I went to see The Hobbit this weekend, but by accident missed out on the 48fps (fps=frames per second) presentation. I went to a local AMC and assumed that the 3D presentation was also the 48fps version. Wasn’t the case, but I decided to stick around for the movie anyway. I’m not sure if I feel compelled to go back again and see the 48fps version just because…well, the movie The Hobbit itself is very slow. I wasn’t bored per say, and I thought it picked up speed in the last 40-50 minutes. But I wasn’t moved enough by the actual movie to really want to see it again.
As far as the frame rate thing goes, what I’ve heard from most people is that I’m not missing out on much. Which I’m sure begs the question, why am I writing an article if I haven’t seen 48fps and have nothing to compare it to. Well, I guess I just feel compelled to write about it anyway because almost everyone I’ve talked to has mixed feelings about the new format. Nobody I know is quite sold on it. The idea seems to be that smoothing out the action makes for more realism, and with the 3D, it’s as if you’re looking through a clear window that is the movie screen and into another world. I’ve had thoughts about this for a little while now. It’s the thing I’ve noticed now with HD televisions when I go to Costco. It’s not as jarring with newer films such as Avatar, but sometimes they’ll play older Black and White films in an HD format, and it just doesn’t feel right. It feels like I’m watching movies on video. I’m not sure what it is about smoothing out the frame rate that’s supposed make movies seem more real. Especially when people buy televisions that convert everything to a smoother frame rate. In my mind at least, doing this is a bit of an insult and a slap to the filmmakers of those original films, because lets say when a person pops in their DVD copy of Citizen Kane on an HDTV and sees all the action smoothed out…well, pardon me, but that’s not the way Kane was meant to be seen. The majority of people buying these TV’s are told this is supposed to be better, but I think it’s sending people the wrong message. Realism is not what the movies are about.
There is something special about films when we see life happening at 24fps. Watching films at this speed, in a way, tells your brain that it‘s not real. It’s a fantasy. I’m not just talking about sci fi movies or fantasy films, but comedies, dramas, and docu-dramas, true stories, etc...the 24fps signals to you that you’re watching something that lives on another plane of existence. We are entering into another world, time, and place. What makes it real to us is the fact that its not real.
A story in itself is not real life. It’s dramatized. We know nobody really talks the way they do in the movies. We have no score accompanying the emotional moments in our lives (except what I play on my ipod in my car). I was watching the end of The Help last night (a great movie btw) and there’s the final scene where Abiline gives Hilly what’s coming to her and tells her the truth about who she is. I love that scene as it plays out, but I thought if that scene were taking place in real life, Hilly would be screaming, talking over Abiline, shouting back in an effort to put her down and not listen to her at all. But Hilly hears every word. And we see the look of horror on her face. Is the scene nessicerily real? No, not really. But we believe its real because it drives our emotions. Only in the movies is that kind of drama possible, when you can watch a scene play out where your worst enemy shuts up and listens. It’s the play acting of it all, and the power of story that makes it real and believable to us. How many thousands of years has storytelling been around? Since the days cave men drew on walls. None of those stick drawings on the wall could ever be considered real to us. But they were real in the minds and the imaginations of those men 10’s of thousands of millions of years ago. The true essence of storytelling doesn’t change. What simply changes is the language in which we tell it.
In film, the real pioneers are the ones who gave something new to say with it…people like Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Sidney Lumet, Quentin Tarantino, Brad Bird, The Coen Bros., etc…who made us sit up and go “wow, I didn’t know you could do that!” The language has changed, but the story is the same.
I want to go on a tangent for a moment. I had a conversation with my friend who is a musician. We were comparing cartoons with the audio equipment used to record Mel Blanc in the Looney Tunes vs. the sound you hear in shows like Animaniacs. Obviously the sound in Animaniacs is of much higher quality in everything from the music, score, voices etc. And its still a very funny show. But there is something a little off about the sound in Animaniacs…especially when you go back to listening to the audio of those older Looney Tunes shorts.
I’ve always hated watching Musicals that were made after the year 2000. I can’t stand them. With new, digital audio, the audio sounds obviously dubbed. It sounds too clean, and to me its so much more obvious the actors are lip syncing. Of course in the musicals of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60‘s, they were also lip syncing. But those movies are so much more believable to me. And in my ear they sound so much more natural. How is that possible since the recording equipment they used then would be considered ancient by todays standards? I don’t know exactly. But the worlds those films create are more accessible to me personally. In the age of digital special effects, CG is the standard now. When Jurassic Park came out however, what sold people on CG was that the animators who developed it were all stop motion guys. Phil Tippitt who was ILM’s chief stop motion animator in the 80’s, animated all the dinosaur sequences in Jurassic Park in stop motion. Later, his footage was used as reference for the CG animators to give the dinosaurs that sense of weight and timing to make it work. Compare that to the dinosaurs in the sequel, The Lost World, which they tried to save money by not having Tippet do all that work, and the animation on the dinosaurs just doesn’t look right. Keep in mind, Lost World was on 3 years after the orginal Jurassic Park, so the technology hadn’t improved that much yet. But the question is, why do we always gravitate to the first Jurassic Park, even thought the technology today is far less superior? It always go back to the basics: A strong story and a solid foundation in basic structures and principles, which are simply told in a new language. When you’re animating something, in stop motion or hand drawn, you get that tactile sensation with what you’re doing. You feel the hand of the creator. The magic of the original King Kong (1933) is that you can see the fingerprints of Willis O’Brien by the inconsistent smudging of Kong’s fur. That’s O’Brien touching the model when he animates it. In hand drawn animation, the characters weren’t always consistent in their look because they were all drawn by different animators. But we still believed in them. It’s the strength of the story that made us skim over those inconsistencies and made us believe in the world of the film. In the age of CG, you can’t actually touch the puppet in the computer. When I tried animating CG for a little bit, I compared it to animating with one of those claw machines you see at the arcade to get a toy. Obviously you have a little more control with the program than a claw machine. But the fact that the model never changes allows for that consistancy. It’s the same with motion-capture in movies, but you compare the ones of Robert Zemekis, which goes way over the top into realism, to Peter Jackson who used it for Gollem, the animators for Lord of the Rings were actually allowed to tweak and embellish Andy Serkis’ performance. Which was more believable? In my opinion, it‘s Gollem. In The Hobbit especially when you saw Gollem, even though the technology has improved dramatically in the last 10 years, he’s still just as believable to watch as the one in Lord of the Rings, and the scene with him and Bilbo is the best scene in the film.
So getting back to the frame rate, I guess the big question we need to ask ourselves is how 48fps is how is it going to improve the way we tell stories in the future? It’s hard to say. I know 3D is pretty big at the moment, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that it’s going anywhere. But I still question the use of 3D because quite frankly I have not seen a 3D film yet that has really improved the quality of a films story. There has been talk about using 3D to give scenes more emotional depth by knowing when to add more depth or keep the scene flat. Unfortunately when a film is 48fps all the way through, it’s got to stay consistent the whole film. You can’t change back and forth to 24fps or it will jar the audience. They used to do that technique in early silent and talkie comedies, where for certain scenes they would under-crank the camera (prat falls for example) to make it faster, which made it funnier. But you see then to that under-cranking and over-cranking the camera was a storytelling device used at the right moments in the story. That convention however won’t work on audiences today unless you could find the right way to apply it. There is one film coming out where the 48fps could be used as more than just a gimmick. I’m talking about OZ The Great and Powerful. We see in the trailers that like the original Wizard of Oz, the characters start in a sepia filtered setting, and then everything changes to widescreen and color when they enter Oz. Well, what if not only the color and widescreen emerged, but the frame rate changed to 48fps. But see the thing is you would be using the frame rate to play up the fantasy more. The fact that it looks more real is actually the fantasy! Would it work? I don’t know. But I think the experiment needs to be gradual if audiences are really going to accept it as the new way we watch movies. With The Hobbit, they’re throwing 48fps on the audience all at once, which may be too much. I have already heard tepid responses from people who have seen The Hobbit. It’s not getting terribly great word of mouth. Nobody I knew rushed out to see it when it opened, even my closest friends who wait at the midnight showings for big tentpole films such as this one to come out. It is hard to know how 48fps can be applied to films that will make it accepted by audiences. It has to be used as a storytelling device for it to work. It may make the film look more real, but that’s the problem. It’s too real. It can be a distraction because realism is not why we go to the movies. We go to be compelled by a great story. John Lasseter thankfully knew this when he made Toy Story, because if it wasn’t for the strength of the story, the film today would look horribly dated. It’s not only is it a wonderful film, but even then with the primitive CG, it was used artistically in an aesthetically pleasing way. I can watch that film today and its just as perfect a movie to me today as it was the first time I saw it.
So if there’s anything we must remember, it’s that for any great new tool, whether its film itself, CG, 3D, or higher frame rates, it’s still just a tool. Story will always be forever and unchanging, and it’s simply the way we tell our stories that changes over the course of history.