by Michael S. Palmer
There will be plenty of full reviews in the coming days before 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' opens in US cinemas on December 14th, so I won't bore you with too many thoughts about the film itself, but I was fortunate enough to attend a High Frame Rate 48fps 3D (RealD) screening last night. Here are all the details...
Moments before the lights darkened, a theater employee confirmed we were going to see HFR. I was pretty excited, not having seen any of the early controversial footage. So, how does it look?
Does it ruin the movie or blow all projection formats out of the water?
Will it drive people away, or call them back to cinemas?
Tragedy or triumph?
Neither, actually. But before I explain my reaction in detail, it's worth noting the movie's visual effects are nothing short of astounding. Everything that impressed in 'LOTR' -- from orcs to monstrous wargs to "bigature" underworld sets to Gollum to extended vistas -- has been upgraded visually. More detail, more texture, and more color. Even the places we've been before, like Rivendale, have never looked this jaw-droppingly stunning.
Granted, these improvements may have more to do with technical and visual advancements made over the last decade than the shooting format, but I bring this up because some early reviews reported HFR made things appear cheap. That you could see makeup on the actors' faces. That the magic had somehow been sucked out of this cinematic universe. And perhaps it was true. I didn't see the test footage, which may have lacked any of the world-extending visual effects and color correction. Having seen 'The Hobbit' in HFR, I say it's still the same 'LOTR' world we know and love. It doesn't feel cheap or fake, and it doesn't make the effects stick out.
On the contrary, I'd argue 'An Unexpected Journey' looks ultra-real. How so? Well, oddly enough, many of you already know exactly what it's like to watch HFR. I forget which exact forum thread it was, but I remember everyone arguing about this over and over again, and here's the truth:
Native 48fps looks very much like "TrueMotion" or any of those LCD technologies that create new frames and reduce motion blur. While you certainly settle into it after a few minutes, HFR has that kinda-slow-motion-but-kinda-fast-motion look. Not all the time, of course, I felt it most in close to medium shots (an actor from the waist to head) where the performer would sit down or turn around or cross the frame. In the wider, epic shots, that "plastic" feeling wasn't as prevalent.
Before anyone flips out, remember I said "very much like," not "exactly like." It's simply the best analogy; something many of our readers have seen. And while there can be some "unnatural smoothness" in HFR, detail and color were astoundingly vivid, much more so than what a TV algorythm produces. Swooping through action shots above and underground, or as hordes of digital warriors clashed on battlefields, I could see everything. In a word: breathtaking.
Another technology of which HFR reminded me was watching Blu-ray 3D on my Panasonic VT50 series plasma, which uses active shutter technology. If I set my TV to 96hz, a multiple of 24p, it's very juddery with tons of flicker. In 60hz, the motion is much smoother, but there can be a little bit of that exceedingly-smooth feeling to it all, while remaining more natural than what was described above. Watching HFR was very much like seeing 'Up - 3D' or 'Finding Nemo - - 3D' last week on my plasma in 60hz mode.
As I haven't seen the 24fps version of 'The Hobbit', I don't want to make any declarations or pronounce one a winner. I know my wife wasn't as impressed as I was, but generally speaking, the film looks terrific in HFR. Is it the best-new-thing-EVER? Nope. Will it change the way we watch movies? Of course not. Does it ruin movies forever? Not even close. Could much of what I liked about the movie's appearance owe more thanks to technological advancements than frame rates? I'm not sure yet; I'd just wanted to give you an honest impression with as little hyperbole as possible.
It's probably also important to mention that, while the 3D itself is very good, it's not nearly as striking or beautifully immersive as 'Life of Pi'. Everything stays "behind" the screen and, actually, you forget about the 3D after a while, but perhaps that's the point. It's just a story, regardless of the format.
Which leaves us with one final question: should you see HFR or not?
If you enjoy ultra-sharp HD -- that infinite depth, those crisp textures from something like super-slow-motion cinematography -- and aren't the biggest fan of natural motion blur or noise or grain, you'll probably enjoy HFR. However, if you despise the way your TV can smooth things out via TruMotion type settings -- that odd motion it gives performers in motion -- you probably won't be the biggest HFR fan.
Regardless, it's a decision every film fan or HD junkie will have to make him or herself. So go see 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' however you like, but I would encourage at least checking out the new format. You might love it; you might hate it; you might not care. But it's certainly different.
As for the film itself, I'll leave it to my esteemed HDD Blog partners to debate the film's ultimate merits. I would say, if you're the type of person who speaks Elvish and alternates between reading J.R.R. Tolkien's tomes and watching the Blu-ray LOTR extended cuts over and over, you'll likely love this movie too (especially all the references to the previous trilogy). For me, one third of the way through the trilogy, it doesn't quite feel as personal as the LOTR and, since the film looks exactly like what we've seen before, it feels somewhat less fresh. However, my guess is, like a miniseries or TV show, the more time we spend in Middle Earth, the more we'll love these characters and, by series' end, the entire story will be better than its individual parts. I really enjoyed it, though. Tons of action and spectacle, and the music is great (listen to it at RollingStone.com), a mix of familiar and new themes!
I hope to go check it out one more time in ATMOS, which, along with HFR 48fps, is apparently Peter Jackson's preferred method for seeing/hearing 'The Hobbit' as intended. What's amazing, though, is how many different ways you can see 'An Unexpected Journey': IMAX HFR 3D, HFR 3D, IMAX 3D, 3D, and 2D in either 5.1, 7.1, or ATMOS depending on your cinema's configuration. Crazy, right? First world problems.