New media technologies often cause an allergic reaction when they first appear. We may find them painful before we find them indispensable.
I watched the movie The Hobbit. Twice. First I saw it in its “standard” mode. A day later I returned to see The Hobbit in 3D at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second, called HFR. HFR is a cinematic hi-tech that promises greater realism. It was amazingly real. And disturbing at first.
Because 48 frames per second is just above the threshold that a human eye/brain can detect changes, the projected picture seems startling whole and “smooth,” as if it were uninterrupted reality.
I was surprised though that the movie in 48HFR looked so different. (The 3D did not have an effect.) Even though both formats were shot with the same cameras and lighting, they appeared to be lighted and shot on different sets. The HFR lighting in the HFR movies seemed harsh, brighter, and more noticeable. The emotional effect of HFR was disturbing for the first 10 minutes. And perplexing — because the only thing different in the two movies was that one was displayed in the 48 frames it was shot at, and the other was computationally reduced down to the normal 24 frames per second. Why would the frame rate distort the lighting and the emotion?
I was not the only one who noticed. The HFR version of the Hobbit — the first commercial movie to be released in this new format — stirred up howls from the critics. Very few filmish people liked what they saw. For most it was painful. The reviewers struggle to express what HFR looked like and why:
“Audiences looking for a rich, textured, cinematic experience will be put off and disconcerted by an image that looks more like an advanced version of high definition television than a traditional movie.” – Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times
“One thing The Hobbit is not is a celebration of the beauty of film. A celebration of video-game realms, perhaps.” – Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
All kinds of ailments were ascribed to it, including hard of hearing:
“I can honestly say I had a harder time hearing some of the dialogue in the 3D HFR version than in the 2D… It was like watching really, really, really atrociously bad state run TV show……High frame rates belong on bad TV shows and perhaps sports.” — Vincent Laforet, Gizmodo
My first impression, too, was that HFR reminded me of my first look at video. That theme was repeated by many. But what is it about video that we didn’t like at first?
“Those high frame rates are great for reality television, and we accept them because we know these things are real. We’re always going to associate high frame rates with something that’s not acted, and our brains are always going to associate low frame rates with something that is not. If they’re seeing something artificial and it starts to approach something looking real, they begin to inherently psychologically reject it.” — James Kerwin, Movieline
“Instead of the romantic illusion of film, we see the sets and makeup for what they are. The effect is like stepping into a diorama alongside the actors, which is not as pleasant as it might sound… Never bet against innovation, but this debut does not promise great things to come.” – C. Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
What’s going on here? I really struggled to figure out what was happening to my own eyes and my perception that something as simple as changing a frame rate would trigger such drastic re-evaluations of cinema?
I researched on the web without much satisfaction, since few people had actually seen 48HFR. I asked a few friends in the advance cinema industry and got unsatisfactory answers. Then I was at a party with a friend from Pixar and asked him my question: why does HFR change the appearance of the lighting? He also could not tell me, but the man next to him could. He was John Knoll, the co-creator of Photoshop and the Oscar-winning Visual Effects Director for a string of technically innovative Hollywood blockbusters as long as my arm. He knew. I’ll put his answer into my own words:
Imagine you had the lucky privilege to be invited by Peter Jackson onto the set of the Hobbit. You were standing right off to the side while they filmed Bilbo Baggins in his cute hobbit home. Standing there on the set you would notice the incredibly harsh lighting pouring down on Bilbo’s figure. It would be obviously fake. And you would see the makeup on Bilbo’s in the harsh light. The text-book reason filmmakers add makeup to actors and then light them brightly is that film is not as sensitive as the human eye, so these aids compensated for the film’s deficiencies of being insensitive to low light and needing the extra contrast provided by makeup. These fakeries were added to “correct” film so it seemed more like we saw. But now that 48HFR and hi-definition video mimic our eyes better, it’s like we are standing on the set, and we suddenly notice the artifice of the previously needed aids. When we view the video in “standard” format, the lighting correctly compensates, but when we see it in high frame rate, we see the artifice of the lighting as if we were standing there on the set.
Knoll asked me, “You probably only noticed the odd lighting in the interior scenes, not in the outdoors scenes, right?” And once he asked it this way, I realized he was right. The scenes in the HFR version that seemed odd were all inside. The landscape scenes were stunning in a good way. “That’s because they didn’t have to light the outside; the real lighting is all that was needed, so nothing seemed amiss.”
Now some of the complaints make sense:
“While striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film an oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins’ home.” – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
“Instead of feeling like we’ve been transported to Middle-earth, it’s as if we’ve dropped in on Jackson’s New Zealand set…” – Scott Foundas, Village Voice
As digital recording continues to increase in resolution, fluidity, and sensitivity, this verisimilitude with “being in the set” will also increase. John Knoll wisely predicts that his industry will quickly learn that they have to abandoned the old style of lighting, and also increase the realism in such things as props and special effects. “I liked the HFR version,” he said. “We are going to see a lot more of it.”
But that is not what the filmish people want. They like the less sensitive, blurry style of film better. One critic even suggested that directors should use soft-focus filters to debase the clarity of the new digital recordings and restore the “painterly” aspect of classic films.
“Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction.” – A.O.Scott, The New York Times
“At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it’s like watching live theater. That close-up perspective also brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film. Like the warmth of analog vinyl vs. the precision of digital music, the dreaminess of traditional film vs. the crispness of high-frame rates will be a matter of taste.” – Associated Press
I told Knoll that these complaints about the sterility of the new digital format reminded me of the arguments against CD music albums. Digital was “too clear” “too clinical” not “warm and fuzzy enough” according to audiophiles. CDs missed the musical ambiance, the painterly soul of a song. The critics were not going to buy CDs and the labels would have to pry their beloved analog vinyl albums from their dead hands. Of course, for average music fans, the clear hiss-free quality of CDs were soon perceived as much superior, particularly as the “frame” rate of the digital sampling increased past the point of most ear’s perception. “That’s exactly what it is like, ” exclaimed Knoll. HFR is the CD of movies right now.
This pattern of initial irritation followed by embrace has been found in other media introductions. When the realism of photography first appeared, artists favored soft lenses to keep the photos “painterly.” Drastic sharpness was startling, “unnatural” to art, and looked odd. Over time of course, the sharp details became the main point of photography.
Color TV, technicolor, and Kodakchrome all had its detractors who found a purity and monumentalism in black and white. Color was all too gaudy, distracting and touristy, not unlike the criticism of HFR now.
I predict that on each step towards increased realism new media take, there will be those who find the step physically painful. It will hurt their eyes, ears, nose, touch,and peace of mind. It will seem unnecessarily raw, ruining the art behind the work. This disturbance is not entirely in our heads, because we train our bodies to react to media, and when it changes, it FEELS different. There may be moments of uncomfort.
But in the end we tend to crave the realism — when it has been mastered — and will make our home in it.
The scratchy sound of vinyl, the soft focus of a Kodak Brownie, and the flickers of a 24 frame per second movie will all be used to time-stamp a work of nostalgia.