Yesterday, Ciro and I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
in 3D Imax HFR, which was kind of an ordeal because basically nobody is projecting the movie in high frame rate. Which is literally the only thing I cared about: I didn't have any desire to see a Hobbit movie, since the series has been kind of a mess. What I wanted was to see an innovative technology used by someone who had experience with it (also known as Jackson et al, since this was their third go-around).
When I say it was kind of an ordeal, I mean we travelled an hour to a movie theater and sat through a half hour of commercials and previews, and then the film started and it was not in HFR as promised, and we got our money back and spent about two hours getting to another theater to watch the film properly, while also paying live-theater amounts of money for a ticket. Which means, fairly uniquely, that I saw the first 15 minutes of the film in 24-frames-per-second 3D and then within a couple hours saw that same 15 minutes in the more correct 48-frames-per-second 3D.
It's a totally different artwork. I don't mean that in terms of "it's more spectacular." In many ways, it is less spectacular. But when you see it in HFR, it's clear that's the native format and it's what drove all the decisions of the creative team. The movie makes sense
in a way it absolutely did not at 24 frames per second.
Based on my experience, I sincerely believe that if you have not seen the movie projected in HFR, you have not seen the movie Peter Jackson made. Since I'm a moviemaker and this is the kind of thing movie people always say about movies and the theatrical experience and aspect ratios and screen brightness and whatever else, this seems like the kind of claim you should take with a grain of salt. But in this case, it isn't.
I hesitate to even call Five Armies a movie: it's something else, with a different visual language and different performance needs. It was like watching some combination of an opera, Shakespeare in the park, participating in a Civil War re-enactment, and riding Peter Pan's Flight at Disneyland. It was different enough from watching a movie that it was irritating the subtitles weren't supertitles, because when you watch something on stage, translations are at the top, not the bottom, and that's where my eye kept looking for them.
In 48 fps, Five Armies absolutely works. It succeeds. There are still some script problems, like anything at all to do with Tauriel, but most of the other things that "didn't work" fall away. They only don't work if you're seeing a cover band perform them.
I use "perform" deliberately, because performance was the biggest difference - that and editing rhythm. I wasn't watching the movie going "oh, how beautiful." I was watching performances by people in a space over time. As soon as that happened, almost every actor choice seemed motivated. The 15 minutes I saw not-HFR, everything seemed very hammy. Watching in HFR? No tonal problems at all, perfectly calibrated performances and pacing.
Maybe you're reading this and you're not an actor or director. You still have experience with what I'm talking about. You use a different voice to talk to somebody who is standing right next to you and to talk to somebody across the room. You might feel the same thing, and try to communicate the same thing, but you sound different and look different when you say/feel it. If you talked to somebody who was standing right next to you as though they were across the room, it would seem odd and fake, right?
Same basic principle applies to the difference between stage and film performances. Or, in film, if you know you're in a close up, you wouldn't try to indicate that you were saying hello by waving your hand; nobody can see your hand. Moving away from acting again, you wouldn't draw somebody a picture while you were having a phone conversation and then expect them to be able to see it and act mad that they couldn't. Right?
This difference of performance distance has an extreme impact in the case of The Hobbit. The actors, who are very competent, and the director, producer, and editor, are keying performances for HFR, where there is a sense that you are watching somebody who is standing across the room from you. This is a sense that is completely, completely different from the feeling of watching a 3D film.
In a 3D film, it's very rare to have the sense that "you are there." This has to do with a combination of motion blur, physics, and separation of the image into planes. Things in normal 3D feel in many respects less real - they don't seem to have weight. They seem like skins around air at best and like stacked paper cutouts at worst. You can see what's "in front," but you don't forget there's a screen and a wall behind that screen.
(Which is kind of strange. I think of the opening of Avatar
, where a corridor is stretching away into the distance, but I still knew absolutely that the corridor was an illusion because there's a theater wall there. So I'm seeing "that's far away" and simultaneously seeing "that's right there." There are battling depth cues. That is not true of Five Armies, with rare, fleeing exceptions.)
Although I unreservedly believe HFR is vastly superior to other forms of 3D, I am not making the case here that HFR 3D is better than 2D film. Instead, I am saying it is its own unique medium, and trying to critique a film which is natively HFR 3D by watching a 2D or non-HFR 3D version is like trying to evaluate the experience of being at a live concert by watching a video of it. Except it's actually worse than that, because you're probably not aware of the degree to which you are not seeing the actual artwork in its original format.
All of the decisions which I watched in non-HFR 3D and wondered "what are they thinking?" - you see it in HFR, and it's clear what they're thinking. As a whole, the Gesamtkunstwerk
(a term I use because it seems like a more accurate description of the thing than "movie") has verisimilitude, or a difference of suspension of disbelief compared to a film, the result of which is that the moments feel important, like a reflection of a true history. Not that what you're seeing is real, but that what you're seeing is trying to be faithful to something that was
You're watching a meeting and in a film you'd think, "well, why not cut this long talky bit?" But in this format, you don't think that, because of course they're showing the meeting - the meeting is what historically happened. Of course some people are making bad jokes; in a stressful situation like this, somebody would wind up making a bad joke. Of course he's waiting and waiting before he shoots that arrow; it's tremendously obvious from the lay of the terrain that he'll have a better shot if he waits.
This feeling of truthfulness is absolutely crazy in a fantasy about a secondary world. But you could have told me I was watching The Alamo.
Your eye never wonders where to go; you can just look around, but also the architecture of the shot guides your attention. Your brain doesn't hurt from trying to reconcile the wrong-physics-ness of 24-fps 3D. Animals in particular are delightful when they appear onscreen, because it's not "there is a picture of a dog." No, there is that dog. It's not physically in the room with you, but it's clearly a dog, an actual dog, that you are watching maybe through a window.
The best analogy I can think of is subractive; if you've ever watched a colorized black and white film, you know none of the exposures make sense, even if you don't know that's the term you're looking for. You just know it looks fake in a way even highly-saturated techniclor film doesn't. Same thing here. I actually think it's an extreme disservice to the filmmakers that it's possible to see Five Armies in another format, including home video, even though I know that's what makes the economics of it possible.
If you have even a passing interest in seeing this film ever
, I strongly suggest going to an HFR theater even though it's very expensive, or else just decide on not seeing it. I don't think it's necessary to see the earlier two in the trilogy (I didn't), but that particular recommendation you probably could
take with a grain of salt because I've read the books and already know stuff like what the arkenstone is.