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CinemaCon 2012: Monty Cristo Has Seen (Some of) THE HOBBIT at 48 Frames Per Second

Monty Cristo" reporting in from filthy Las Vegas.

 

"Do not think I won’t kill you, dwarf”

“We eats it WHOLE!”

“One…of nine”

 

The instant this morning's Warner Bros presentation ended, the audience erupted in chatter. Almost everyone had just seen something that had never hit their eyes before. Forget 2D versus 3D, this is going to be a hell of a conversation come December (earlier, if they demo it).

 

Filmmaking at 48 frames per second, whether 3D or not, is going to be massively divisive.

 

For 80 years, we've been living with the 24fps standard, and people are used to the strobing and motion blur associated with it. It's that hard-to-describe look that we associate with a movie feeling like a movie. It’s a certain resolution and a certain number of still images hitting our eyes each second.

 

Now that "Digital Cinema" is taking over, the next step beyond resolution (1080p, 2K, 4K, or 8K, or whatever else) is the frame rate frontier. It’s being breached as we speak. With such a focus on 3D, more frames in those films will mean less headaches and blur and so on.

 

When I saw the HOBBIT trailer at 24fps in December at BNAT, there was something somewhat off. I felt it most directly in the bits that involved fast cutting and motion. My eyes had to do a lot of work to soak in everything they were seeing. Even after seeing it three times, I felt I’d missed things.

 

48fps makes those moments more fluid and clear, but there's something that people will absolutely hate about this upfront.

 

It's different, first of all, but the big issue people walked out of the room this morning feeling is that the look of THE HOBBIT is not what they associate with filmic, or movie-like, or at all traditionally cinematic. The effect of watching 1970’s BBC television dramas as compared to US TV from the same era was mentioned by various people around me.

 

In the opening minutes, I thought to myself "this looks like the TV department when they turn on 120Hz or TruMotion or whatever they call it". At once, it really doesn’t look like that. The smooth motion clarity is similar, but the 120Hz TV setting is the TV inventing visual information to fill in loads of completely nonexistent frames, creating the bullshit garbage you see walking through most TV departments in stores. Again, there is an element that 48fps and TruMotion share (which is where the comparison comes from), but 48 fps does not simply “look like Korean soap operas” or TruMotion-enhanced TV images. That’s a reductive, sensationalist, utterly bullshit equivocation.

 

Despite that, loads of exhibitors and attendees echoed that exact thought all around me. The cinematic filter between the action and the audience is dissolved in favor of a more immediate lens on the world of the movie. 

 

The High Frame Rate Effect is something that will take getting used to, and some will absolutely reject it outright. Many will do so pre-emptively. It’s already happening all over Twitter.

 

To be honest, it kind of terrified me at first. In his pre-recorded intro, Peter Jackson said that the reason we were seeing 10 minutes of content was that "it takes your eyes a little bit to adjust", and that is absolutely the case. The immersive experience was not immediate, but gradual. I felt much more comfortable toward the end of the presentation, but still disconcerted and outside a comfort zone.

 

The most upfront benefit I felt was in landscape and action sequences, where surprisingly intricate detail was easily absorbed, even in a very, very wide shot. I was drawing in more visual information than my brain was used to processing.

 

Motion blur was gone completely in fast-moving action scenes and dark environment. In general, 48fps has the ability to be at once crisp and smooth, subtle and bold. It is a maelstrom of contradictions when compared to the loads of filmed content I’ve seen in my life. Others started pronouncing it over immediately upon exiting, but I am not passing that judgment (or any for that matter) yet. I saw ten minutes of unfinished, un-graded, incomplete footage as a cross-section, not a full feature film.

 

I have major reservations, but at the same time am beyond awed at many elements of what hit my visual cortex. Recalling the sweeping landscape shots they opened with now, I almost feel tears welling, and I can’t explain why. It was overwhelming in the most literal sense. It directly assaults your synapses with twice as much information through your retinas as you have become conditioned to expect from traditional cinema. I did not see the digital seams around creatures like Gollum and the trolls, a major benefit over 24fps. The creatures had a sense of mass in the environment, which was disconcerting in a good way.

 

I started getting acclimated, and then it cut away again, and again, and again. The scene that really allowed me to relax and get used to it was the scene with Bilbo and Gollum in the cave, the longest segment they showed us. If there had been more contiguous sequences like that, cut together like a full scene (albeit with unfinished color grading and effects), I think the response might have been very different in that room today. The enemy of a radically new presentation like 48fps is the sizzle reel format of cutting. People needed to be given the benefit of their patience not being tried by rapid cutting back and forth from non-contiguous scenes.

 

My call is that it was a less than ideal way to introduce something that, despite it all, managed to actually show promise in places.

 

I just had three people in the press suite agree that they did in fact think the Bilbo/Gollum scene worked, no reservations. Those same people said that all the brief clips “felt” like the 1970 I, CLAUDIUS in HD. They agreed that if they’d seen two or three sequences of that length, they may have been less reflexively averse to it. The most bizarre thing is that I found Jeffrey Wells singing 48fps’ praises and guys like Alex Billington slamming it and setting it on fire.

 

I think anyone making a definitive pronouncement (positive or negative) based on that presentation does not have enough proper representative data. I’m a presentation obsessive when it comes to aspect ratio, resolution, contrast, color grading, and all the nitty gritty. For my part, I’m still holding out. I don’t think I (or anyone) got the right representative look at it. Keep that in mind as you read what I’m sure will be loads of articles calling for 48fps’ pre-emptive death.

 

At once, I am beset with wonder at what the Battle of Five Armies will look like in motion. I wonder at what Smaug will look like in motion. There is so much more to see before all of that, which I assume is going to be in the second movie anyway.

 

Jackson mentioned something in his intro that I don’t think he was hedging with, about the frame rate of silent pictures being 16-18fps, and how going to 24fps was a big leap in the day. Think of the relative jump: from silent to sound, a few decades pass and they increase the number of frames by 50%…in this case, 80 years pass and they increase the frame rate to 150% more. This is a massive shift in visual clarity, composition, and perception. Like I said, if you thought 2D versus 3D has been fun, this is a quantum jump into another realm of perception, and I expect the debate to be exponentially more heated.

 

There's so much more that's gone on too, but this is the biggest industry-wide thing that's gone down since I've been here.

 

<FONT COLOR=RED>UPDATE:</FONT> Because Talkbackers and Twitterers have asked, WB acknowledged that a 24fps version of HOBBIT will be in cinemas this December.

 

 

For reference, here are some things I saw in the footage itself that weren’t in the existing trailer:

 

Dwarves crossing mountains, bobbing down a river in barrels, and fighting trolls.

Gandalf in a dungeon, searching for…something. Some other thing is in there with him.

Gandalf showing Elrond and Galadriel a sword that troubles them deeply.

Legolas drawing his bow, and threatening to use it.

Bilbo and Gollum in a cave.

If just for a moment…Saruman.

 

Bring your best, Talkbackers. What say you?

 

Moisés Chiullan
"Monty Cristo"
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