There and Back Again at 48 Frames a Second

Trials and tribulations in the making of The Hobbit

by Steve Withers Dec 18, 2012 at 8:28 AM

  • Movies Article


    There and Back Again at 48 Frames a Second
    Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the big screen has not been an easy one, in fact it makes the fictional character’s quest for the Lonely Mountain seem easy by comparison.
    The filmmakers may not have had to deal with fire-breathing dragons or armies of orcs but their obstacles were no less difficult. So many problems and controversies have plagued the production that it’s a wonder the films ever got made. First of all, the rights to The Hobbit were caught in a legal web so tangled it could’ve been spun by Shelob or her offspring in Mirkwood. It was the complex nature of the book’s film rights that led Peter Jackson to adapt the Lord of the Rings first, rather than the obvious and far shorter prequel. Warner Bros. through its subsidiary New Line owned the rights to produce The Hobbit whilst MGM held the rights to distribute it, but eventually, the vast amounts of money the films will almost certainly generate, resulted in both parties coming to a sensible agreement.
    Warner Bros. brought its errant subsidiary under direct control and Jackson was back on board.

    No sooner had the rights issues been sorted out when another problem reared its head as Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films sued New Line for unpaid royalties from the Lord of the Rings, resulting in the studio saying a film of The Hobbit would be made without Jackson. Given that most people, including New Line's parent, credit the director with the critical and commercial success of the Lord of the Rings, Warner Bros. immediately brought its errant subsidiary under direct control and Jackson was back on board. This time, however, Jackson intended to only co-write and produce, leaving the directing duties to Guillermo del Toro but, as the film went into pre-production, disaster struck again.

    The junior partner in the distribution agreement, MGM, went bankrupt, which delayed the beginning of production whilst the studio found new financial backers. Sadly the delay caused by this search was so long that del Toro was forced to leave the production, allowing Jackson to take the director’s chair once more. Jackson claimed that working on the screenplay for The Hobbit had rekindled his love of the material, but after the critical and commercial failure of The Lovely Bones, he probably needed to return to Middle Earth more than anyone.

    So, finally, the film was ready to begin principal photography but on the eve of the digital cameras ‘rolling’, a threatened strike by extras and crew in New Zealand, over contracts, almost brought the production to a halt yet again. With that disaster averted it seemed as though it was now plain sailing for the long-suffering Hobbit production, however a number of decisions made by Peter Jackson both prior to and just after principal photography, would result in yet more controversy when the film finally opened.
    After the commercial failure of The Lovely Bones, Jackson probably needed to return to Middle Earth more than anyone.

    The other obvious reason for choosing digital cameras over traditional 35mm film is that Jackson wanted to shootThe Hobbit in 3D, which undoubtedly pleased his studio bosses thinking of the inflated ticket prices they could charge for three dimensional screenings. Whilst the decision to go the stereoscopic route for The Hobbit might seem like Jackson was jumping on the 3D bandwagon, in his defence he has always been a fan of 3D photography and actually took a large number of stereoscopic still photos while shooting the original Lord of the Rings films. Jackson has mentioned that we may even see these stills included on some future 3D Blu-ray release.

    Given Jackson’s expressed intention to link The Hobbit stylistically with The Lord of the Rings, even going so far as to shoot scenes with Ian Holm who played the older Bilbo in the earlier films, the choice of 3D digital capture forThe Hobbit would make this aesthetic goal difficult. However the RED Epic camera closely mirrors many of the attributes of Super 35, so with careful manipulation during the digital intermediate stage, The Hobbit could certainly be made to look like the Lord of the Rings, at least in 2D. The native 3D nature of The Hobbit will also provide the perfect excuse for Jackson and Warner Bros. to convert the earlier films into 3D, thus allowing them to squeeze yet more money from the Rings cash cow.

    However the RED Epic camera offers more than just a higher resolution 5K image (5120 x 2134) for shooting in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, coupled with the ability to capture native 3D, it also offers the option of higher frame rates. It's this capability that led Jackson to make his most controversial decision, eschewing the traditional 24 frames per a second (FPS) used in film production and instead shooting The Hobbit at a higher rate of 48 frames per a second. Jackson’s rationale was that 24 FPS was a compromise made over 80 years ago and that modern technology means that shooting at a higher frame rate is no longer prohibitively costly. He also felt that the higher frame rate resulted in less motion blur which helped to deliver a far more natural and comfortable 3D experience.

    Aside from some fairly vocal support from fellow 3D acolyte James Cameron, who intends to shoot his Avatarsequels using a higher frame rate, the majority of film makers were skeptical of Jackson’s decision, fearing the results would look like video. A disastrous early screening of footage from The Hobbit shown at 48 FPS for theatre owners in the US did nothing to assuage the fears of professionals and fans alike. In fact, as a result of the negative feedback, Warner Bros. took the decision to limit the number of screenings using the higher frame rate. Jackson said publicly that the higher frame rate would look strange at first and that a ten minute demonstration wasn’t long enough to become accustomed but over the length of an entire movie, people would have time to adjust.

    No sooner had the furore surrounding the use of 48 FPS died down when Jackson dropped another bombshell by announcing that the two-film adaptation of The Hobbit, which had already wrapped principal photography, would now be a trilogy requiring additional photography in 2013. Many wondered how a book that was fairly slim to start with, and would struggle to fill two three hour movies, could possibly provide enough material for a full nine-hour plus trilogy. The decision appeared motivated more by greed than any creative desire and some commentators began to wonder if Jackson wasn’t just struggling for new ideas outside of Middle Earth.

    Finally, though, after many years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars, the world premiere of the first Hobbitmovie arrived. Now subtitled An Unexpected Journey, the film finally screened before an expectant audience in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand and the headquarters of Jackson’s film production empire. Although, even then, there were last minute scares as post-production went down to the wire, thanks to Jackson’s relatively late decision to mix The Hobbit in Dolby's new and revolutionary Atmos sound system, and even allegations of animal cruelty on the set threatened to spoil the party.

    As Peter Jackson is fond of saying, pain is temporary but film (or in this case a digital file) is forever and, after all the problems, had the struggle to complete the film been worth it? Well, The Hobbit made $223 million during its opening weekend so there’s no doubt that the film will certainly deliver at the box office. How much of that success is due to holdover goodwill from the Lord of the Rings and how much is due to the merits of the film itself remains to be seen. The reviews have generally been positive for the film overall, although many have pointed to the plot feeling stretched out to fill the near three hour running time. The film also has a more comic tone compared to theLord of the Rings but that’s understandable given the source material which is essentially a children’s book.

    As fans of the original Lord of the Rings films we didn't find the story to be stretched too thin, like butter spread over too much bread - to quote Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring. We did feel that the running time could have done with a little tightening in places and it seemed as though it took Jackson a while to get back into his stride, but overall we welcomed the opportunity to return to Middle Earth. We also found that Jackson used 3D very well and clearly understood how to frame shots to take advantage of the greater depth.

    So the 64 million - or should that be billion dollar question -is does HFR stand for High Frame Rate or the Hobbit Flippin’ Ruined? Well the critical response has been almost universally negative, with writers and columnists all commenting that at 48 frames a second, The Hobbit no longer looks like film. The most common complaint is that it looks more like expensive video, with a smoothness of motion that is often referred to as the ‘soap opera effect’, whilst some have likened it to cut scenes in a video game. Others have commented that the higher frame rate makes the film look more like a stage play and certainly no one with any appreciation of film has said that they like the aesthetic look of HFR.

    We have had a chance to see The Hobbit in 3D HFR and our immediate response was one of dismay because from the opening Warner Bros. logo, the unnaturally smooth motion ruined the illusion of film. The early scenes in Bag End, in particular, suffered and really did look like someone had filmed a stage play on video. The easiest way to describe the effect is to compare it to when you watch a movie with your TV's frame interpolation feature on, the motion appears too smooth and the results no longer look like film. Peter Jackson claims that HFR is the future and that after a while people will learn to accept the different look that the higher frame rate creates. Whilst it's true that later in the film the HFR wasn't as obvious, especially during the CG heavy action scenes, we remained aware of it right up to the closing credits.

    If that makes us sound like a bunch of AV Luddites, that couldn't be further from the truth and we have embraced many technological innovations, from surround sound to higher resolutions to 3D. However just because you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Peter Jackson describes 48 FPS as looking more like reality, but to a certain extent that is missing the point because film is a form of artistic expression, it isn't supposed to look real. Of course you shouldn't confuse reality with trying to make things look believable and in a story full of Hobbits, Wizards, Dwarves and Elves, Jackson wisely tried to ground his version of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings with a degree of verisimilitude.

    When making those films he was happy to embrace new technologies such as motion capture and CG animation to create Gollum, but use more traditional techniques such as photographing huge miniatures ('bigatures') or useing classic forced perspective shots because they retained a greater sense of believability compared to CG. It is somewhat ironic that his decision to shoot The Hobbit in native 3D precluded the use of miniatures and forced perspectives because the stereoscopic photography would betray the illusion. In the same way, the greater clarity and detail provided by shooting at 48 FPS results in some of the effects, as well as some of the sets, props, costumes and makeup appearing rather fake. One can't help but feel that, at times, Jackson is hoisted on his own petard.
    In his efforts to push the technological boundaries of cinema, Jackson has figuratively, and at times literally, lost the plot.
    There are sound financial reasons for shooting a film digitally but filmmakers go to great lengths to ensure the results still look like film, even adding grain on occasion. There is a very specific look to 35mm film and elements such as grain are the result of a number of factors including the film stock used, the lighting and the photo-chemical process. However the use of clean digital images, native 3D and especially 48 FPS meant that we found ourselves constantly being taken out of the story and The Hobbit never really looked or felt like the prequel to theLord of the Rings. Other directors, such as David Fincher, have managed to utilise digital cameras whilst still retaining a filmic look but it seems that in his efforts to push the technological boundaries of cinema, Jackson has figuratively, and at times literally, lost the plot.

    Where will all this lead? Well a lot will depend on how successful The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is and what kind of feedback the studios get from the cinema-going public. With two more Hobbit movies in the pipeline and James Cameron's planned Avatar sequel due in 2015, the debate over HFR will certainly continue for some time. Our view is that whilst we're happy with the use of cameras, 3D and Dolby Atmos, the use of 48 FPS may be a technological leap too far. At the risk of sounding like King Canute facing the oncoming technological tide, we're looking forward to watching the (already confirmed) extended Blu-ray in 2D and at 24 FPS. That way The Hobbit will retain a stylistic connection to the Lord of the Rings and we can finally view it as it, perhaps, should be seen.

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