Thursday, 13 December 2012

The HFR debate: Is Peter Jackson's 48fps venture bollocks or what?

From today, you have the choice of seeing Peter Jackson's flawed but nevertheless entertaining The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (review here) in an audience-baffling variety of formats which is beginning to resemble an accident in an alphabetti spaghetti factory: you can see it in 2D, 3D, IMAX 2D, IMAX 3D, HFR 3D or IMAX HFR3D.

The latter two of these, as their acronymous names suggest, employ HFR: a shiny new technological innovation which Jackson has knocked up in his shed in New Zealand in order to give viewers something to chat about during the first act of his new film while they're waiting for Bilbo and chums to get on with their unexpected journey (which, incidentally, is ample time for a lengthy debate). I lack both the knowledge and the inclination to go into a full description of HFR for the uninitiated: basically it stands for High Frame Rate and you can find an idiot's guide here.

The point of it appears to be to capture a sharper, smoother image, eliminating once and for all any perceived crapness in 3D projection. And let me tell you, it does most of that. The 3D of An Unexpected Journey appears flawless, although it still adds little or nothing to the viewing experience for anyone who couldn't give a hoot about 3D (hello). And yes, the images are sharp. SO sharp. For anyone who wants to obsessively scrutinise every individual fibre of Gandalf's hat or examine each of the dwarves' beard hairs in excruciating detail, HFR is the format for you. It's uncannily like having the actors there in front of you, albeit forty feet high, which is ironic when they're meant to be dwarves.

Now all this pin-sharp crispness is all very well, but where does it end? We were happy with DVD until Blu-ray came along; now it seems that isn't clear enough either. We need to go deeper, so HFR was invented. What next? Will XHFR afford us the chance to view films at a molecular level? I can't wait to see Avatar 2, shot at 480fps, so that I can peer into the pores of Sam Worthington's skin and decode his DNA sequence while I wait for an original story idea to come along.

More troubling than this addiction to enhanced sharpness we're all apparently suffering, though, is the fact that HFR occasionally makes An Unexpected Journey look... well, a bit shit. Filming at twice the frame rate that we've been used to over the last hundred or so years has resulted in the effective redundancy of our persistence of vision: that trick our brain played by filling in the gaps between each frame to create a smooth vision out of 24 still pictures being flashed before our eyes every second. Now those gaps have been filled by MOAR PICTURES, meaning you no longer need your brain to do any work. No doubt this will prove useful for Avatar 2.
A picture of the dwarf that looks like one of the Chuckle Brothers to
break up all these words. Don't worry; you're nearly half way through.

The result of all this technofaff is a film that, for all its $150 million budget, often looks like it was shot on a camcorder in Martin Freeman's back garden. Comparisons have been made to 1980s BBC TV fantasy series like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe or Box Of Delights, while The Telegraph's Robbie Collin saw similarities with ITV's late '80s / early '90s kids' game show Knightmare. While all of that may sound facetious, it's actually alarmingly close to the mark. Also Robbie Collin is never facetious.

Suddenly we're acutely aware of the actors standing before a green screen; we can sense three burly grips trundling a camera dolly along a track in a field; we wonder why the acting seems so bad. It's not - it's just that while the stars think they're in a classy Lord Of The Ringsesque blockbuster, they're actually in an episode of EastEnders: The Medieval Years, and the dissonance between the styles of acting and presentation is uncomfortable; the reality of HFR is painfully at odds with the fantasy aesthetic of the film.

Similarly Smaug's initial, blistering attack on Erebor feels suspiciously like the opening scenes of an early episode of Casualty, and when Radagast The Shit tends to a sickeningly cute CG hedgehog I could have sworn I was watching Middle-earth Animal Hospital. Even Howard Shore's phenomenal music seems incongruous next to such low-rent-looking pictures. Jackson's big claim is that HFR is more immersive:
"I want to draw the audience out of their seats and pull them into the adventure,"
he says. I would argue that he's achieved the exact opposite. I've never been more distracted by the presentation of a film, unless you count the time I saw Ponyo and it looked like this.

Naturally predisposed as I am to fearing and complaining about change, I was pleased to discover that this time I'm not alone. But will Peter Jackson listen to the voices of dissent? Will he even be able to hear them over the sound of his wallet bulging and creaking? Unlikely. He said in a press conference a few days ago that it's only critics who are complaining about HFR, that "nobody under 20" has had anything bad to say about it and that people just need to get used to it. Ignoring the fact that An Unexpected Journey wasn't out when he made that comment, therefore limiting its audience to, well, film critics (most of whom are over 20), isn't that a bit arrogant? What he's essentially saying is that a) critics don't know what they're talking about; b) he'll decide what the future of film is, not you, and c) if you don't like it you're wrong. You just need to get used to it.

Well, we'll see. Audiences will make their feelings known on HFR within days of An Unexpected Journey's release, and the format's future will hopefully be decided by the cinemagoing public's wallets rather than Peter Jackson's desire to change cinema forever. By all means check out this revolutionary dawn in filmmaking - it's worth experiencing if only out of interest, although you'll have to endure it for the best part of three hours. But given the choice, I can't see myself making a conscious decision to watch a film in 48fps again. Hopefully there will still be a choice in the future, but the resurgence and steady dominance of 3D over the last few years has proved that there's no guarantee of that. 

Tl;dr? It's bollocks.


  1. This is similar to the impression I'm getting from other reviews too. Sadly.

  2. I told you I'd read it. I did, It was good. I'm a good friend.

  3. I saw it last night in HFR 3D. There is some truth to what a lot of what reviewers of the HFR aspect have said, however, after the first few minutes of experiencing this new visual phenomenon, I for one DID feel more immersed in the world of Middle-Earth. I for one love film, am 38 years old, and am hoping that HFR really opens up as an option to future film makers because the look of the Hobbit in HFR is the most astounding, breath-taking, and immersive experience I've ever had at the movies.

    It is a film that seems less like a film and more like all of it's story and action are happening live in from of you. There is a scene where Bilbo drops Sting and you can see Sting bounce off the walls of a crevase as it falls... it's incredible (I know this doesn't sound like a good thing, but...) and nearly vertgio-inducing... but for all the right reasons.

    Congratulations Mr. Jackson and WETA. You've earned my gratitude and trust once again.

    Andy M

  4. Uh-huh. "Andy M" from "Ohio". Yeah, I'm sure. Come off it, Peter Jackson. Trolling the internet as anonymous and signing "Andy M Ohio" doesn't have us fooled. You are the only one who likes your film. Go away. We don't need to see any more of this filth. You failed, and your 48fps wet-dream turned out to be a failed experiment. Please, never do it again.