The Low Down on High Frame Rate (HFR) in The Hobbit

HobbitSquareWhatever your views on Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth for the first time since completing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or his decision to split the comparatively slimline The Hobbit into three films, rather than the two originally announced, the most controversial aspect of the film’s release must surely be the choice of the High Frame Rate (HFR) film format, which captures and projects at 48 frames per second, twice the frame rate of normal film.

Based on my first viewing of the first part of the trilogy at the higher frame rate, I would make the following observations:

1. The faster frame rate jeopardises the suspension of disbelief required for a film like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, throwing the audience out of the action in the way that 1960s back projection does when viewed on Blu-ray.

2. Scenes filmed in a studio look more obviously studio-bound, a further threat to the audience’s suspension of disbelief. I would liken this aspect to the feeling of watching a television show filmed on a studio set which you have personally visited.

3. Whenever the camera moves faster than a slow creep, the higher frame rate accentuates the movement, drawing the audience’s attention to the camera’s presence.

4. Despite the film’s use of 3D, the action scenes – especially fights – appear ‘flat’, giving them the feel of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who.

5. Fire, both digital and natural (practical), doesn’t look quite right at the higher frame rate.

6. Water droplets appear even less natural, looking as they do in high-speed photography, rather than having the smoother flow as seen with the naked eye.

7. Although the reduced motion blur offered by HFR arguably captures an increased level of nuance in stronger performances (something visible whenever watching Sir Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett), the shortcomings of weaker performances (Richard Armitage’s comes to mind – it’s a pity Sean Bean had already played Boromir) are more vividly revealed.

8. Some say HFR’s sharper image exposes weaknesses in the special effects, or hair and makeup work, although I didn’t notice any of this on first viewing – on the contrary, I felt that every department had risen to the challenge of HFR. That said, Elijah Wood – who has aged a decade since making The Lord of the Rings – has had his skin smoothed out so much he looks more like Michael Jackson than Frodo Baggins.

Personally, although it may well lend itself beautifully to nature films such as the BBC’s Planet Earth, I couldn’t see any upside to the use of HFR for this kind of film; on the contrary, fantasy or science fiction films (such as The Hobbit and the forthcoming HFR Avatar sequels) might actually be the worst kind of films to shoot at a higher frame rate, since those kinds of films require us to suspend disbelief more so than more down-to-earth subject matters.

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