After a year of panic-driven preparation for the exhibition of the HFR 3D version of Hobbit, the industry must now ask itself why. Warner limited the HFR 3D footprint to approximately 1000 screens worldwide. Although it was prepared to widen the footprint if it proved popular, no reports have been heard that more 3D screens were given the HFR keys than what were originally planned. In terms of box office, Hobbit has performed well, reaching over US$500M in worldwide box office mark at year-end. Warner has sat tight on HFR 3D box office figures, but IMAX reported a 40% increase in attendance for HFR 3D over its regular 3D shows in the opening week. That’s substantial, but the numbers represent only the early stage of the release, and the audience for HFR could drop more quickly than 3D or 2D.
If blogs fairly represent public opinion, the audience reaction to HFR is all over the map. To be sure, Hobbit has other issues weighing against it that could cloud judgment about HFR, pace of the story not being the least of them. But the movie reveals how hard it is to shoot an HFR movie. As the image on screen becomes sharper, or more immersive as some would say, the demand on the set designer to successfully create illusion increases substantially. Makeup and lighting have to be improved. In turn, this increases the cost of production. The sheer weight of shooting 48fps 3D quadruples the amount of data to store and process in post over a 2D 24fps shoot. Increased costs are justifiable for a blockbuster from a major director. But those who think HFR 3D will take over mainstream cinema are likely to be waiting a long time.
Directors like the idea of HFR for its ability to capture fast motion. Technology has opened Pandora’s box, so to speak. With digital projection now possible in the cinema, we see this in both picture and sound. Now that technology allows the director to explore frame rates higher than 24fps, a very possible outcome for many directors could be that the tradeoffs required of 24fps capture are reasonable. At heart, the industry is exploring “cinema without walls,” as visual effects expert and ASC member David Stump calls it. While the walls of technology are disappearing, it’s now up to cinematographers and directors to determine where the artificial walls are best set.
The next test for HFR 3D will come in a year, when the first Hobbit sequel is released. We can bet that HFR will be the subject of debate throughout 2013. But the degree to which exhibitors, and thus manufacturers, jump through hoops to make HFR 3D more widely available remains to be seen. With Hobbit, and its subsequent releases, it remains to be seen if HFR 3D is just a novelty, or if it holds up as a revenue generator.