dozen people in the industry that have seen the movie both ways over the weekend. The consensus is the higher frame rate makes it so that the CG doesn’t blend with the live action as well, and the serious reduction of motion blur pulls you out of the film constantly when things just look weird several times a minute – a problem that was seriously mitigated in the 24fps 3D exhibition.

Still one must remember that, until about a year ago, 3D conversions were almost universally disappointing until Hollywood finally figured out that they can’t be rushed and far better tools were developed to achieve the right effect. I’ve always said that 48fps acquisition will be great for 3D in that it will create an ideal 24fps movie. By having the additional frames to blend in, clarity of assets can be hugely improved, while retaining the look, movement and feel that makes something look cinematic and film-like instead of like an episode of COPS.

Until such time as tools are created that might let 48fps live up to its potential, I expect that only CG movies will really take full advantage of it – and might look great doing so. I’d love to check out a stop motion movie like Coraline in 48. If anything, the super smoothness would have accentuated the weirdness in the “other mother” world. But given the near universally bad reaction to High Frame Rate exhibition, I don’t see another live-action based film being released (though I expect they will be shot) in HFR until James Cameron forces the issue with Avatar 2, at which point he certainly would have benefitted from WETA’s learning curve. I do hope that, as the process improves, great filmmakers can make me eat my words and give us something memorable and amazing.

Jeff Kleist


[Editor’s Note: Jeff certainly isn’t alone in feeling disappointed by his HFR experience of The Hobbit, but I wanted to add a cautionary note. I’ve also seen the film twice now. The first viewing was an HFR 3D projection using active shutter glasses (I believe from XpanD) at the new Cinepolis in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. This was very disappointing: Not only did the active glasses give me a headache just an hour into the film, but the 3D experience itself was lackluster and it dampened my enjoyment of the film significantly. My first experience of HFR was a complete letdown and head-scratcher – less enjoyable even than most run of the mill 24fps 3D experiences. Then I saw the film again in HFR 3D a couple days later using passive RealD 3D glasses at the RPX theatre in Regal’s Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21. The difference was shocking. It was – quite simply – the best and most impressive 3D experience I’ve had to date. Clarity was superb and the 3D depth and “pop-out” (to use Jeff’s phrasing) was extraordinary. It was a very enjoyable screening and I wasn’t surprised to find that I liked the film significantly better because of it. The point of all this is to explain that I believe the quality of the HFR 3D experience you’re going to get varies dramatically from theatre to theatre. This may be because of the specific 3D delivery format (RealD, Dolby, XpanD, MasterImage, IMAX, etc), it may be because the projectors aren’t properly set-up and it may simply be because the HFR process is so new – perhaps all three. It’s worth remembering that these are the very early days of the technology. In any case, before you dismiss HFR 3D entirely I strongly suggest you see it in a couple different theatre and delivery format combinations. I suspect you’ll be as surprised as I was at the differences from one viewing location to the next. - Bill Hunt]

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