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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Learning the Pitfalls of HFR

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Don't make the mistake of paying more for a lower quality theater experience. Here's a look at what HFR really does to your image straight from a cinematographer's mouth...errr...pen...err...whatever.
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Learning the Pitfalls of HFR

Dec 13 2012 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.If you’ve been visiting the site for a while, you’ll recall one of my more viral posts of the year, Why 3D is Destroying Movies.

That article focused partly on the technological hurdles that cinematographers face when shooting a film destined for 3D and 2D formats – hurdles they often fail to realize exist.

With nearly every possible combination of the terms digital, IMAX, 2D, 3D, HFR, and non-HFR, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) is being released in more formats than any other film ever made. It’s also introducing a new variable that, should it become more mainstream, would cause a similar set of cinematographic problems.

“HFR” is short-hand marketer-speak for “high frame rate.” But it affects other variables that the cinematographer should be intimately controlling as well.

The so dubbed HFR is the newcomer to the scene – and has been misunderstood even by many of my industry friends let alone the average moviegoer – [insert faux ‘spoiler alert’] it’s not just about the framerate.

So, here’s a look at what HFR really does to your image straight from a cinematographer’s mouth…errr…pen…err…whatever.

HFR Defined

For the past several decades, almost every film has been released in 24 frames per second – that is 24 individual still images captured and played back in sequence every second to create the illusion of movement. The idea is that you can play film at a faster or slower speed to create a smoother or less smooth image. 24 fps [frames per second] has become a sort of standard to keep the industry consistent.

But it’s not that simple. In the television world, the standard is 25 fps with PAL (used in Europe and others) and 30 fps with NTSC (primarily in the USA). Early digital cameras and many consumer level cameras have also adopted these standards instead of 24 fps. In fact, just a few years ago, professionals would spend thousands of dollars more on a 24 fps camera even if there was an identical version using 30 fps for thousands less. So there have been competing standards for some time.

Gandalf and Galadriel in the first installment of Peter Jackson's version of "The Hobbit" (2012)

Fanboys of 24 fps seem to think it’s better for artistic reasons. A small minority of filmmakers (notably Lord of the Rings and Hobbit director Peter Jackson as well as producer/director James Cameron) have recently been pushing for a move towards higher frame rates because of the smoother motion it allows.

Their argument is that 24 fps was adopted as a standard in the early years (about the same time we added sound to film) as an economical advantage. It was fast enough to allow for persistence of vision, but slow enough to use a minimum of expensive film stock. Today, with digital technology, the savings are much less significant.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that’s the only consideration.

Myth: You can convert 48 fps back to 24 fps if you don’t like HFR

This is a rumor widely perpetuated by the proponents of HFR to comfort the 24 fps “purists” – and it’s exactly what Peter Jackson and Warner Bros. are doing with the non-HFR release of The Hobbit. The claim is that since 48 is exactly twice as many frames as 24, you can shoot 48 frames per second, then throw out half those frames in the edit suite and it’s just as if you shot 24 fps in the first place.

It’s misleading at best. Let’s take a quick look at the process.

One of the variables the cinematographer gets to play with (besides shutter speed) is shutter angle. Shutter angle is a foreign concept to most people, but can roughly be equated to the photographer’s equivalent: shutter speed.

Shutter Speed vs. Shutter Angle

When a photographer snaps a photo, the shutter opens for a set amount of time to expose the image. This is typically measured as a fraction of a second, but can be several seconds in darker conditions or to achieve certain effects. So, a camera might have several settings for shutter speed ranging from, say, 30 seconds to 1/2500 of a second.

A cinematographer deals with exposure a little differently. Instead of using fractions, cinematographers use “degrees” for their moving images. So shutter angle can range from 0 degrees to 360 degrees (confused yet? just think of a circle).

Nearly one hundred percent of the time, cinematographers shoot at a 180 degree shutter angle. This simply means that the length of the exposure for each frame is half the length of the frame. So, if you shoot at 24 fps with a 180 degree shutter angle, your shutter speed would be 1/48. Using that same shutter angle at 48 fps would give a shutter speed of 1/96.

Gandalf in the first installment of Peter Jackson's version of "The Hobbit" (2012)

What happens when you film something at 48 fps using a normal shutter angle (180 degrees) then convert back to 24 fps?

The exposure of each individual frame is still 1/96 of a second in both versions. This would be “correct” for the HFR clip, but would actually be a 90 degree shutter angle in the 24 fps clip. This leads to a jerky effect in the 24 fps version, much like watching a fight with a strobe light. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what 48 fps is supposed to do.

To compensate, the crew of The Hobbit is shooting everything at a 270 degree shutter angle in 48 fps, which doesn’t end up being “normal” in either format.

Simply put, one format doesn’t convert to the other as nicely as those voting for “progress” imply.

Mixed Reactions

The simple answer would be to just choose one format and stick with it. For years, we’ve done just that by adopting the 24 frames per second standard. While filmmakers will endlessly debate their “purist” (traditional 24 fps) vs. “progressive” (soap operatic look of 30 fps, 48 fps, or even higher) takes, we might as well look to the audience for answers.

A select few people have seen The Hobbit as of now. There are three main groups: those filmmakers who are directly attached to the project, a small group of viewers who saw a preview clip at Comic-con, and members of the media who saw the New Zealand première a couple of weeks ago.

(These are our only valid sources for comment on 48 fps questions because all the trailers and other marketing materials were released only in the 24 fps conversion)

Peter Jackson at San Diego Comic-Con 2009

Filmmakers attached to the project have obviously been heralding the new format as revolutionary. However, audiences at Comic-con were not so quick to give their endorsement. In fact, they were so widely and unanimously outspoken against the new “look” that Warner Bros. felt the pressure to widely scale back their initial 48 fps distribution plans. Jackson defended his choice, saying the new look takes about ten minutes to get used to – which is slightly longer than the length of the clip they showed.

The reviewers who saw the New Zealand première weren’t technically allowed to talk about their screening until last week due to the typical embargo period studios place between the screening and the time the press is actually allowed to write about it.

This group had mixed reviews on the 48 fps, although some skepticism is much warranted here as many of the reviewers broke the embargo rules and published early – which naturally could bring unsightly consequences if they didn’t pander to the glowing review of the new look that Warner Bros. and Jackson wanted them to publish.

The Unknown Could be a Plus Side…

One of Jackson’s biggest and potentially most exciting claims is that the HFR actually improves the 3D in the film – making it smoother and less nausea-inducing.

As I don’t shoot 3D features myself, I haven’t done any sort of extensive testing to confirm or rebuttal this, but it will be interesting to hear a wide-spread audience take on this possibility in the weeks to come. There is a definite need for something like that if the 3D craze is to continue.

…But Keep a Healthy Skepticism

Because that is really only a niché use of high-frame rate technology – and using it for any other reason (other that to convert to slow motion) is really an abuse of the technology by someone who doesn’t truly know its purpose. This includes (unfortunately) using it for 2D cuts of films that are also released in 3D (if you haven’t already, see that link to “Why 3D is Destroying Movies” for more on how releasing any film in both formats is inherently a problem).

That said, one of my biggest concerns is that only two big-name film directors have really signed onto this concept at all. Even the studios, who love to turn any tech upgrade into a new market thru clever branding, don’t seem that thrilled.

James Cameron has pushed for a move to a 48 fps (or higher) standard for years now. Peter Jackson has joined the bandwagon more recently, after early tests with The Hobbit convinced him it was feasible. Other than that, no one is using or planning to use HFR in a feature film.

The fact that Cameron has found only one person in support of his push after all these years should be a major red flag. He’s well-known colloquially as perhaps the greatest tech wizard in Hollywood. When he speaks, you’d expect more people to listen if his proposed idea has much merit – and this is exactly what happened with immediacy and great effect right after he spearheaded 3D filmmaking with his release of Avatar (2009).

Notice how shallow the depth of field is in Avatar (2012). This may look okay in 2D, but becomes a jumbled mess in 3D.

Maybe this is part of the problem (brief clip starts at 9:37 – transcript quoted below):

Well I got so desperate on Terminator 2 trying to shorten that film to a manageable length […] I said ‘Wait a minute, do we really need all these frames? If we just took out one frame every second for the entire film, we’d shorten the film by a couple a minutes. Let’s just do it as a test. We’ll take a reel and we’ll take out one frame in every 24.’ And the editors looked at me like I was nuts. […] We took out one frame in every 24 and it was a mess! There were jerks, there were things, there were cuts in the wrong places. You totally saw it, and it just didn’t work. Every one of those individual frames was important. Once you know that as an editor, now you get scared for a while.

James Cameron, “The Cutting Edge”

Keep in mind this was back in the day of actual film stock. So, the reason the editors gave that look probably had something to do with the fact that they literally had to make two physical cuts and a splice every second for an entire reel of film, just to prove to Cameron what they and everyone else already knew – it wasn’t going to work. The ‘idea’ fundamentally destroys the concept of persistence of vision in which moving pictures are based.

Granted that was decades ago, but people still remember it. Given an anecdotal tale like this, it’s not surprising that only one director (and a relatively recent one at that) has joined Cameron in his most recent quest to improve persistence of vision in our theaters by playing with frames once again.

You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

In full disclosure, I am a 24 fps purist much like I’m a 2D purist. However, in both cases, you can tell I completely see the merit of applying these newer technologies to certain niché applications.

The problem with 48 fps is that it only seems to help with 3D acquisition at best and is inherently incompatible with the idea of releasing a 24 fps master, despite what you may have heard to the contrary.

So, filmmakers and cinematographers should be ready to choose one format and stick with it for release (otherwise, they’re creating a similar evil to what pan and scan once was before its thankful demise a decade ago). Despite what studios today are asking of them, they can’t have their cake and eat it too.


Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.


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