As our own Kirk Hamilton put it, "The Hobbit feels like a video game. That's not a good thing."
Filmed and projected at 48 frames per second, a process that's supposed to revolutionize film, The Hobbit was unbearably jarring to some, like a soap opera or a poorly optimized image on an LED television. So how does that bode for Avatar 2, James Cameron's upcoming epic, which he plans to shoot at 60fps?
You might be surprised, actually.
Peter Sciretta, founder and editor in chief of cinema blog /Film, told me that The Hobbit's incongruous hyper-real look may have resulted from its Frankenstein blend of live and CG footage being presented at the higher frame rate.
You may have guessed that as well; there's often an ugly contrast between CG and real actors and sets, and it stands to reason that that could be exacerbated by the higher frames per second. And even in the 24fps version of The Hobbit, the distractingly colorful world is made uncanny by that contrast.
Games vs. film
But is the higher frame rate really to blame? Sciretta said The Hobbit may have simply been the wrong movie to introduce high frame rate (HFR) film to the masses. Avatar 2 might be a different story, though.
"I think if James Cameron gets his way with Avatar 2 and 3, doing it at 60 frames per second, I think people are going to be blown away," Sciretta said. "Avatar is like an 85 to 90 percent computer-generated world, and I think that's where you will see the comparison to video games."
But unlike in the case of The Hobbit, that comparison may be a compliment when applied to Avatar 2. Video games' frame rates can vary wildly, but even at 60fps, the golden number, they rarely look as uncanny as a HFR film can. That's likely due to the computer-generated nature of video games. So while Avatar 2's higher frame rate could make it look even more like a video game, its reliance on CG over live action footage may ultimately save it from the issues that plague The Hobbit.
Is it really that bad?
On the other hand, Bert Dunk, director of photography and technology supervisor at Toronto's Screen Industry Research and Training Center, told me on the phone that he's not sure what everyone is complaining about. He saw The Hobbit in 48fps, and he loved it. A member of both the Canadian and American Societies of Cinematographers, he's worked extensively with HFR footage, and he seems to have an almost over-the-top adoration for the new format. In fact, Dunk insisted, the experience should only get better as frame rate increases—he explained that even 120fps footage is being tested.
When viewers do experience issues, he said, it's likely due to the way a high frame rate film is being projected, and not a problem with the format itself. The same has been said of 3D, but still, that contention seems at odds with the sheer volume of complaints being leveled at the format. Dunk was adamant that the photography process itself is not to blame, though.
"The more you watch it, the easier it is to watch," he insisted, though even he conceded that ultimately "it's a very personal thing."
The Citizen Kane comparison
Where proponents of HFR cinema like to draw comparisons with the shift from standard to hi-def TVs, which ultimately turned out for the better, Sciretta drew a different parallel: he compared the jump to higher frame rates with Orson Welles' experiments with depth-free cinematography in Citizen Kane. On paper, seeing the entire frame sharp and in focus all at once should be a good thing, but because it doesn't emulate real life, it ultimately proves jarring—much like high fps film and TV.
"The the best parts of The Hobbit in 48 frames per second were the computer-generated action sequences," Sciretta said. "When it's a computer-generated world, for some reason the more frames per second, it does look better." Thus Avatar 2 may succeed where The Hobbit has, to some, at least, failed.
So there you have it. Two experts whose experiences seeing The Hobbit in 48fps couldn't be more different at least agree on one thing: there's a good chance Avatar 2 in 60fps is going to be better. Maybe it will even do for HFR what the first Avatar did for 3D.