An Unprecedented Journey: A Format Critique of ‘The Hobbit’

When preparing for Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg made a reluctant decision to abandon the highly advanced stop-motion technology that had been developed for full-body movement shots of the dinosaurs, opting instead for a still-imperfect and experimental computer-generated effects technology. The reason for Spielberg’s decision, circulated in movie geek lore ever since, was that the stop-motion animation developed for the film had never solved the technique’s historical quandary of adding motion blur to the image. Onscreen, the dinosaurs would move differently from the live human characters, disrupting the continuity of the film’s narrative world. For the greatest verisimilitude, Spielberg backed a technology that could conform to the limitations of the celluloid medium of the time.

When watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was struck by the resonances between Spielberg’s decision and the one made by Peter Jackson and his creative team to shoot at 48 frames per second (fps), rejecting the 24 fps standard that has held almost universally true since the earliest days of commercial sound cinema. Overall, I enjoyed the film, though I admit that the experience was not as transporting as the Lord of the Rings trilogy was for me a decade ago. The movie raised many issues in my mind, from the creative revisions that Peter Jackson and his screenwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, made to Tolkein’s narrative, to the obvious concern of narrative stuffing (a 300-page novel turning into a projected trilogy of eight-to-nine hours in length). The challenge of expanding a slim narrative into three substantial narratives, the diametric opposite challenge that the team faced in paring down Tolkein’s hefty Rings saga 10 years ago, would provide an opportunity for another sizeable essay. The fact that I haven’t read The Hobbit in more than ten years aside, I was instead attracted to the premiere of the 48 fps format, or HFR (High Frame Rate), as it has been termed, and the host of new aesthetic possibilities and problems that it introduces. Jackson’s choice in this regard bucks a fundamental property of film production and exhibition, and I find that the issues inherent in viewing this movie provide some insights to the many possible futures for the cinematic experience.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first commercial feature ever released at 48 frames per second, or indeed at any frame rate higher than 24 fps. With all of the lamentations attending the death of film, I still find it worthwhile to celebrate, on occasion, the life that digital cinema is giving to so many of celluloid’s unrealized dreams. However, the embrace of this new format by audiences and the industry is far from a sure thing, not for the technical deficiencies that faced Spielberg and his company, but rather thanks to the possibility of banishing motion blur altogether. The culture of moviegoing, gradually letting go of the grain and flicker in the filmed image, still retains a strong association with the motion blur induced by an 80-year-old frame rate of 24 fps. Jackson’s attempts to enact a shift in movie viewing from 24 fps to 48 fps have already produced an audience reaction somewhere between uncertainty and rejection, far from the rapturous embrace hoped for by the film industry.

High frame rate filmmaking has had false starts in the history of cinema, most notably the ShowScan format of visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, for which 70mm footage at 60 fps was shot but never released for his 1983 movie Brainstorm. The apparent difficulties of embracing higher frame rates on film have always been economic and practical far more than they have been technical. Shooting at 48 fps, Jackson would have doubled his reported 6 million feet of footage on The Lord of the Rings to 14 million, consequently doubling the budget for color negative purchases from approximately $8 million to $16 million. Furthermore, he would have only had half as much time to shoot on each roll (as little as six minutes), bogging down shooting and making long takes impractical or impossible to execute. Digital cinema, with its miraculous capacities for data storage at low cost, obviates both problems, which enabled Jackson and his crew to shoot a reported 20 million feet of footage on The Hobbit and record for as long as necessary, all at the cost of a few extra million dollars for additional hard drive storage space.

With the economics and logistics of shooting seemingly resolved, however, the use of HFR remains controversial on the basis of aesthetics. Reports from early screenings of footage, as well as from the film’s premiere in New Zealand, have described viewers leaving the theater nauseated during action sequences, or complaining that the dramatic scenes look too much like a soap opera. My own impression of the footage, while hardly as offended on either front, was that these two complaints constitute new perils for Jackson and his colleagues’ promised land of an enhanced immersive cinema.

The camerawork in The Hobbit is, on paper, extremely impressive. Jackson’s approach to directing has sometimes been derided as a “bag of tricks,” lacking a guiding visual sensibility, but I find his ability to opportunistically switch between the intimate and the epic, finding moments that balance Tolkein’s scope with his dramatic heft, to be uniquely suitable to the portrayal of Middle-earth. In The Hobbit, subtle push-ins and drifts blend together with the most spectacular of tracking shots, highlighting Bilbo’s moments of uncertainty or elation within massive ensemble sequences in Bag End or epic flights over hilly terrain from approaching orcs. In suspending an overarching visual scheme, the directorial vision for the film lends itself to a strong model for a literary adaptation, in addition to asserting Jackson’s strengths as a classical filmmaker of the highest order.

The question remains, however, of the new shooting technology’s impact on the look of the film. Again, the twofold critique of the viewing experience consists of 1) concerns over the disorienting visual overload of perfectly clear (i.e., blur-less) visual imagery and 2) the distracting resemblance to a televisual aesthetic. Regarding both, my concerns were mixed, but I realized the first concern was the most immediate challenge to the new format.

One could easily marginalize complaints about the visual overload of a blur-less image as the kind of reactionary commentary that hounded the first films shot in deep focus in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the comparison is valid to some extent—and limited in that regard. Motion blur, while not directly linked to frame rate, is indirectly influenced by the amount of time that a single frame is exposed to light. If a frame is exposed for 1/24th of a second, the final image registers substantially more combined movement (i.e., blur) than a faster rate of 1/48th, close to the point (1/55th) at which the human eye no longer processes the amount of blur that would be in the image. HFR renders remarkably clear, continuous movement onscreen, abandoning the enhanced degree of blur that has become the norm for the “cinematic” experience.

The qualitatively different experience of viewing crystal-clear movement onscreen is indeed disorienting at first, especially so since the film begins with a dramatic and frenetic battle sequence. However, I found myself acclimating to the rapid movements of both the camera and the characters, and found the climactic adventures in the bowels of the Misty Mountains to be more than fluid, something more like liquid, in their graceful but forceful dynamics of motion. HFR is indeed the new deep focus in that it allows more of a moving image to be portrayed in simultaneous clarity, allowing different sections of a long tracking shot, rather than be reduced to blurred periphera surrounding the main subject, to play out in recognizable fashion. Even if it was more than a viewer could take in during a single viewing, I found it quite reassuring to find an active, fully realized part of the Goblin Kingdom wherever my eyeball landed. In this regard, HFR does present a new frontier for cinematic expression.

Nevertheless, I readily found that there is a perverse limit to the removal of motion blur, beyond which the image conforms less to our own perceptions of reality. I was reminded of the use of 3D filmmaking in the pre-Avatar, particularly in Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. In order to simulate the eye’s ability to pull into focus any portion of a space, the makers of that film left the entire field of vision in universal focus. While that meant I could look at the surface of a cavern in the background of a shot in photorealistic clarity, it also meant that at a glance, every shot looked “off,” different from how it would appear if I were actually looking at a given point in space and throwing the rest out of focus. Similarly, our eyes pick certain movements to notice and certain ones to de-prioritize: when we look at the surface of the car window, we perceive the landscape in the background not as discrete objects but as a continuous stream of blurred motion. The more effective uses of 3D, from Coraline to Avatar to Pina, have all used selective focus to guide our eye, giving us a more immersive experience at the sacrifice of universal focus. Thus, when confronted with a particularly rapid camera movement or sudden character motion in The Hobbit, I found myself wondering if Jackson and his team might deem it wise to incorporate a small amount of motion blur, if only to restore a greater degree of perceptual reality.

The issue of disorientation, though, strikes me as somewhat superficial. As I said, I found myself adjusting to the aesthetic fairly quickly and excitedly exploring the new layers of action that the format could reveal. The much more pernicious problem, ultimately, may be the televisual quality of the simple dramatic segments of the film. Audiences’ comments that the footage looks like television are not inaccurate, since North American television has always used a higher frame rate of 30 fps, yielding a crisper image with less blur. Even though I became gradually accustomed to the impression of a sharper, more stable image, seeing medieval villages and dwarfish prosthetics move the way they do on TV series had the initial, and thereafter sporadic, sensation of watching a flatter and cheaper image. Filmmakers may be able to find ways to reinstate a reasonable amount of blur to cinema, but it remains possible that the fundamental visual quality of HFR has been colonized by television and all of its deeply ingrained connotations.

In the end, it is this psychological association of a high frame rate with a cheaper, lower form of visual storytelling that poses the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of 48 fps. The selection of 24 fps was a purely arbitrary industrial decision made during the adoption of sound cinema technology; indeed, it was close to the minimum frame rate necessary to produce accurate sound fidelity. Silent cinema was the victim of this shift: those films, typically shot at 22 fps but often shot as low as 14 fps, have since been enslaved to projection formats that played them at 24 fps, producing the jerky, frenetic qualities that we inaccurately attribute to that era of filmmaking. Since then, however, we have had over eight decades to learn 24 fps as the essential visual rate of cinema, to the point where we now think of it as essential to the experience. If audiences have become so habituated to the blur in cinema, excessive and unrealistic though it is, then the economic/practical demons of HFR may rear their heads once more: while new moviegoers (i.e., children) could be easily acquainted with 48 fps as a big-screen aesthetic, adult viewers, with their entrenched associations, may never become accustomed to this new look for movies, particularly if it remains a minority filmmaking practice, as in the case of 3D. Certainly it would be difficult for audiences to accept it during the release of its inaugural film, and if HFR screenings fare poorly in the coming months, it will become an increasingly harder push for filmmakers to get their films made in this format.

Will HFR become the New Coke of cinema, then? As with any high-stakes commercial experiment, it is certainly possible that the industry will choose a momentarily embarrassing, high-profile abort over a commitment to push past initial difficulties with high hopes for the long term. However, my gut still trusts this format. I still place my faith in the technology, but more than that, I believe in the plural creative visions of the filmmakers behind it. Regardless of whether Jackson and the WETA team are able to pull it off with complete success, he’s not the only one trying. If Robert Zemeckis got motion capture technology off to a lackluster start with The Polar Express and Beowulf, that did not prevent James Cameron from forcibly legitimizing it as an economic and artistic tool with Avatar. In other words, even if Jackson’s technology belly flops, another system for accomplishing the same end could work. Not to overuse one example, but if James Cameron’s Avatar 2 can successfully devise a 60 fps system, then the future of higher frame rates may indeed be safe.

It would be a remarkable feat in cinematic history if either the continuation of the Middle-earth saga or the subsequent films in the Avatar franchise, both of which have transformed the visual aesthetic and technological practices in the industry, could initiate still more technological upheavals, but it’s a distinct possibility. I am sometimes one to lionize the achievements of mainstream filmmakers too much, but I strongly assert that they are in a unique position of leadership to implement change in an industry and culture that insulates itself against it. Despite the countervailing resistance to the first beachhead of HFR, I hope that the pioneers of new film technology will open up a place for it in the minds of moviegoers.

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Author Bio:

Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

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