HFR (or why it needs to improve before I’ll chance it again…)

(I know I’ve been lax of late, so apologies. Rather than deal with the backlog of film I’ve not commented on – Brave, Dredd & Skyfall mainly – I thought I’d start the New Year by commenting on The Hobbit. However, one issue so shaped my initial impressions of it – generally poor – that I’ve had to separate it from the main commentary. Suffice to say, a second viewing with the contentious issue removed has changed my opinion greatly, the second viewing was not of the same film as far as I’m concerned.)

It seems somewhat negative to start the year with this as a resolution (it isn’t the only one, but…) but I swear never to see another film in HFR (Higher Frame Rate for those unaware of the acronym) until they’ve sorted out the technical & artistic issues it raises. Yes, I can see the appeal of it, but on the strength of what I’ve seen so far I’ll be sticking with 24fps for the foreseeable future.

Now, to show I’m not a hoary old fart stuck in his ways I’ll interject that of the films I’ve seen in 3D, those actually shot in the format have looked universally superb, so I don’t think that I’m particularly stuck in the past. Yes, my favourite film of last year was shot in black & white at a ration of 1:33, but that’s besides the point. 3D is here to stay, many top flight directors are now using it as another tool in their arsenal (Hugo proved what could be done with the format) to expand the language – although it is noticeable that the best films avoid gimmickry or “poking the audiences eye out”.

Why am I wittering on about this? As many are probably aware, The Hobbit is the first large scale commercial release to be issued at a greater than 24 fps frame rate (48fps to be precise). Apparently this gives greater clarity to the picture as well as removing motion blur – unfortunately it also appears to eliminate any sense of artistry at the moment, removing all sense of depth, focus & colour graduation from the image. Simply put, it looks wrong to what we’ve been trained to expect at the cinema.

Having seen it in both formats (although not both in 3D), the “normal” version appeared to at least belong in the same established universe rather than being a highly colourised version of events that the HFR version presented. HFR may give greater clarity (I’ll admit that certain external shots looked nothing short of glorious), but for the most part it highlighted imperfections and took away the ability to focus on the prominent point of the screen – quite simply put there was too much information for you to decide what was important, leaving the eye to wander away from what we should have been watching.

Now, there are occasions on which I could see this being of benefit – documentaries would look glorious (indeed, true IMAX, shot at 120fps does) because it’s not trying to blend reality & fiction, but at present I don’t believe it’s suited to fiction until directors & photographers learn how to use light & colour in the new frame created. Simply put, it’s like the early days of colour – they need to learn what does and doesn’t work. Likewise, effect teams need to up their game to deal with the issues created. Give the technology to Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders and let them shoot reality, they’ll get my money I promise. Just leave it away from fiction where an atmosphere is trying to be created rather than verity.

Other directors are looking at it (James Cameron is looking at shooting the Avatar sequels at 60fps), but I feel it needs to find its feet amongst smaller scale films at present, ones less reliant on visual spectacle. Until that time I think I’ll be sticking with the standard rate, based on the difference I’ve seen so far (it felt like a completely different film the second time, issues regarding timing, narrative & acting all disappeared) until I’m convinced otherwise.

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