Boiling Point

Yesterday on Twitter a minor spat broke out, as is often the case when people type things on the internet. Participants included our own @FakeRobHunter, FEARNet writer @ScottEWeinberg, Movies.com editor @PeterSHall, and many others who chimed in. What was the topic of the day? The Hobbit and its 48FPS presentation.

Firstly, background: As you probably heard or just recently put together from the previous sentence, The Hobbit was filmed in and will be projected at 48 frames per second, which is something new for the big screen, at least on this scale. Movies generally run at 24FPS and have been running at that rate for the last 80 years (give or take).

By doubling the frame rate, Peter Jackson hoped to eliminate a blurring effect that happens during quick movement and action at 24FPS, but in doing so, creates an unusual experience, one of super smooth motion that has been described as either looking “realistic” or “like shit.”

You’ve probably seen something close to this either on your TV at home or at a big box store that was playing some demo movies. If you have a fairly recent TV, it probably has a “Sport Mode” that adjusts the refresh rate up from the standard broadcast rate of 60hz to 120hz. You probably turned this off on your TV at home or never had it on in the first place, but the look is often described as the “soap opera effect” in that the motion and picture just don’t look like what film is “supposed” to look like.

When The Hobbit first screened footage at the higher frame rate, reaction ranged from mixed to “it sucks” because people aren’t accustomed to seeing films projected and filmed in this manner. I’d say you can’t argue personal taste and if most people don’t like the look, that’s how they feel, despite the fact that in technical terms, one is producing a “better” image.

Now that you’re up to speed, the question raised on Twitter tonight asks: should critics mention the format as a negative? That is, in a review, do you hold the fact that the film was presented at 48 FPS against it. On one side of the argument the answer is no – the movie is more than the sum of its parts. There is story, acting, and all sorts of other stuff happening. Further, one could go see the film presented in regular 3D or regular 2D. So why mention the frame rate?

 

On the other, this is what we’re shown. If someone gives a finished product that isn’t presented well, you address that. A book is a book and a story is a story, but if I handed you a stone tablet with crayon words on it, you’d be remiss to not mention the drawbacks of that format compared to say, paper. I can understand the argument against holding the presentation against the film. After all, there are other options. If I’m reading a book, I care about the story primarily. To me, there isn’t much of a difference from a Kindle version and a print version. It’s the same story.

That said, film is an entirely different medium that is dependent on many parts coming together flawlessly. Critics often address technical issues with film – boom mics in shots, poor audio, dark picture, etc. Anytime someone describes a film as looking beautiful, we’re talking about the cinematography. In talking about The Hobbit, if one doesn’t like the look of the film they are again talking about the cinematography.

This isn’t the difference between watching a film on Netflix on a computer and watching it in a theater – there, things are pretty much the same. Of course the resolution may be lower on the computer, but the presentation is the same – there is no difference in the picture or the audio from the source, only from the delivery method: computer vs theater. With The Hobbit, this is not the case. What you are seeing are basically two different experiences. One of them is presented in the way we normally see films while the other is presented in a way that many people simply don’t seem to enjoy.

Can this film be reviewed independently of the cinematography and projection? Of course. The story is the same. The action is the same. The acting and costumes are the same. A review can talk about the film without talking about the presentation – but that would be a glaring mistake in the case of The Hobbit.

If a film is presented in 3D, I personally want to know if the 3D is executed well. Of course I can see the same story in 2D, but the filmmaker wanted to show me the film in 3D, therefore I have an interest in knowing whether or not the presentation works.

In this case, Jackson wants you to see this adaptation in 3D at 48 FPS. That’s why he filmed it this way. That was a decision on his part, the same as lightning, staging, and costuming, things that we all feel free to critique in a “normal” film.

So the long and short of it is – yes, it’s okay to be critical of any aspect of a film, up to and including the presentation method, as long as that comes from the source. If you go to a theater with shitty picture and shitty sound, you can’t say the movie looked bad without noting that it was a local problem. The projection looked bad. The movie probably looked great. However, in this instance, the source is where the change is – it’s either 48 FPS or 24 FPS. Two very different looks.

And then there’s always this:

 

For the record, I think 48 FPS looks like smooth baby ass and unnatural as hell. I don’t enjoy it and I don’t want to see it, but hey, some people hate 3D and some people love it. That’s the way it is. But in terms of discussion, all the parts of the film and the sum of those parts that create the complete experience are fair game for criticism. A movie, to be great, must fire on all cylinders, from the art department to the sound to the cinematography. To suggest some areas of the film are off limits to criticism pushes me past my boiling point.


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