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This may be old news to those who were able to watch Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in specially equipped movie theaters last year, but for those who limit their cinema experiences to Paris, Texas, audiences of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” may be in for a surprise when going to special “HFR 3D” screenings of the movie. Some may find the film the smoothest and most visually rich cinematic experience they’ve ever been witness to, yet others might find the movie to be on the level of a daytime television soap opera. The opinions on this new style of film is split, but hopefully with a little more understanding of the technology, audiences will be more receptive to the visual splendor it can provide.
A Short History on Frame Rate in Film
HFR stands for “high frame rate.” Video game players like myself should be very familiar with the frame rate (you’ll often see me mention the term in my game reviews), but to have the term applied to movies is a strange feeling indeed. Frame rate is measured in “frames per second” (or “fps” for short), with each frame being a still image of the movie. In the era of silent films, movies were shot between 16 and 18 fps. Once sound became involved, the film industry needed to decide on a standard frame rate to work with what was then the current soundtrack technology. The industry standard became 24 fps, as it was the slowest film speed that would work with early optical soundtracks. This decision resulted in image artifacts such as strobing, flicker, and motion blur, which eventually became stylized effects in film. It was a standard built for the lowest possible cost, and 24 fps was here to stay for a long time.
Recent advancement in digital film technology renders the 24 fps limitation a non-issue. High frame rate movies like “The Hobbit” double the frame rate, running movies at 48 frames per second. This means more images to display, resulting in more detail and more information being shown at a quicker pace. Your eyes end up seeing twice the number of images per second. The higher clarity means a reduction of motion blur in favor for increased sharpness. By the numbers, a higher frame rate is in no question a superior movie viewing experience.
In practice, however, it’s a lot different. Our eyes are used to watching cinematic scenes at a lower frame rate of 24 fps. It’s why some television shows, documentaries and sports games look different than what we see in theaters, as TV is usually filmed at a higher frame rate. 48 fps is closer to how the human eye actually sees movement in real life, yet we’re so used to viewing movies at 24 fps, seeing the action move any faster makes it look more fake! It’s a bizarre psychology that unfortunately may make the viewing of high frame rate movies disorienting at first.
Following the first “Hobbit” movie, the image in the HFR version of “The Desolation of Smaug” is softer, since many people criticized the movie for being too sharp, at least sharper than what audiences were used to. The studio also decided to downplay the HFR showings in its marketing of “The Desolation of Smaug,” as the press for the previous movie was more focused on the technology than the movie. Even so, HFR showings for the “Hobbit” sequel have grown up to 750 theaters, as opposed to the 450 from the last movie. Even our own theater in Paris, Texas is equipped to show HFR 3D, which is how I got to first experience it.
As a video game player that’s obsessed with high frame rate in games, I was totally onboard with a higher frame rate in movies. And, unsurprisingly, watching “The Desolation of Smaug” in HFR reminded me of a video game. Many of the completely computer-generated scenes could easily be passed off as game footage from a next-next generation console or a super high-end PC. So I could see how some people who are used to games would see these scenes as more “fake.”
However, when it came to actual people, it became less video game, more documentary, and closer approaching cinema. It was a delight to see facial expressions and bodily actions being so sharply and smoothly portrayed in high frame rate. It was almost as if you were viewing a stage play with the actors right there in front of you. It truly felt like you were in the moment, especially during the prolonged action scenes.
The speed of the action still took some getting used to. Luckily, the movie is almost 3 hours long, so there’s plenty of time to get used to it! In the end, it was actually a uniquely wonderful, immersive experience, and I wouldn’t really want to watch the movie any other way.
Honestly, I think the 3D detracted more from the movie than the high frame rate did. I still think 3D has a long way to go (I hate having to wear glasses over my glasses and the darkened image still bothers me), but I think HFR is perfectly fine, even great.
The Future of High Frame Rate
Jackson is sticking to his guns with HFR in spite of any criticisms. He thinks HFR to be the future of film. In a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he admits it’s a style that isn’t suited to every movie, and he even proposes the idea of mixing different frame rates in a single film. “As another creative tool, I think (high frame rates) is a really important thing,” he said. James Cameron, one of the few prominent directors to follow Jackson’s lead, plans to shoot the sequels to “Avatar” at higher frame rates.
Like 3D, it’s a possibility that HFR could become more prevalent. A growing trend since the reintroduction of 3D into mainstream movies is that both studios and theaters are trying to compete with home theater setups and Internet streaming. They feel the need to differentiate the theater-going experience with exclusive offerings. So despite the cost of upgrading projectors to support features like 48 fps, it may be beneficial to the theater in the long run if it attracts more patrons. On the subject, Jackson said, “As an industry there is a certain amount of trouble that we are in; kids seem to think watching a movie on an iPad is an okay thing to do. Advocating that we have to stick with what we know I think is a slightly narrow mined way of looking at things when as an industry we are facing declining audiences. We have to find ways to make it more vibrant, more immersive – something that will encourage people to come back to the theaters for that experience.”
People are often resistant to change, but if the media that represents the technology is quality, the resistance may eventually yield. We’ve come from silent films to sound, black and white to color, HD to 3D, and from film projection to digital. If high frame rates don’t meet success, something after it certainly will.
If you’re interested in knowing more about HFR, go check out “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and see it for your own eyes!
By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra