Negative 3D — A technical review of The Hobbit

I finally saw The Hobbit in 3D HFR. The experience overall was a good one. Watching the regular 24fps previews and then the actual film was like night and day. You could tell right when the Newline Cinema logo floated onto the screen that this would be different.

I would recommend reading Kevin Kelly’s explanation of why the movie looks different. I can confirm that it looked very smooth, the amount of detail was amazing. I originally saw the film in 2D at the regular frame rate and thought it looked beautiful (see my initial reaction here). I think this version was much more sharp.

One thing I feared was that the HFR would reveal shoddy set production, much like HD first revealed every little imperfection of newscasters on television. Lower resolution gives cinematographers the ability to “hide” things. It is all about the illusion. Yet the designers of The Hobbit proved to have amazing attention to detail: the props and sets looked to be of high quality — this was revealed moreso by the sharpness of the high frame rate version.

Interactions between live characters and CG characters was sometimes weak, and for some reason Weta still can’t make wargs look believable, but they hit it out of the park with Gollum this time around. The lighting issues from the first series seems to have been solved.

Quick camera movements were jarring. There is too much information on screen in 48fps and any jerky movements, or unsteady camera work didn’t look very good. It might simply be a matter of what we are used to, but I doubt if you could film a “shaky-cam” film in HFR.

My biggest complaint was sound. It was not “big” enough for all the extra dimensions and frames of the film. Maybe it was the theatre I was in, but the sound was very tinny (I noticed this in the 2D version which I saw in a different theatre, especially during the dwarf meeting at Bilbo’s). This tinny sound combined with overlighting (see Kevin Kelly’s article) I think contributes to the sense that one is “on set”, especially during interior scenes.

Watching The Hobbit this time in HFR I really noticed something: overcrowding of the frame. It is common practice to position people and objects much closer to one another than in real life. For example when filming two characters having a conversation, oftentimes the actors heads will be extremely close on set, however on the screen it looks natural. Because of the “realness” of the HFR, I think this trick no longer works. The troll battle scene is an example. The set seemed way too crowded. This might be used to good effect, such as in the dwarf council meeting at Bilbo’s, but I think we might see a change in technique.

3D In-N-out

My final point is related to the 3D. I have seen a number of films in 3D but this time I really noticed something related to the overcrowding point mentioned above, and it has to do with which way the 3D goes.

Think of the movie screen as neutral space and the 3D elements as active space. When sitting perpendicular to a 3D screen, the “active” space is between the viewer and the screen — this contributes to the “popping out” effect. However it narrows the field of vision, blocking off what is happening in the neutral space which adds to overcrowding effect mentioned above.

Rather than using the gimmicky “pop out” effects of current day 3D, I would like to see the reverse: placing the active space beyond the screen, widening the field of vision. Think of a photo shot with a fisheye lens versus a wide angle lens. IMAX screens achieve a wider perspective simply by using much larger screen areas, but enhance the effect with a concave shape. Imagine this being even more enhanced “negative 3D.” Then we would get the amazing vistas and the sense of being “in the action”, rather than the sense that the action is outside of us, but periodically invading our space.

I am no film professional and am not sure if this is even possible. Maybe it is already being done now and I am just not seeing enough films in 3D. Hopefully someone can chime in with some reasons why this is a terrible or impossible idea.

Regardless, go see The Hobbit in 3D FPS. It is brilliant.

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