48 Hz, Don’t It?

Film The Hobbit at high frame rates/That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates.

Tonight I saw An Unexpected Journey again, this time in the 48 frame-per-second version. Ultimately, I liked it, and in fact I’d say I prefer it to the 24 fps version. That just seemed like a “lesser” Lord of the Rings movie — because of the tone and subject matter, not the filmmaking. The higher frame rate version makes it feel definitively like its own thing.

Most of the complaints I’ve read about the higher frame rate are true. It’s not the breath-taking (or in some cases, nauseating) clarity that some writers were talking about, but the difference is most definitely noticeable. And yes, it does overall look cheaper. The CGI in some scenes doesn’t blend as well with the live action; the lower frame rate blurs the hard edges. A few of the dwarves’ hair and make-up is distractingly unconvincing. And some of the costumes, especially Gandalf’s hat, felt very much like costumes instead of clothing the characters would naturally be wearing.

On top of that, the look of the movie kept sparking connections throughout, as I tried to think of exactly what a particular scene reminded me of. I think the “telenovela” comparison I’ve heard a few times is just a cheap shot, but I was reminded of lots of different things I’d seen before, none of which were “movie that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make.” The flashback scenes look like History Channel documentary re-enactments. The scenes of the group walking across the countryside looked a bit like PBS travel shows. All the scenes at Bag End felt like watching a play, but from on the stage. Shots of Rivendell alternated between “matte painting” and “Thomas Kincade painting.” Any scene with Azog The Defiler looked like an ad or cutscene for Diablo or World of Warcraft. Most of the rest looked like a late-80s or mid-90s BBC miniseries.

In general, the traditional 24 fps version was more consistent in look: everything was clearly part of the same movie. The CGI was all at the same level (except maybe the outskirts of the busiest scenes in the goblin lair). All the characters looked as if they belonged together. The lower frame rate really does smooth over all the imperfections.

So if that’s the case, why do I prefer the higher frame rate? Because while the increased clarity both highlights the movie’s faults and connotes a ton of emphatically non-cinematic sources like soap operas and Renaissance faires, it more than makes up for it in one major aspect: presence. I felt a lot more engaged this time, because I felt that I was there, watching it “live.” It never felt more real than the other version; I was always completely aware that I was watching a performance. But it did feel more like watching a performance instead of watching a movie.

It was not entirely unlike those ads for Fathom Entertainment broadcasting live opera performances in theaters. It’s somewhere between play and movie, not as intimate as the former but not quite as distancing as the latter. There are a few sequences — in particular, when Bilbo is putting on his clothes and gathering his gear to sneak out of a cave while the dwarves are sleeping — that use quick cuts to suggest the passage of time. And in the higher frame rate version, those sequences are jarring. There’s an overwhelming sense that the scene is playing out live in front of you, but Bilbo was jumping forward in time, like the little girl coming out of the TV screen in The Ring. It suggests that this kind of filmmaking really does have a different “language” than the more traditional kind; what seemed perfectly natural at 24 fps is weird at 48.

To anyone who was only going to see the movie once, I’d recommend the higher frame rate one. Even if you end up absolutely hating it, it’s still a more distinctive and I think interesting experience than watching the more traditional style. I felt as if so many details were more noticeable. And the technical achievements that I’d just taken for granted previously, stood out as so much more impressive: seamlessly dealing with the varying sizes of dwarves, hobbits, and humans all interacting with each other; the CG trolls interacting with the live actors; and most impressive of all, the scene with Bilbo and Gollum. THe whole riddle contest was impressive at 24 fps; in the increased clarity of the high frame rate version, it’s an absolute tour de force.

A few things I noticed this go around, unrelated to the high frame rate thing:

  • They had a goblin deliver the obligatory Wilhelm Scream. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for one of the dwarves during any one of the 1000 scenes in which the dwarves are stumbling or falling off of things?
  • At Rivendell, Galadriel asks Gandalf, “Why the halfling?” and it always sounds vaguely dirty, like some weird innuendo. But that’s probably just me.
  • Gandalf at one point mentions “Middle Earth,” but I always thought that none of the characters themselves used that term.
  • In the movie, Thorin Oakenshield looks a little bit like my friend Jeff. He doesn’t in any of the stills, though.
  • The first time I saw it, I was undecided as to whether Radagast the Brown’s face was covered in lichen, or bird shit. In the higher frame rate version, it’s clearly bird shit.

4 thoughts on “48 Hz, Don’t It?”

  1. Were the sizes really consistent? Of course I have no way to tell for sure, but for both Elena and me the relative sizes felt like they were different from scene to scene.

  2. I saw 48hz, but not the 24. In general I’d say my feelings were similar to yours, but without the other version to back it up. It definitely made the whole movie feel like a unique experience, and highlighted the character acting significantly (for better or worse). Overall, glad I saw it at the high frame rate, and given the opportunity I will likely do so with the future installments.

    Also, if I know my lore right, I think it does make sense for Gandalf or any of the other wizards to refer to it as Middle Earth, whereas none of the other characters would. Possibly one of the really high elves like Galadriel, since she had been to the west-lands before as well.

  3. I think we’re basically on the same page about the 48Hz stuff. You see what I’m saying, though, that it would be interesting to see a non-effects-driven film in that format? The flaws almost all revolved around makeup, CGI, stuff that was inherent to The Hobbit.

    I could see 48Hz being very effective in a not-too-heavy-on-effects horror film. (Like, since you mentioned it, The Ring.)

  4. Jesse: I thought they were consistent in The Hobbit, but I kept noticing inconsistencies in The Lord of the Rings movies. It’s something that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time I saw it, but the 48 fps kind of draws your attention to it: how much smaller Bilbo is than the dwarves, and then how much smaller they all are than Gandalf and the elves.

    Will: I always thought that “Middle Earth” was talking about time, not place, which is why characters in that time period wouldn’t use that term. If it’s talking about the place in between the west-lands and whatever else, it makes sense.

    Matt: I do think we’re on the same page about the 48 fps, and in case it didn’t come across, while I can see the flaws, I believe that sense of “presence” more than makes up for it. Somehow I was even more aware that what I was watching wasn’t real, but it felt like it was all happening live.

    I noticed a while ago that when I’m watching Saturday Night Live, even if I’m alone, and a joke doesn’t work, I’ll still give a “courtesy laugh” out loud. Even though I’m watching it on television (on tape delay, no less), I feel like I’m in the audience and need to engage with it. Most of The Hobbit was similar.

    I’m still not quite sold on the idea of a non-effects-driven film in 48 fps, partly because the standout scenes for me were the riddle contest and just afterwards, when Bilbo’s wearing the Ring. I can remember seeing The Fellowship of the Ring and thinking how cool the “Ring world” was, especially during the attack from the Nazgul; seeing it again with that kind of clarity just made it even cooler. When the effect doesn’t work, it’s lousy — the entire scene with the Orcs chasing Radagast’s sleigh just didn’t work at all — but when it does, like with Gollum and to a lesser degree the Trolls, it’s exactly what I go to a fantasy movie to see.

    I think horror movies depend on that feeling of distance to keep them from being absolutely ghoulish; you have to be reminded constantly on some level that it’s happening to someone else or it’s just unpleasant. (It’s why I don’t have any interest in Saw and the like). Maybe something like Cloverfield would’ve benefitted, though. Have you seen [Rec] or the American remake? They emulate video in a lot of scenes.

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