And so, it’s finally here – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And I wonder if J R R Tolkien would have expected that his slender tome would have endured such an unexpected journey from page to screen with such media attention. Quite apart from the last-minutes changes to the structure resulting in a three-picture epic rather than the previously planned duo, we now have to work out which format to go for. Many people have come up to me in recent days asking what the difference is between regular 3D and 3D HFR. And while I was able to explain the mechanics of what HFR was (essentially you get 48 different frames per second instead of 24) I couldn’t say which was best. Having seen the move in both formats, here’s my verdict.
Before I go into detail, let’s just park the whole 3D thing. I’m not a 3D fan – for every Avatar there’s a dozen Clash of the Titans cynically converted post-production so that the studios can justify adding a couple more quid to the ticket price. You get the occasional auteur like Ridley Scott who with Prometheus used the format to add depth, but for many directors there’s too much temptation to throw boobs or other objects at us (Piranha 3DD stand up!) So, yes, I don’t see 3D as the future of cinema, I’m looking forward to movies going flat again and I really do think it’s just a fad. The 3D in The Hobbit is better than most – you get a real sense of 3D rather than the pop-up book layering used in some productions – Gandalf’s nose is particularly impressive. The New Zealand vistas are of course sumptuous, but did this movie NEED to be in 3D? Not really. But enough about that – what about the HFR?
To make a meaningful comparison between HFR and regular frame rate I decided to go to view the movie in IMAX and then HFR. As anticipated, IMAX was crisp, beautifully loud and delivered the goods. HFR, by comparison made the film look cheap. Comparisons with BBC studio-based costume dramas are spot-on. Imagine one of those BBC Narnia adaptations shot on video or outside broadcast units. It has its own look because that was the limitation of the technology. To deliberately (what I see as) retrograde the picture does not endear this technology to me. It looks too clear but not in a filmic way. This isn’t a case that hi-def is spoiling the show – it’s more than that. HBO’s Game of thrones is shot in hi-def and yet it looks filmic, The Hobbit HFR looks like it was shot on video, but with amazing CGI effects. This is amplified in the scenes shot in Bilbo’s house, which make it feel even more like a cheap Channel 4 home improvement show (Hobbits under the hammer?). Exterior close-ups fare little better, with some of the movement just not scanning correctly. But it’s not all Mount Doom and gloom, as the sweeping vistas look great, the CGI of Erebor is very impressive, and even the Rivendell scenes are less of a distraction.
Ultimately it’s down to personal taste – I’ve spoken to others whose experience ranged from not noticing the difference to having a wretched night out. My tip is to go for IMAX if you can, or regular 3D digital. HFR is a well-intentioned curiosity and I welcome innovation. Sadly, I cannot de-programme what I consider a film should look like. The tech isn’t going to have to refine itself before I regard this as my format of choice.