“I can’t understand anyone with a real interest in cinema avoiding The Hobbit in HFR. It has to be seen; 48fps is a new way of looking at Middle-Earth, and at movies.” – Russ Fischer, Slash Film
It seems the divisive points of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have changed. No longer is the case for or against a fourth Lord of the Rings film under scrutiny. Nor is it the fact a 300-page book has been split over three films.
As you’ll hear on a forthcoming episode of 35mm Heroes, I wasn’t a big fan of high frame rate (HFR). Having spent about 20-25 minutes trying to watch The Hobbit this way, I walked out and grabbed a ticket to the regular-rate screening in the theatre next door. I’d taken the HFR Pepsi challenge and decided to have a Coke and a smile instead. But after my adventure in Middle Earth, I found there were many others like me who were asking ‘why does HFR look sped up?’ and were stunned at how this incredibly un-cinematic format was being pushed as ‘the future of movies’.
I was amazed at just how ugly everything looked. Imposing fortresses reduced to the cheap plastic look of a second-hand He-Man playset, outdoor scenes that felt swiped from the cutting room floor of BBC One’s Merlin and the once warm and welcoming Shire seeming more like an unkempt version of Tellytubbyland. But more than this, the whole thing just felt incredibly wonky, especially when it came to how characters moved and expressed themselves physically.
In one early scene, for example, Gandalf chastises Bilbo (Martin Freeman) for his negative take on ‘adventure’, causing him to respond with some peculiar facial movements which look like he’s having some sort of seizure. But when viewing the moment again in standard rate, you can see this simple, quirky expression for exactly what it actually is. It doesn’t look weird; in fact it’s quite amusing. After that, any quick walking, fast hand movements and moments where actors are required to emote, just look as if they’ve been sped up. It’s downright distracting.
I had no intention of committing my thoughts on HFR to a post. That is, until I happened upon an article from Russ Fischer of Slash Film (I won’t provide a link, as I have no interest in helping the site prop up its metrics in any way, no matter how small). I’ve talked to friends and followers before about how this dislikeable site will hit-bait with ‘news’ headlines based on rumour and I’ve ignored the ugly way it posts links every day to just one online retailer under the guise of doing so ‘for us geeks’. What I won’t put up with though, is being told that my opinion – and apparently that of many others – isn’t valid.
We’re informed by Fischer’s article that HFR is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in a theatre. It eliminates motion blur and increases clarity, with the only downside being that it “doesn’t look exactly like cinema”. He points out that HFR allows the viewer to pick apart every detail in a scene, with wigs, prosthetic ears and custom-made clothing all highlighted as “impossible to miss”. And yet, Fischer pouts, there are “cinephiles” and “naysayers” out there who have claimed this makes The Hobbit look cheap. An opinion, he has decided, is “absurd”.
“Anyone who knows even a bit about film production can see, with astounding clarity, that The Hobbit is not cheap.” Yes, and anyone who hasn’t recently crawled out of a swamp could probably assume the same thing. But that’s really not the point is it Russ? The vast majority of people who watch a blockbuster of this nature would probably admit they don’t know much about film production. They don’t know the difference between TV lighting and film lighting (luckily Russ does, a massive relief for us all I’m sure) and I don’t believe for a second they should. I would say that for most people even aware of HFR, all they know is there’s “a new way of looking at Middle-Earth” being sold – and they’re willing to buy it.
There are, of course, basic expectations that come with a Lord of the Rings movie. People will expect a luscious fantasy epic depicting strange beautiful worlds and terrifying creatures. One can probably assume – unless talking about uneducated swamp scum with no knowledge of film production – that the picture will even have been made on a big budget. If a new technology has been applied to the film which renders it with a horrible to the eye, which in my apparently ridiculous opinion it does, I think we have a right to say so without being told we’re uninformed idiots.
For me, ultra-awareness of all the things that comprise a film does not make for an immersive experience. For Russ Fischer, it apparently does. It’s a chance to “lean forward in wonder” while admiring the wigs, make-up and sets that separate fantasy from reality. All of which makes me think his time would be better spent watching a pantomime than a motion picture made by a major Hollywood studio and based on one of the biggest and most popular fantasy novels of all time.
For the most part, when I go to the cinema, it’s to see something cinematic – not televisual. HFR isn’t something I’ll be indulging in again and the reason for this is that it made a huge multi-million dollar movie look cheap. If this was the same experience you had, whether you’re a cinephile or a naysayer, your opinion is not “absurd”.