Perhaps the most surprising part of The Hobbit’s venture into the land of high frame rates is that Warner hasn’t released any box office figure for the HFR 3D version of the movie. It’s not as if they don’t know them. At the ICTA conference this month, it seemed apparent that everyone else did.
In spite of the underwhelming introduction of HFR to cinema, no matter how one connects the dots, it isn’t going away. Hobbit underwhelmed in many areas. There are plenty of directors and cinematographers who feel they can better exploit the format by using different cameras, lensing, lighting, sets, makeup…did we leave anything out?
And then, of course, there’s the second release of The Hobbit later this year. Had HFR been rolled out with a lesser movie, as with 3D and Chicken Little in 2005, there would be a lot less at risk for both distributors and exhibitors. The high profile of Hobbit introduces a lot of complication for a new format. First, the segmented box office for HFR 3D wasn’t compelling, making it difficult to justify the huge effort required to roll out the format. A lesser movie could have rolled out to fewer screens, with less risk. (Hobbit in HFR 3D rolled out to nearly 1000 screens, while Chicken Little in 3D played on less than 90 screens.) Second, audience reaction was all over the map, which only validates the format as a novelty. Novelties are good, in that they keep cinema in the spotlight. But more work is needed to feed the press with a positive light on the format. A few misguided tweets from Australia took over the bulk of the press when the movie was released, and Warner did too little to offset that. The most troubling part is that Warner continues to do too little to build a positive perception. Holding back on numbers is one example, which could be leveraged to spin a favorable outlook for the format. And that leads to the third point, which is that of justification of investment. This is a topic worthy of expansion.
The investment required of HFR-capable equipment is not as clear-cut as with 3D. It was relatively easy to roll-out 3D as the 48fps projection rate needed to enable the format was already specified in the DCI specification. Even though DCI had not envisioned 3D, and did not include it in its specification, it was possible to add-on 3D capability with little more than software changes to the projection equipment.
Not so with HFR. HFR capability does not fit within the parameters of the DCI specification. Besides requiring a higher frame rate than DCI, it requires a higher compression bit rate than that specified by DCI. This was evident in the struggle experienced by Warner to get the movie to play on nearly 1000 screens. While the makers of IMB hardware universally claimed they could handle content with data rates up to 500Mb/s, the actual reliable throughput of entire playback systems were found to be less. As a result, the 450Mbps version of Hobbit HFR 3D was unable to play on many systems.
This underscores the dilemma of timing of investment. Is the equipment on the market the right equipment? If you’re an exhibitor, is it worth paying for upgrades? If you’re a manufacturer, is this the right time to invest in further R&D for HFR?
A quick review of the technology will be useful. Hobbit was released in 48fps 3D, versus the 24fps 3D of all other 3D releases. The argument for higher frame rates is that it allows faster camera pans by reducing motion blur. (This doesn’t explain the differences noted in the look of Hobbit with still imagery, which most cinematographers would trace to the use of the Red camera, deep focus, and lighting.) At one time, Cameron wanted to release the next Avatar in 60fps 3D, building on the stunning look of Doug Trumbull’s Showscan format of the 80’s. But if current equipment can’t handle 48fps 3D well due to data bit rate limitations, then it certainly can’t support 60fps 3D.
The real problem is that we don’t know what the bit rate ceiling needs to be. A study is underway, but that won’t produce results until the end of 2013, at best. The study will generate support from the creative community, and without that support, exhibitors are at risk in making further investment. This is also the case for manufacturers, who can only guess at where the limit should be. Higher bit rates come at a cost. A cost in R&D, a cost in real component prices, a cost in upgrading existing equipment.
The cost of upgrades can be justified if it results in increased box office. But if Warner continues to underwhelm the public with positive press on HFR 3D, then the question the industry will be asking itself is “why bother?” This question will be even more pertinent as we approach the summer, when Warner intends to release a Hobbit trailer in HFR 3D.