No movie has undergone more intense preparation in the cinema for its release than the HFR 3D HFR version of The Hobbit. Kudos to Warner Bros. and New Zealand’s Park Road Post for a brilliant job of paving way for the release of this brand new format. It is not a simple task. At the time of this writing, much work remains, as Hobbit‘s release in cinemas around the world will be staggered through the month of December.
In a separate article in this issue, the manner in which HFR 3D differs from regular 24fps 3D is illustrated. The diagrams illustrate how different the HFR formats are from normal frame rate cinema. While many manufacturers have been touting throughout the year that their products are HFR 3D capable, nearly all, if not all, have been issuing upgrades to ensure that their products can play The Hobbit. Not only are more frames being sent to the projector, but the 3D flash rate is also dependent on frame rate. Software upgrades are needed for server/IMB, projector, 3D add-on system, and possibly even the TMS if it’s to recognize the different content in a library server. The number of upgrades can cause a ripple effect, where one upgrade introduces unexpected behavior in another product, thus causing more upgrades to be issued.
HFR picture inherently increases the size of the file on disk. One would expect file size to be about twice that for a normal 24fps distribution. For The Hobbit, file size may seem even larger than that. It’s reported that the size of the distribution is close to 500MB, driven by the 450Mb/s compression bit rate in which the movie is encoded. (While DCI sets the compression bit rate limit at 250Mb/s for normal 2K and 4K distributions, many movies are released today with significantly lower bit rates, resulting in lower quality compression and smaller-than-expected file sizes.) A 500MB movie will not only challenge the available storage capacity at the projection system’s server, but will also challenge the library server and associated networks. The time it can take to move the movie from library server to projection system will not only double, but can lengthen the time it takes to transfer other movies, too. In addition, the file format used for the HFR 3D version of The Hobbit is new. As a result, content management systems may not recognize the files. Some exhibitors say they are loading their copy directly to the server to avoid TMS and library server problems.
During the year prior to the release, both Park Road Post and Warner have been evaluating the performance of systems with HFR content to discover problems and instigate fixes. In retrospect, it was probably easier for Peter Jackson to decide to shoot in HFR, as he only needed one make of camera to work correctly, while the number of equipment combinations to deal with in cinema is quite large. Although preparing cinemas for Hobbit has not been easy, the likelihood of widespread success is high, given the high caliber of talent responsible at Warner and Park Road Post.
But the Hobbit HFR 3D release was also intended to meet a different milestone in digital cinema. The HFR version was to be the first to utilize the SMPTE DCP packaging format, and not employ the Interop packaging method used in all releases to date. The achievement of SMPTE DCP in distribution has been the holy grail of several years of Plugfest testing in ISDCF. But in the end, ISDCF failed to achieve its goal. It is stunning that after all of the effort expended, SMPTE DCP still failed to play correctly on some equipment, forcing Warner to rely on an ad hoc version of Interop DCP for the HFR 3D version of its movie.
Although premieres have taken place, reviews of the movie have been muffled, due to an embargo by Warner on the press. Stories are just beginning to come out as this article is going online. It will require comparisons of the HFR 3D version to the 24fps 2D version to determine the story-telling value of HFR 3D, and in the coming month, there will be plenty of that to review.