copious notes

Rich Copley: High-frame-rate 'Hobbit' gets two thumbs up

Herald-Leader Culture Columnist,Rich CopleyJanuary 6, 2013 

When I was reviewing movies, I always tried to avoid reading other reviews until I had seen and written my own.

Since we have retired in-house movie reviewing here at the Herald-Leader, I am more inclined to read — no, devour — reviews to help me make my movie-going choices.

But I was happy that I never got to reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey until after seeing the movie. Like a lot of critics, I liked the movie but thought it was an hour too long and felt like part one of a book hacked into three pieces.

But when it comes to its high-frame-rate presentation, my thumbs are up.

The Hobbit is the first feature film to be released in high frame rate, or HFR, in which the film is shown at twice the standard speed of 24 frames a second, the industry standard for about 80 years. The technology was developed nearly three decades ago but languished in specialty projects until director Peter Jackson embraced it for his return to Middle-earth. The idea is that the quicker frame rate, more common to video, creates a much more realistic look, and a more visceral experience for the viewer.

In some reading I did about The Hobbit, Jackson said that was how it was intended to be seen: in high-frame-rate 3-D.

If that's how Jackson intended it, I was going to give it a try. And it was mesmerizing.

(It is being shown that way in a limited number of theaters, locally at Cinemark Fayette Mall only. There is also a digital 3-D version and standard 2-D version.)

With their crispness and detail, the first scenes inside Bilbo Baggins' home had me feeling as if I was looking into a window. Scenes such as Bilbo's encounter with Gollum and the final battle with the Orcs — creatures that don't need to be hyper realistic to be incredibly scary — were stunning in their immediacy.

No, it really didn't have a "film" look. It did look like something quite new, but also quite advanced, making J.R.R. Tolkien's world seem tangible.

And then there were frames that were just flat-out gorgeous, particularly in Rivendell.

Some others viewer have not been big fans. Numerous critics found the hyper- realism distracting and thought the movie looked like a video game or a high-definition television presentation of a live event.

I'm not much of a gamer, and my old Sony Trinitron still works fine, which is why I haven't upgraded to HD. So neither of those things bugged me. The free translation of a lot of the criticisms, including that it looked like soap operas and Thomas Kinkade paintings, was that "it looked cheap."

One critic tried theater jumping between 2-D, 3-D and HFR 3-D and said he found the two standard versions more compelling, while in the high-frame-rate theater he was paying more attention to the visuals than the story.

I'll concede, it looked different. It did not look like any live-action movie I had ever seen in a theater, but it worked for me.

Will it become a standard? Who knows?

One of the things that made it possible to release a feature in HFR was digital projection; theaters did not have to buy specialty projectors that once would have been necessary to show actual film in the format. In all aspects of filmmaking, digital has given filmmakers much more latitude to experiment and create. All movies have styles and color palettes, some more obvious than others. Some filmmakers even choose to shoot in black-and-white.

Contemplating The Hobbit made me think about Zero Dark Thirty, the Kathryn Bigelow film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, scheduled to open nationwide next week. It has been called documentary in feel. How might an HFR presentation reinforce that? Where else could that be applied as a style? Would we want it to become a standard?

We probably know as much about the future of high-frame-rate filmmaking as we knew about Technicolor and Smell-O-Vision — both formats that had plenty of critics — when they debuted. We know one did extremely well, and one ... not so much.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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