18 December 2012

48 frames per second

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first feature film to be shot and released at 48 frames per second (48fps), which is a really exciting new technological development. To the uninitiated, films are traditionally shot and projected at 24 frames per second, with more frames equaling much better picture quality and also giving a very different look and feel to the film. But you may not have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48fps as this higher frame rate version is only in select cinemas, is only in 3D and most cinemas who are projecting at 48fps will only have one screen doing so.

It's fair to say that reactions to 48fps have been mixed and I can see why - at times things look really unnatural for a film, but at other times it just works. And when it works, damn does it really work! The picture quality in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is at times phenomenal, with such clarity and detail that an unrivaled sense of realism is added to events on screen. And shots that would look beautiful at the traditional 24fps are just taken to another visual level. Yet on occasion 48fps can seem really jarring as it enhances what's not real too, causing the visual quality of the film to suffer. Any of the scenes in the Shire that take place outside don’t look quite right, as well as some other outdoor shots, particularly ones with lots of CGI. But scenes shot with a bit more darkness (indoors for example) looked even better than you might expect - it seems that lighting is one of the key points to making this work. The CGI point is relevant too as this increased resolution makes anything computer generated far more obviously so and thus potentially distracting. CGI when applied to a real world environment will need to be carefully applied. Take the scenes with Gollum and the goblins though, which worked well visually because they were darker and had the whole environment created digitally.

One of the aspects that took me by surprise was how much of a positive effect 48fps has on 3D. Three of the biggest issues of films utilising the extra dimension are the irritating motion blur that comes from any moderately paced editing, the way it forces you to focus on a single part of the shot leaving the rest out of focus and the darkness that comes from the tinted glasses you’re wearing. Admittedly this last one should not be an issue if the cinema is using the right wattage bulbs in the projector, but the picture at 48fps is so bright and vibrant this isn’t an issue. Due to the extra detail coming from shooting this way, motion blur is eliminated and the entire screen remains in focus. After a half hour or so I switched glasses to my converted RealD 2D glasses for a short while, and upon going back to 3D the picture didn't seem to get any worse, and I suffered no visual fatigue. This was all very pleasing. But as to whether the The Hobbit should’ve been in 3D in the first place is another matter, but this does at least make the prospect of watching films in 3D more appealing in the future.

I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the wrong film to launch 48fps with though. The Hobbit is a fantasy set in a time period we'd probably associate with medieval, meaning the audience is forced to make a greater leap to suspension of disbelief to make it believable, particularly considering such a strong fantastical element is involved. Applying this layer of hyper-realism that 48fps seems to offer doesn’t appear quite as appropriate in this context. Show us something modern that looks intrinsically closer to what we see as our reality now and we theoretically should buy into it more. Or, create an entire futuristic world in a computer and this tech will add a lot (James Cameron is on it of course, proposing the next Avatar films at 60fps, which should look quite stunning). The reason The Hobbit is the first film at 48fps is purely down to Peter Jackson taking the initiative and New Line allowing it. The other problem is we already have such familiarity with this world due to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so after all those hours experiencing this world one way, it’s presented to us with a completely different look. That may just be too much for some people.

On the basis of what I've seen, I’m firmly on the side of 48fps. It’s a nascent technology so there's ironing out to do around its limitations, best practices and possibilities, but that’s fine, these things take time. With the right story and setting it could seriously enhance a film, making it more believable and just generally more amazing visually. I’m excited about what this means for the future of film because on the basis of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we have something pretty damn interesting to look forward too. It’s just a shame that we won’t likely see anything until the next part of The Hobbit in a year.

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