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The Hobbit in 48p 3D - Technological Hero or Flop?

First reactions to this new HFR format on the big screen...

By Jeff Foster | December 29, 2012

There has been much anticipation for this holiday release of The Hobbit - not only in bringing this classic novel to life from the team that brought us a success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but to experience the new technological advances of 3D on the big screen at 48p. But is HFR (high frame rate) really ready for "prime time" or are we just not ready for it? I share my first reactions after seeing it myself and connect with other sources/opinions in attempting to make sense of it all... and this is going to be a heated debate for years as subjectivity and viewer feedback will win out in the end.

Image from EOSHD article: 48p The Hobbit - British and American Critics verdict The Hobbit ©2012 MGM

 

First - Some Background on Technology:

Originally, 24fps was established shortly after "the talkies" came onto the scene after years of silent films that were shot around 16fps - mostly to accommodate the playback of the audio tracks recorded to the film stock. Higher frame rates have been experimented with film in larger formats up to 65mm with less than desirable results and directors have opted to maintain the 24fps standard for decades. And we've seen so many variations of video recording/playback speeds - the most recognized of course are 29.97 for NTSC standard/HD and 25 for PAL as broadcast standards. HD sports have been broadcast at 60i (interlaced) that reduces motion blur for sports action and giving a more "realistic" feeling of actually "being there". Most prime time network TV programs and made-for TV movies have been shot on film at 24fps and telecinied 3:2 pull-down to 29.97 for broadcast - which is why they look different than say, a childrens' program, the evening news or a daytime drama or talk show. Many soap operas have been shot and broadcast in 60i. The older production video cameras of the 1970s shot at of 50-60 fields per second in SDTV and had a shorter shutter angle and a much lower dynamic range which gave a higher contrast and brighter than real life image quality to the production, such as you may see in older British dramas and TV sitcoms in the era. The image was indeed "clearer" with more detail but suffered from the playback rate in quality - especially on CRT TVs at the time.

Today, higher frame rates in recording are most often done for purposes of smoother playback when the footage is played back at 24p or 30p for slow-motion effects. Playback in the native 48p, 60p, 120p or 240p often look strange to us - something unrealistic about the footage. But are we just comparing it to what we've grown accustomed to seeing on the big screen or on TV, or does it not accurately emulate what we see in the natural world?

In the real world, our eyes see motion blur. For a test, while focusing on the text in this article on the screen, quickly wave your hand back and forth in front of your face. Do you actually see your hand in perfect focus throughout the path of motion or does it blur and the text is still legible? Now look at your hand and focus on it - move your had from left to right and back and follow it staying focused on it, panning your head left-right as necessary to follow it. Can you still read the text on the screen? Of course not. Not only are you focused on your hand which with binocular stereo vision will change the convergence of the focal point forward, plus the DOF changes in your eyes, but the motion itself doesn't register the same as what you're focusing on. Motion blur makes motion look fluid and realistic to our brains.

This is why motion blur is as important in film/video as is DOF and proper 3D convergence and parallax.

Motion blur example - Photo credit: ozoneeleven.com

 

As far as playback speed fps (frames per second/fields per second) are concerned, it's a matter of content. For example, a very slow pan across a neutral wall with no detail or a slow fog bank rolling in, a slower frame rate won't register any difference between say 12fps and 48fps. The image from frame to frame just doesn't register much change. Think of it like video image compression. Why do some videos compress so much smaller than others when they are the same frame rate, dimension and length? It's because one may have less pixel data change from one frame to another, such as a bird against a blue sky or a single set of car headlights in an otherwise dark frame. Other than physical motion or change of shape of the objects, it would be difficult to discern actual playback rate by viewing it alone.

The best explanation I've seen of this phenomenon is this article from 100fps.com

So in theory, the 48p production should at least produce clearer 3D viewing, at the cost of the HFR playback which eliminates motion blur and a soft palette, right?

 

Anticipation:

We've all read the anticipated reports around the release of this movie and the proposed reactions people may have in viewing the 48p experience - especially in 3D. Some stating it will be the new industry standard in big-screen filmmaking while others feared the gimmick effect will make the film look like cheap video. 

As a long-time 3D enthusiast since childhood, I was really looking forward to the experience to see if it was going to deliver everything the hype was promising. I was first interested in 3D with my Grandmother's Stereopticon cards and View Master reels and as I got older, experimented with 35mm 3D imagery - including building my own twin-camera rig where I could set-up my shots looking through two DSLR viewfinders at the same time and syncing the cameras to give me the exact same exposure and Auto-Focus levels and wasting much less film in processing as a result since I wasn't "guessing" at my shots. (I still have this camera rig and intend on using it for years - as long as I can get 35mm color transparency film). But I digress... not everybody loves the 3D experience, regardless of how it's shot.

While the 3D aspect of movie making these days is met with a divided enthusiasm (or dismissal as a fad) I still find the RealD experience comfortable and delightful when properly executed. After seeing James Camron's Avatar in IMAX 3D - which was produced entirely with the intention of creating a purposeful and planned-out 3D experience, I thought this is what the future of filmmaking as we were going to look ahead to. I've never seen it in 2D or on a smaller, TV screen since - but for me the 3D experience was superb; even reflections had the correct depth to them and the edits were thoughtful and not jarring for the brain to follow. I didn't get a headache or eye strain the entire time as I usually do with IMAX 3D features. The same was true for Martin Scorsese's Hugo in 3D. Beautifully crafted and edited brilliantly to fully engage the viewer INTO the film - not forcing it on/at you! So you can imagine my excitement and anticipation for this new epic film release - that would purportedly blow away all other previous 3D cinematic experiences. 

But - back to the 48p aspect of this endeavor, will it really deliver as Jackson claims and change the way filmmaking is done going forward? I've tried to ignore the naysayers with early reviews such as Jen Yamato's preview on Movieline in early December and more from Grace Johnson on Movieline or even earlier, the feedback shared by critics back in April to a prescreen 10 minute clip Critics React to The Hobbit 48fps Footage on YouTube. James Camron is cautously optomistic about the 48p experiment as well, thinking about adopting it for Avatar 2 in this write-up in the Huffington Post in early December.

I wanted to wait to comment until I personally had my own experience to base any conclusions or commentary. After all, Jackson has the latest technology gurus and a huge Hollywood bankroll behind him with everything at stake, so this HAS to be an awesome advancement, right?

*Download the 48p Trailer here (courtesy of the fxphd Production Blog) - or a higher-res 1080p verion from Luke Letellier's blog download here

Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit ©2012 MGM

 

My Initial Reactions Upon Viewing:

First, let me address the 48p playback - in a single word: ugh. This is where there will be great debate from viewers for a long time - especially when divided into two main camps: "old fogies" like myself who have enjoyed decades of rich cinematic experiences on the big screen and through all phases of television/video formats from B&W sets with broadcast from the early 1960's to present - and those born after the late 1980's who grew up with computer games and more HD in their lives. *Note that I've yet to watch this film release in a standard theater projecting 24fps in 2D as a comparison - I hope to soon and will report an addendum to this article at the end.


While I felt the look of the 48p did offer a much brighter screen image and clarity, the things that bothered me most were extremely distracting and totally took me out of the story/experience - the loss of cinematic fantasy. The costumes, makeup, wigs and sets were mostly distracting - like I was standing on stage of a theater performance instead of watching an epic film. I couldn't help but think of the cheesy BBC costume dramas from the 70's - or even Behind the Scenes videos showing the action of a scene through some B-roll shot on video, and kept waiting to see what the same scene might look like on an actual film. I didn't feel like I was part of the movie as it didn't grab me - but I actually felt repelled by it. I missed the softness and inherent graininess of film - and motion blur. I kept wondering why they didn't at least run some motion blur filter over the footage to lessen the hyper-strobing effect of action on screen - but I realize that was purposely eliminated to keep the 3D experience as pure as possible. I feel it failed and was really more of a distraction instead of an enhancement. I'll explain why in more detail in the section below about the 3D experience.

And I'm not alone in my experience. I've panned and polled in various forums this past week - from the average moviegoer to industry professionals in film and video production forums on LinkedIn, to get their honest feedback. While some of the younger responders stated they thought it looked more like the video games they play on a high-end Playstation or XBox, they weren't as bothered by the 48fps playback and though us "old guys" need to just accept it and get with the program - most of the seasoned pros and film aficionados shared the same experience as I in that it looks like a cheesy soap opera or HD video of a stage play than it did a cinematic film they could "get lost in". 

The bottom line for me, is that the critics were right about 48p - at least as far as my own experience goes. Please feel free to flame me in the comments section below - I really do want to hear what other's experiences are in viewing this film in 48p, and whether or not this should be pursued for feature films going forward?

 

 

My Reactions to the 3D Production:

Aside from the inherent affects from the 48p viewing experience, I had to look at how the 3D was shot/editing/produced. While some of the production seemed appropriate and well crafted, often aided by nice shallow DOF which really made the viewer focus in the "sweet spot" of the frame on a character or object, I was often distracted by either poor parallax decisions in CG shots (too wide - which combined with the 48p made some "epic" fly-over scenes look more like Mr Roger's Neighborhood) or two narrow where the rules of 3D production were obliterated - violating the 3D viewing window. At times it made me "wince" and either look away or I'd have to take off my glasses a moment and rest my eyes. I haven't had to do this often in a RealD theater expect possibly some poorly shot IMAX or older anaglyph movies from the 50s. I'm not talking about silly animated 3D gags like things flying toward the viewer intending to look like they're jumping off the screen either. I'm talking about poor production, lousy planning and editing decisions that shouldn't have been made.

Some shots went from what seemed like a 50mm prime with a rich shallow DOF over the shoulder with two characters, cut to a dolly-zoom combo on a lead character where your eyes were drawn to the cheesy painted Styrofoam rock wall instead of the character standing there. I actually burst out laughing in a few inappropriate times because I was more focused on seeing the loss of the "magic" in the film because everything was so exposed. Just when I was lost in a rich dolly move in Rivendell with a bubbling brook atop the mountain I was jarred to a hyper-stereo wide shot of the valley that looked more like a painted backdrop - then cut to a character where you could see the texture of their wig.

Note that not everything was horrible, mind you - some shots really worked well and were delightful. There were moments I could have sat there and studied a shot for hours - looking at all the tiny details I was taking in on the screen, but the editing quickly jarred you from one camera shot to another and getting your eyes to adjust to a completely different 3D scene and POV moved too quick to register between cuts at times. 

What the 48p process did accomplish at times was often the lack of motion blur and/or DOF in a shot where everything was in complete focus and confused your eyes where to look on the screen. As in any epic cinematic production, the larger than life scenes are something to be explored and long shots of 10 seconds or more allow you to discover the beauty and details within a shot. When this is distracted by the 3D production or lack of DOF, the effect will be lost and you're left trying to figure out if you're looking at a table top model or a flat matte painted backdrop.

Still frame from The Hobbit ©2012 MGM

 

Overview

As expected, there is definitely a lot of detail exposed in the 48p theatrical release - sometimes it works and looks beautiful, but often it was cheesy and just looked like something was "wrong". This sentiment is mirrored all over, but is also equally discredited as a resistance to new technology over familiarity of cinematic experience. As I stated, I do not play video games at high frame rates (HFR) but always think there's something really wrong with the way they look. I understand that video games are rendering 3D in real-time and effects like motion blur can't be realized, so the HFR is necessary to emulate smooth motion and feedback to the controls. But why do we have to move that direction with our movie viewing experience when it's so "unnatural"?

The job of the cinematographer is to help tell the story through the lens of the camera - focusing our attention on the character or objects of importance in the scene, while framing that action with the environment. When the environment is given equal importance in the frame, then that focus is lost - along with the story they're trying to tell. The overall inconsistency left me scratching my head... why did they get it so right in some shots and so blatantly wrong in others? Some of the mid-range shots were splendid with rich DOF that really enhanced the 3D effect and made you feel like you could walk right into the scene where others looked like models or a video game.

As far as content goes, I personally felt many scenes went on way too long and put me to sleep. The fight scenes were not only gratuitous and comical (more like an animated Disney feature) but were boring and distracted from the story. Since this was part one of a three-part series, I personally would have thought it would be best served cut down at least 30 minutes with more continuity between scenes - or possibly telling the story in a two-part series instead - but that would be harder to make money on than another trilogy, right?

Overall I must say the one thing that stood out to me from the very beginning shot right up through the entire 3 hour production was the great lighting and color grading. I'm not sure how much of this was achieved in-camera or in post, but everything from the candle light on Bilbo Baggins' table to the rich environments wherein they traveled, the lighting and color were spectacular! This alone makes me want to see the 24p theatrical release - where hopefully, they added some motion blur back in post.

Again, I welcome all comments and feedback - this is only my opinion and experience as a viewer of the film and am no way connected to the production of this film or the studio.

_________________________________________________________________

Jeff Foster is a published author of several how-to books and training videos in the motion graphics, animation and video production industries and is an award-winning video producer and artist. Visit his web site to learn more about his training methods, tips & tricks at PixelPainter.com

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Comments

Piero Costantini: | January, 03, 2013

The HFR look is awful, electronic, tv news style. I wonder who is the guy who decided this should be the future. It doesn’t look progressive hence is not good for features films.

Somebody is pushing this interlaced way to be and I can’t understand why! If you go to a mall and take a look at all the new tv panels (lcd, led and plasma too) which are playing a Blu-Ray, they all look as the HFR Hobbit. The ultimate 200 Mhz Super Motion Fantastic Experience setting is on by default in all these panels. And, as I said before, it’s awful.

I miss the TRUE PROGRESSIVE era.

Tony Donaldson: | January, 03, 2013

I couldn’t agree more. You’ve eloquently spelled out why high frame rates look so bad. Getting sucked out of the movie because the image looks so immediate is terrible. Modern televisions have “Motion smoothing” that removes/interpolates the cinematic visual feel and just looks awful. Filmmakers, including the great episodic TV dramas we all love, painstakingly light and shoot their shows to bring us this fantasy. 24 fps sort of drops us into this fantasy trance.

Some movies have used higher shutter speeds (not high frame rate) to bring immediacy to the image, Spielberg used this to great effect in the beach landing scene in “Saving Private Ryan”. Scott used it effectively in scenes in “Blackhawk Down” and in “Gladiator”, though I hated it in the latter, as I thought it made things too choppy. Slower shutter speeds and a little motion blur help a lot IF you’re slowing down the stuff for slow motion effect.

As you say, if the content is good, it makes a difference. Bad content AND bad visual aesthetic make for an unwatchable movie.

Thanks for a great article!

Tony Donaldson: | January, 03, 2013

Thanks for the great article. It explains eloquently why higher frame rates don’t work. Filmmakers, even the ones on great episodic television dramas, painstakingly light and shoot their shows to help us get lost in the fantasy they create. Making it look more like video keeps us from going into that great cinematic trance and suspending out disbelief.

As the first commenter said, modern TVs have “motion smoothing” that makes everything look like video by interpolating out the distinct frames. It’s awful. That’s the first thing I turn off in every set I ever view. It makes everything so much better. Just because it’s technologically possible to do something, it doesn’t make it better. It’s a marketing thing in this case.

Higher shutter speeds (not high frame rates) can be good for providing immediacy. Look at the beach landing scene in “Saving Private Ryan”. It worked well here. Scott’s “Blackhawk Down” and “Gladiator” used it for slow-mo, and it didn’t work as well (IMHO, anyway) because without motion blur, slow motion with distinct frames is too choppy. THEN 48 fps or higher would be good for THOSE scenes to allow for more aesthetically pleasing slow motion.

I’ve not seen The Hobbit, but from what I’ve heard the story isn’t great (and regardless of visual look, content is king), and the 48 fps look is horrible. I think your single word response sums it up perfectly from what I’ve heard.

Thanks for a great article and some great points on this.

3DLA: | January, 04, 2013

Nice article, Jeff. 48P reminds me of the blur-reducer feature I always turn off on my 3D TVs. Still, hats off to Jackson for doing more than just sucking money form the system. (Do you take article submissions, BTW. Tech background in 3D.)

Brian T Ferguson: | January, 04, 2013

What was this last comment about “True Progressive”? Really you think the acquisition of this fim and projection was interlaced? The author of this article left out the fact that all 24 fps film projections of film have added multi blade shutters to make the viewing experiences seem smoother. Usually 2 extra shutters to make the image seem like 96 fps effect. If you watched 24 fps without added shutter in projection you would think it looked like silent movies. I know how this film was shot and posted and there is no interlaced in the process. Really tired of comparing old SD Video with tube sensors compared to this film. A current GoPro right out of the box would kick the butt out of any older SD video camera. This constant comparison to 20 years ago and current tech is tired.

The more the perceived flicker the smoother it seems. I loved the the HFR, it did looked like a Viewmaster to me. This feature was not interlaced. I think the author while setting up all of this story with tales of interlaced SD and 60i HD led you down this path. In normal Digital 3D the projection is split in half, 2 images, so increasing the frame rate overcomes the difference with the natural 3D which does actually cause a kind of interlacing, two images shown simultaneously with one resolution. The image is split into to version projected at the same time with a set resolution cut in half. The 48 frames basically just allows the 2 different eyes to become the same resolution of a single original image.

If you watch a 1080P Plasma or LCD in 3D you are watching a stream of images that are split in half to provide 2 eyes. There is no other way to do it.

Watch this film in RealD with Oakley 3D Glasses and you will change your mind. Best 3D film I have ever seen.

Jeff Foster: | January, 06, 2013

Thanks for all your comments on both sides of the issue here. I don’t claim to know everything by any means - just sharing my experience and the research I’ve done in the industry.

I know I’m not alone here either, as my colleague Mark Christiansen points out in further technical detail here: http://provideocoalition.com/mchristiansen/story/hfr-and-the-immersive-experience

Cheers - Jeff

dokworm: | January, 07, 2013

Anyone who watched The Hobbit in both 48fps and 24fps would realise that 48fps is not the culprit here.

The 24fps version looks just as “awful, electronic, tv news style.”

The opening Hobbiton scenes look just as much like a cheap costume drama in 24fps as 48fps.
There is little movement in those scenes, and 48fps wouldn’t change the look much.

The problem here is not the HFR, it is poor directorial /DP decisions.

Those scenes were lit too bright, and the depth of field was too deep, and the shots often too wide for too long. It is that simple.

We think of that as the ‘video look’, almost everything in focus and flat/overbright lighting.

The filmic look has little to do with the flickery, slow framerate. A still from a good film is instantly discernible from a still from a video production.

Now the framerate limitation has contributed to the filmic look by forcing slow pans and other techniques upon us as film-makers, and those techniques now help make a movie look ‘cinematic’.

But a good director can still shoot that way, but in 48fps. When that is done, you get the glorious film look, without the distraction of juddery pans and lost detail in moving scenes.
48fps is still ‘slow’, so motion blur is still very present and the film look isn’t compromised.

Shoot and light 48fps in the cinematic style, and it looks beautiful, epic and artistic.

Shoot it like video, and unsurprisingly, it looks like video.

So does 24fps…

Piero Costantini: | January, 12, 2013

@Brian: of course I know the film is not grabbed as interlaced. But its HFR electronic look makes it look like a tv show. The cinematic look we achieved trough years with digital cameras (what I call true progressive) with the HFR is lost.

@dokworm: I don’t thinks it’s just a matter of light direction. The is a huge difference between 24p and 48p in terms of ‘look’. I don’t believe we really need this technology. In story telling is un-useful.

Dore: | January, 15, 2013

I had a chance to see the film in 2D 24fps & the RealD 48fps.  In this case the 48fps was by far superior to the 2D.  The 2D (which I saw first) looked very much like video.  The first shot of a match being lit looked off right away (almost like the over exposed tube video of old). As well the lighting in the interiors looked like a set to me, and the darker regions looked muddy.

The 48fps RealD on the other hand looked very crisp, and in most of the outdoors shots felt almost like a hyper reality. I think Jackson was going for a very different feel for this “film” and in some ways I think he accomplished what he was shooting for. There times that I felt sucked into the 48fps in a way that I have never experienced with video games or films.

All of that said, it appeared to me with both versions that the lighting setups were not done properly for the format.  I have no idea what the proper setup would be, but I constantly noticed that the real outdoor shots (and even a few indoor for outdoor shots) looked excellent while the bulk of the pure indoor shots looked like a daytime soap. 

On a final note, if the human eye see’s motion blur then film should reflect that (unless the director is specifically going for an effect). But just looking at one’s own hand opening and closing at various speeds will reveal that the way we perceive motion is nothing like it appears on any video or film that I’ve seen.

Excellent article, and excellet posts.

okevin: | February, 02, 2013

OK, Jeff let me swim upstream here. I am an “old timer” who shot 7 million feet of film on documentaries before client budgets forced me to switch to video, then digital progressive.
I think 48fps is the future. I think we are just used to seeing 24 frames.

I owned a Varicam (720/60p) and was disappointed that no one wanted to shoot 60fps. You just have to adapt your conventions. People said the same thing when color came out. It was too real, the veil was missing. (Although Technicolor perfected a system that could be called many things, realistic color was not one of them.)

Movies today have a lot of camera movement and fast panning, etc. which at 24fps is completely blurry and if you are looking at a big screen, sickening.
This motion is much less disturbing at 48fps.

What I don’t like much is most 3D.
Jeff I completely agree with you that 3D can be successful, and Hugo is the best example I have seen. I didn’t like Avatar much, and The Hobbit was a disappointment for me. I thought the 3D was Ok, but the movie did not engage me much until Gollum appeared. That part was riveting.

I also take issue with the quality of facial highlights and things like Gandolf’s hat that seemed washed out and flat, maybe a result of HDR recording? It got bettel later in the movie, but maybe only because nothing was that bright any more on the screen.

It does leave me with a question about 3D projection.
I saw Life of PI and Hobbit both in 3D at the same theatre complex in Burbank, CA.
Pi seemed like the worst of 3D, where everything seems like cardboard cutouts at different distances, and there is no sense of continuous depth. I liked the movie, but wished I had seen it in 2D. the 48frame 4K imax 3D Hobbit had a better sense of continuous depth in general. (Despite the many inconsistencies Jeff noted.)

I know it used a different projection system, because at the Pi screening they gave me the wrong glasses, the ones for Hobbit and they did not work. I am wondering if the difference between good 3D and bad is more about the projection system or the shooting system.

I generally would be waiting for 3D to go away again, (as it did after the 50’s) if I had not seen Hugo, where everything was integrated seamlessly enough and skillfully enough so that I stopped thinking of it as a 3D movie and just watched it.  Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” was also successful to me as a 3D movie because he kept the whole movie very flat except for 3 shots where he wanted to hit you with it. Spielberg did this with surround sound on “Close Encounters” where he only really hits you with it in a few shots. Perhaps in 3D restraint is the better part of valor, and only the mightiest can conquer it. I could argue that of all the technologies that remove the magic of the movie image, 3D is the biggest culprit. I am still on the fence on this idea.

Anyway I appreciate anyone who can address the3D projection system question, and enjoy the lively discussion these technologies have spurred. A movie is a subjective experience, and ultimately a very personal one. I respect all those who see it differently and do not mean to attack anyone else’s reaction.

Jeff Foster: | February, 02, 2013

As some of you have noted, unconvincingly so IMO, that we need to just “move on and accept that HFR is the future” - I guess I’ll still be waiting for the right production to come along that will build a case for this.

3D aside, the HFR does NOT emulate “real life” vision - more like “hyper-vision”.

As I stated in my article, in the real world our eyes focus on planes and objects in motion. If we can’t selectively focus on one of these planes while it’s in motion, our brain either dismisses it or tries to rapidly focus our eyes on what’s moving and tells us what we’re seeing. We don’t/can’t see everything clear in all planes at the same time because our eyes aren’t made like a Hawk’s eyes.

This isn’t necessarily a 3D thing - close one eye and focus with the other on several planes in your view right now. The far wall as opposed to the edge of your computer screen, or your hand in front of your face. This is what DOF in the camera lens attempts to emulate where the director wants you to “focus” on a specific part or object in the scene.

If we are intently focused on something - say a flier on the wall across the room or a person’s face across the street, then our eyes can “zero-in” on that object and the details become clearer. Perhaps it’s like a time exposure where our brain fills in details like light through a lens on a sensor or film emulsion. I’m actually interested in the scientific studies done on this now - may have to start up some research on the research! wink

But until we have truly holographic projection that allows the VIEWER to selectively focus on elements in a scene as if they were physically IN the scene, we have no control over what the projection is going to show us and force us to “keep up”.

Thanks again for all the comments submitted here!

Jeff

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