The dragon Smaug flies down from the mountain and soars over Lake-town. He is enormous, glowing in flames, and way more detailed than any digitally made creature has a right to be on a screen this large. Watching the beginning of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies very quickly reminds you why director Peter Jackson is so popular for what he does — making truly spectacular movies — but people seeing it in certain theaters are likely to be reminded of something else as well: playing a video game.
How can Peter Jackson and James Cameron seem so wrong?
As with the past Hobbit films, The Battle of the Five Armies is being released in a limited number of theaters in a format called HFR, or high-frame rate. In this case, it means that the film was shot and is being projected at twice the frame rate that movies have been using for close to a century. It means a sharper, more detailed, and more lifelike image. But it also means a style that moviegoers aren't used to and have largely expressed displeasure with.
Plainly: HFR movies can look a lot like soap operas or home videos, which is strange because both Peter Jackson and James Cameron, the director of Avatar, think they’re the future of cinema. So how can they both be so wrong? It's possible that they're not — they're just not selling it right.
"It's like watching a movie where the flicker and the strobing and the motion blur what we've been used to seeing all of our lives — I mean, all our lives in the cinema — suddenly that just disappears. It goes," Jackson told The Huffington Post back in 2012. "And you've got this incredibly vivid, realistic-looking image."
A sharper image and reduced motion blur sound great, but they’re the least convincing arguments for HFR. Even the most casual moviegoer can tell that everything from acting to set design falls apart at different points in The Hobbit’s high-frame rate screenings (you can’t be swept away into a fantasy world when it looks like somebody shot Gandalf with a camcorder). Rather, what the technology is so obviously good for is computer-generated effects.
Gamers are already well aware that more frames means smoother animations
Video game players and developers are well aware that higher frame rates make animations look better. 30 frames per second is the baseline for quality, but 60 fps is the sweet spot that it seems everyone would ultimately like to hit. And that's around where HFR lands. It’s theoretically capable of fixing the stuttered look that you often see while watching 3D, and on a simpler level, it can allow for smoother animated effects. That’s why Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 fps and why Cameron has talked about shooting his next three Avatar films at either 48 or 60 fps, if not more. (Until now, films have almost always been shown and shot at 24 fps.)
For effects, the results are great. They still look like they come from a computer — a higher frame rate doesn't make them look any more real — but they do appear more detailed than ever. And that's why HFR might actually succeed.
So many of today's films rely on CG imagery — from small fixes to green-screened environments to entire characters. Whenever someone convinces Michael Bay to make another Transformers, you can bet it would be a lot easier to tell what’s happening during a hectic battle sequence thanks to those extra frames. The film also wouldn’t need to worry about HFR’s downsides as much, since computer-generated robots are the real stars.
If you're wondering what this future will look like, just head to YouTube. It added 60 fps playback in October, and while that's not a big deal for most filmmakers, it has been a big deal for presenting clips of video games. Even if you aren't a gamer, it's easy to see how much smoother a 60 fps video can look than a standard one. And while we like to lament the overuse of computer-generated effects, CG spectacle is also what continues to draw people to theaters. If HFR can expand that, it can be a success.
Avatar's virtual world is perfect for HFR
That doesn't mean there won't be problems going forward. The only movies that filmmakers know how to make right now are ones shot at 24 frames per second. Everything from lighting techniques to camera movements will need to be rethought for the more naturalistic style of HFR, and while overcoming that is going to be difficult, it’s something that directors can manage — particularly if they’re making a film that exists in a computer-generated world. That’s where James Cameron comes in.
Some of the most spectacular shots in the original Avatar aren't shots at all, but fully rendered CG environments. Even when there are real actors on screen, there's usually an artificial world wrapped around them, and when Cameron switches to HFR for the next Avatar movies, you can expect more immersive environments. In fact, just about all of Pandora’s flora and fauna, mountains and oceans should be looking crisper, cleaner, and more detailed. Cameron's films may just be the ones to prove that HFR can work.
Cameron also has the advantage of going after Jackson, who may have dived into the pool a bit too soon. Demos Cameron put together a few years ago revealed that faster frame rates, particularly 60 fps or above, are less jarring than the 48 fps that Jackson decided on. It’s possible that Jackson’s chosen frame rate exists in an uncanny valley of sorts for filmmaking — more realistic, but in all the creepy wrong ways. Cameron has also suggested that Avatar’s sequels could change frame rate from scene to scene, which might even be the best scenario possible: live-action shots could be filmed traditionally, while heavy effects shots could use the added clarity of a higher frame rate.
After some awful first experiences, Cameron helped convince audiences that 3D was viable with the first Avatar. If viewers like Pandora in 2016 as much as they used to, HFR might be in for the same kind of victory.