The Hobbit High Framerate 3D Technology – Experience Breakdown

307796-the-hobbit

See, all those frames completely ruin the movie forever.

I don’t want to discuss The Hobbit from the side of narrative, storytelling or acting.

If you absolutely must know my opinion on it, I liked it a lot, but I’m not interested in justifying it here.

Quick Technology Breakdown

The Hobbit High Framerate technology simply puts more movie-frames per second on screen.

If you don’t know, all film is made up of still frames that are projected quickly one after another to simulate the appearance of movement. The amount of frames per second (FPS) at which a film is recorded and played back governs how we experience the motion on screen. Most agree that a projection of a minimum of 24 FPS is necessary to create movement that is pleasant to look at, smooth and jitter-free to the eye. However, this is not to say that 24 FPS is the optimal number or even the maximum number.

The recording process is governed by similar rules, however to different effect.

In the times of yore, before digital was widely available, the shutter of the camera and the recording medium (the film in the camera) dictated how many frames per second can be recorded at a time. A camera captures flat still-shots of reality at quick intervals by letting light through a shutter onto a frame of the medium that receives the light.

The amount of frames per second displayed and recorded has varied wildly throughout film-history.

At the birth of cinema cameras were primitive and a cameraman used a hand-crank to move the roll of film and control the shutter. You can imagine it like the old gatling-guns, you crank the handle, the film-stock moves through the camera and the shutter is synchronized with every frame of film. The faster you crank, the faster the film moves and the faster the shutter snaps pictures onto the film.

Early on cameramen required a great deal of personal skill and a stead hand, you wanted to move the film slow enough for the film to actually take a picture, as the film has its own exposure time (the time it takes to “burn” light into the medium). You also wanted to have the same speed for the entire movie, which using something as crude as a hand-crank was really hard to do. My school had a replica of one of those cameras for demonstration purposes and we each tried to record a few seconds of film, it required a great deal of practice to keep your speed steady and not start dropping frames.

Later of course all of these things got automated and we are now at a point where we don’t even use film-stock anymore but record directly to digital.

With the camera and shutter-speed unbound from its operator, people started recording at higher frame-rates and discovered that if you record at 60FPS but play it back with 30FPS, the objects would move slower on screen. This is how “bullet time” works. However this is not at all what The Hobbit High Framerate Technology does.

The Hobbit is -recorded- at a higher frame-rate and then -projected- at that same higher frame-rate. In essence there is no speed-up or slow-down effect, there is just ~twice as many frames displayed per second than in other movies. The amount of information has changed.

Real Life (TM) also moves at discrete intervals governed by the laws of physics by the way (quantum mechanics and speed of light), its just incredibly faster than we can or will ever be able to perceive with our senses (however clever scientists have a way of demonstrating it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_9vd4HWlVA)

Effectively what High Framerate technology does is to bring more information per second to our own senses, its not just simply a recording at higher framerate, its the projection of that same framerate that is different.

Evaluation

Right at the beginning the experience is quite jarring, we have been conditioned for so long to watch movies at ~30 frames per second that the increased frame-rate makes the movie look odd. This is because through the recording and projection at high framerate we reduce the impact of motion blur (a fault of the medium not being able to record light in short enough intervals).

Simply put, the temporal granularity of the experience is higher, which means that our senses get more information, which in turn means that our brain needs to “fill in” less gaps (something that happens at lower framerates).

The image becomes crisper, sharper, and smoother, for some even an effect of a curious “speed up” (I perceived the first 10 minutes of the movie as running at roughly 1.5x the “normal” speed). It’s however entirely a matter of getting used to the new format.

Some people perceive the movie as “low quality” because we are conditioned towards ~30FPS and associate it with cinema and cinematic experiences. 50FPS for example has been widely used in broadcast TV because the cameras in a tv studio needed to be synchronized with the alternating current of the studio-lights. You see, the alternating current in lightbulbs makes them flicker, it only again is at such quick intervals that its almost imperceivable for the human eye. When one records at lower frame-rates or framerates not synchronized with with the discreet interval of AC, the flickering shows up on screen.

The easiest fix for this was to use AC current as a sort of “timer” for shutter-speeds in TV cameras, and so the cameras used 50/60FPS since AC current runs at between 50 and 60Hz (Hertz, cycles per second) in most countries. Now, the TV at home did exactly the same thing to synchronize its received images with the broadcast signal, and so we are used to associate 50/60FPS -projection- with broadcast TV.

However this is only partially only a problem of perception. The high framerate technology is young and this movie is the first to actually utilize it in a theatrical setting, hence there are technical problems and hurdles that need to be taken.

The Problems

I see great potential in the high framerate technology, for one, the 3D was incredibly better than any other 3D I’ve experienced, second, the fidelity and clarity of the images on screen was unmatched by any other movie I’ve recently seen.

Since high framerate puts more information in front of our senses, our brain is far less forgiving when it comes to spotting flaws. Every tiny inconsistency with how reality works is now a thousand times more glaring than it was before.

Most noticeable were scenes with unnatural lighting and studio-lighting effects blending CGI with real actors. The blunder here is that the film is made with contemporary cinematic techniques but uses the new projection technology and that isn’t really optimal.

If you give us this much information we will perceive certain “tricks” the movie industry uses for filming as fake.

Examples:

  • When filming scenes with light-sources that come from a torch or post-pro lights (Bilbo’s Sting, Thorins fight in flames) it was glaringly obvious that the room/character was not in fact illuminated by that light source but by a studio spotlight. In a low framerate situation this isn’t that big of a problem as our brain “substitutes” the experience, but at high framerate it looks “fake”, because it is.
  • Blending real actors action with CGI backdrops and green-screening, this is simply a limitation of our current technology as well as blending effects and ties in with the lighting.
  • Static background matte paintings become so glaringly disconnected from the scenes action that they appear to be a “bubble” where the actors perform in.

New techniques need to be invented to film for high framerate technology, it’s as simple as that.

What Works

High framerate looks positively stunning for everything animated and pure CGI scenes where everything is consistently lit and behaves as one. Every animation studio should have a long hard look at the technology and consider switching to it. (Pixar. pls. Pixar. Pixar, pls.)

Wide panning shots with low granularity between actors and CGI works great for high framerate, it gives an unprecedented depth of experience (Example: The goblin kingdom chase scene, fight at the cliffs, Rivendel).

Naturally lit interiors get a new level of fidelity and you can actually for the first time “see” the beautiful work set-designers do (Example: all caves and interiors).

Hard, colorful and contrast lighting brings out the detail of high framerate and makes the scenes more immersive. (Example: The Dwarve’s song at Bilbo’s house by the fireplace was beautiful)

What Doesn’t

Diffuse studio light as well as “helper spots” and fill lights make the characters look flat and the scenes like home-video. (Example: Forrest area, Radagast plains chase)

Blending actors in sets with wide panning shots of LOD (level of detail) CGI-actors at a distance in quick succession (Example: Radagast plains chase, the party leaving the goblin kingdom)

All forms of simple 2D matte-painting backdrops. (Example: blurry land underneath the cliff at the last fight scene)

Studio lighting tricks. Using spots to illuminate rooms that should be illuminated by natural light (Example: Dwarf walking into a cave with a torch, cave illuminates with flat orange light not coming from the torch)

How To Improve It

When I was looking at the problem of CGI vs real actors as well as static matte paintings, I had the same experience as playing an old game that had a really shitty skybox. The one where you could tell that the mountain in the distance was a really low-res JPG.

I submit that the directors and craftsmen should look towards video games and how they handle distance, lighting and how the experience has improved over the years. After all, video games have been using high framerates forever now and have solutions to the problems plaguing cinematic high framerate that might be of help.

Especially how games handle LOD, skyboxes and depth (DOF) should be looked at and taken into consideration when crafting new cinematic approaches to filming for high framerate.

Summary

High Framerate Technology for cinema is just making its first baby-steps and the product is clearly flawed and incomplete, but the potential inherent in it for immersion and experience should not be underestimated.

It’s the same problems movies had whenever a new technology was introduces that created a paradigm shift for the audience, like the very first sound in movies.

If you watch Kurosawas Seven Samurai you can tell that “fake” studio sounds were introduced and that the dialogue was clearly dubbed over, generally the whole  movie feels disconnected from its sound-scape. It is only after constant refinement and iteration that current Foley artist are able to make immersive soundscapes for movies even though almost none of the sound is actually recorded while filming the action. Punches are thrown, cars whiz by, people chatter, its all fake sound effects added to the movie later, yet it feels immersive and coherent.

The same has to be done for High Framerate Technology, new techniques for filming have to be invented and old studio-tricks iterated upon to make the experience coherent.

Honestly, I do not understand the harsh backlash from critics and industry for the technology. High Framerate or 3D does not ruin The Hobbit any way more than sound did for Seven Samurai (and no I’m not comparing The Hobbit to Seven Samurai, so stop shouting at the screen), especially since its completely optional in the first place.

I would even argue that through its flaws of high framerate The Hobbit becomes an artistically distinct and interesting experience. It’s like watching an old-school adventure, you know the B-movie-ish sword and sorcery ones that were aplenty in the 80s.

In a way, those flaws work -in favor- of the film, the story isn’t nearly as “doom and gloom epic” as LoTR and Tolkiens cheese is easier to swallow that way.

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