The world is going to look back on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a game changer in the vein of The Jazz Singer (introduction of sound), The Wizard of Oz (popularization of color), or Avatar (3D).
With a 3D movie you’re looking through a window into reality, but with 48 fps / HFR 3D, Peter Jackson has, as James Cameron has said, removed the glass from that window. Blurry, incoherent action scenes? Gone. Now you can see every sword swing, running goblin, and flickering flame with crystal clarity. Strobing/judder during sweeping camera moves? Not a problem: everything in frame is beautifully rendered during these shots, from the mountains in the background to the characters in front. My eyes were overwhelmed with visual information, but in a good way. I’d often find myself mesmerized by the tiny water droplets of a Rivendell waterfall, or by the tiny threads on a costume. There is unprecedented detail present even during “still” shots: even minuscule camera or background movements shot in 24 fps would result in blur, rendering parts of the scene undecipherable. This has now been solved: the increase in clarity from standard digital or film projection to 48 fps is comparable to the difference between SDTV and HDTV. It’s amazing.
There were perhaps two or three shots in the movie where I could detect flaws in the makeup/costumes more readily than if it had been made at 24 fps. The production values in The Hobbit are simply so high that this is not an issue. And make no mistake: film craftspeople will soon learn the ins and outs of how to make their work look the best when captured at high frame rates. Any small kinks will be ironed out.
High frame rate technology finally allows 3D to come into its own as a format. Camera movements such as pans or tracking shots were always hard on the eyes in 3D, as the judder effect was magnified do to the greater impact of the moving 3D images. The 3D here made me think I was watching real people in real places.
Does this mean it looked like behind-the-scenes footage? No. If anything, it looked like a magical, super-high-budget type of play where the actors travel to real locations. Or, to be more accurate given the extreme high quality infused into every aspect of this movie, it looked like what The Hobbit story would look like if it were real and you were a moth in the air watching. As others have said, most people associate smoother motion with cheap production values: that’s what HFR critics mean when they say it looks like a soap opera. But this is just a mental effect, the result of never having seen high quality production in HFR. Indeed, after only 5 minutes of The Hobbit I didn’t care that it no longer “looked like a film”, because it looked like something better.
I think if anything the frame rate needs to go up even higher. There was still a tiny element of blur in very fast moving shots (mainly in the background). And the resolution could definitely stand to be increased to 4K per eye instead of the current 2K. Once we hit 60fps+ at 4k+ per eye in 3D, we’ll have attained near cinematic perfection.
As for the movie itself, I loved it. Admittedly I could see why some would complain about slow/awkward pacing for the first half or so, but much of that criticism is based on the expectation that a movie has to be fast moving and progress according to a certain structure. The Hobbit novel is a light-hearted episodic travelogue adventure. If you just let yourself relax, kick up your Hobbit-feet and let yourself get absorbed into Middle Earth, you’ll love it. This doesn’t move like The Avengers, Return of the King, or even Fellowship of the Ring..it’s definitely takes its time doing things. But this is one of the film’s greatest assets, and works to compliment the HFR 3D to make you feel like you’re living the movie rather than just watching it. The slow pace, combined with the HFR 3D, worked to draw me into the world much more than a fast paced action movie would have done. Not that there aren’t plenty of expertly crafted fast-paced action scenes: indeed, the HFR 3D allows these scenes to have a level of impact never seen before in the cinema. There is no longer a tradeoff between camera/movement speed and image clarity.
There are other flaws in the movie itself, including some pieces of humor that fall a bit flat. There were some issues in my opinion with the audio design/voicework of some of the CG monsters (the Goblin King, especially), which came off as too human sounding. That sequence in the Goblin caverns, with dwarves repeatedly tumbling hundreds of feet without any injury, stretched my suspension of disbelief too far. But make no mistake, this is an excellent movie filled with wonderful performances, memorable dialogue, masterful action and beautiful imagery.
The movie does indeed get even better as it goes along as well, really hitting its stride once Bilbo and Gollum have their famous game of riddles. The acting in this scene is outstanding: the nuances of Serkis’ and Freeman’s facial expressions really come across in 48 FPS 3D. And the film only builds from this point, ending on a series of emotional and visual high notes.
I can’t wait for The Desolation of Smaug. Now that a lot of the expository and character introduction heavy lifting has been done, the story is going to start off firing on all cylinders.
From what I’ve read of audience response to the film so far, most people (I’d say 75%) love the HFR 3D, and those that don’t tend to be nostalgically attracted to the “film look.” But as of today, the bar has been raised: huge blockbusters not shot in HFR will now look antiquated, and it will seem as though we are missing out on much of the visual splendor of these movies when so much of the artistic work (VFX, sets, costumes, scenery) is obscured by blur and judder. I expect many announcements to be made regarding future HFR 3D movies…many of 2015′s big ones seem likely to be shot at 48fps+. The Avengers 2? Maybe. Star Wars Episode 7? Quite possibly, given Lucas’ tendency to push technology with his films (edit: I know he’ll have little influence over the new trilogy, but I still think Star Wars is an excellent/likely candidate for HFR going forward given its technological pedigree).
Anyway, I will be seeing this again over the weekend for sure. If you’ve seen it, please let me know your thoughts on the movie and the HFR 3D below!