If the proponents were seeking a splashy entry for higher frame rates (HFR) in the cinema market, Hobbit is providing an awkward moment. The Hobbit preview at CinemaCon created a lot of press, but not the right kind. More articles were written about the controversial look of the movie rather than the characters and sets. Most notably, Peter Jackson didn’t show up. His appearance would have provided an opportunity to sell his work, an opportunity many exhibitors would have enjoyed and appreciated. Having to quickly revise plans, Warner went to work. To refocus attention on the story, the CineEurope preview of Hobbit in Barcelona was not the HFR version, but the 2-D 24fps version. (Warner conducted private off-site screenings in HFR, however.) At ComicCon in San Diego, Warner was able to go a step further by bringing Peter Jackson and major cast members to the preview. Again, it was 2-D 24fps. The strategy worked. The press stopped talking about HFR, instead writing about the characters and the story.
Kudos to Warner for turning around a messy situation. But now the real work regarding HFR must take place. There are still the objections to the HFR clips of Hobbit to deal with, leading to rumors that Warner will change the look of some scenes. Whether or not such considerations are at hand, there is the longer view question as to whether the objections to Hobbit’s HFR version were caused by HFR, or by Peter Jackson’s photography, or both. After all, if one is to invest in HFR-capable equipment, there has to be some belief that the format has a future.
Having had the opportunity to view the Hobbit HFR clips in HFR a number of times, it is your author’s opinion that the most objectionable aspects are caused by the accentuation that HFR brings to Peter Jackson’s photography choices. For example, most of the scenes in the preview clips are shot with deep focus, often with strong lighting. The effect of having everything in focus combined with minimal motion blur is largely responsible for the “video” look one hears about. Further, deep focus requires strong lighting to overcome the smaller aperture, which in turn brings out detail that might be better left unseen.
Those who were around during the introduction of HD in television may remember the stories of how sets had to be touched up or rebuilt, makeup techniques revised, lighting techniques altered, all because detail that was previously not visible to the camera was now highly visible. 3-D also went through its learning curve, with significant lessons learned by the time a hundred 3-D movies were produced. Hobbit indicates that HFR will also have growing pains. (Although presumably not to the extent of 3-D.) Notably, the Hobbit clips are distinctly different in appearance from those made by Cameron or Dolby, due to the deep focus/strong lighting nature of the shots. This offers some degree of demonstration that directors can shoot in HFR and maximize the benefits of the format without triggering negative viewer reaction.
Suggesting that all future productions will be in HFR is somewhat akin to suggesting that all future productions will be in 3-D. As with 3-D, HFR is simply another tool available to the director for telling stories. HFR will most certainly find its place in action movies and in productions where the director prefers to use fast pans. It may not be an effect that audiences pay extra to see, but it will likely become an effective tool for providing a pleasant movie-going experience. Whether audiences experience pleasantness with the first HFR movie out-of-the-box, however, remains to be seen.