Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (4 Stars)

This is a cautious 4 star rating. I left the cinema today feeling confused, not really knowing what to think. I'm sure I'll have more to say after I buy the film on DVD, whenever that time comes. I'll probably wait until the full trilogy is available to buy.

I wasn't planning to go to see "The Hobbit" in the cinema, not for the film itself. What encouraged me to hand over my £9.25 ($15, the most I've ever paid for a cinema ticket) was the experimental new 48 frames per second. This is a big revolution in filming, more important than 3D, so I had to see it for myself. I needed to see what the fuss is about. Some less qualified reviewers talk about 48 fps like it's an advancement of the 3D experience, or somehow necessitated by 3D. Not so, and I wish I could have seen "The Hobbit" in 48 fps 2D to examine the 48 fps technology in isolation. Unfortunately, even though a 2D 48 fps version of the film exists, it will not be shown in cinemas, probably to avoid confusing the public by giving them too many choices. Only three versions are on general release: 2D 24 fps, 3D 24 fps and 3D 48 fps. Very few cinemas have opted to show the 3D 48 fps version, because it means buying a new film projector for just one film. For instance, in Birmingham only one cinema, the Odeon Broadway Plaza, is displaying the film in this resolution.

So what's my verdict on the technology? Obviously, 24 frames per second is enough for the human eye. This has been the standard frame rate since 1927, and there has been no call for it to be improved before now. The frame rate could even have been increased in the pre-digital film age. It's a matter of photography, and still cameras have had shorter exposures than 1/24 seconds for over 100 years. The question is of the effect. The relatively long shutter speeds used in 24 fps filming create a blur in rapidly moving images. The best example is a waterfall. If you photograph a waterfall at 1/24 seconds it looks natural, like flowing water. If you photograph a waterfall at 1/1000 seconds it looks like frozen water. This would suggest that the 24 fps technology leads to more natural images. And yet the opposite is the case. This is because the human eye is able to process images more than 24 times per second. In testing the results vary between 60 and 110 times per second. I expect that it varies from person to person.

24 frames per second has been "enough" since 1927 because each individual frame (i.e. photograph) is blurred, but in a motion sequence the blurs run into one another and create a streaming effect. Most DVD players offer the possibility to step through a film frame by frame. Try this out in a film sequence with rapid motion. The individual frames probably look ugly to you, like poor quality photographs, and yet the film played normally looks good. Today, for the first time, I watched a film at a higher frame rate. It looked different. Something that I wouldn't have been able to define if I hadn't known what it was. All my life I've been used to 24 fps films. I've grown accustomed to the 24 fps "blur". It's something artistic. Seeing a film at a higher frame rate pulls the film closer to reality, it makes it more like what I'm used to seeing in real life. The characters looked more "real". It looked less like art and more like real life.

Let me repeat that, because it's at the crux of the matter, and it explains why many critics have already criticised the new technology:

48 fps films look less like art and more like real life.

This is the same as comparing an oil painting and a photograph. Both are good. Which is better? Art experts would immediately reply that an oil painting by a master artist such as Leonardo da Vinci or Vincent Van Gogh is better. Why? Analyse their paintings with a magnifying glass. They are inaccurate. They are blurred. But it's just this that makes them better. Great artists use "inaccuracies" to create an artistic effect.

Watching "The Hobbit" gave me the unsettling effect that I wasn't watching a film at all. I felt like I was watching live actors on stage. I'm not saying, at this point, whether it is good or bad. One film isn't enough to judge the technology. All I can say is that it's something I'm not used to. My only question at this point is: why 48 frames per second? If we're aiming for greater realism, why not push it to the level of reality? Today's technology can handle it in both filming and projecting. If the human eye can handle up to 110 images per second, let's show films at 120 frames per second. 48 fps seems to me like a halfway solution. I've read that James Cameron was originally planning to film "Avatar 2" at 60 fps, but he's now considering 48 fps instead.

I've never given my opinion on 3D films so far, and I think now is my time to say something, at the risk of bloating this review. I think it's all a big hype. At the very least, in its present form 3D films are unnecessary. The image is projected onto a 2D screen in front of the viewer. All the 3D technology does is add depth to the image, and occasionally project something forwards from the screen. This can be done to good or bad effect. Let me give two examples from "The Hobbit". When Gandalf released the butterfly it seemed to be flying towards me, almost reaching me in at my seat in the centre of the theatre. This was excellent. The second example is Radagast meeting the party. He seemed to be a 2D image standing in front of a deep 3D landscape. This was ugly.

I'm not saying that 3D should be abandoned altogether, but we need true 3D, and the technology is still far off. What I mean is, in a true 3D film the viewer would be close to the image, virtually speaking. If he leans to the left or right he would see details obscured by looking at the image from the front. Or he could look up or down for a different view. The viewer could even be placed within the film, so that he can observe the characters from behind. This sort of 3D technology, which goes in the direction of holography, would be worth it. I doubt I'll see it within my lifetime. The current 3D technology is just hype. We don't need it.

After all of this I haven't said anything about the film itself. I'll keep my thoughts short. I agree with those who criticise the decision to make the book into a trilogy. It's obviously a film studio decision. "Peter, your last trilogy earned a lot of money. We need you to make another one". Today I enjoyed the film. But it was slow paced. It could have been better. One three-hour film could have covered the whole book. But wait till I've seen all three films, and I'll say more.

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