Motion quickness: The Hobbit is technically two films in one

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 3:42pm

Are you ready for a hyper-real Hobbit? Director Peter Jackson's new film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released yesterday to much fanfare, but the starring role of this fantastical slice of cinema will be invisible to most.

Jackson's interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional Middle Earth has already been glimpsed in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this time the dwarves and elves should look more real than ever, thanks to the pioneering director's use of new camera technology and a production process that means An Unexpected Journey contains twice the frames. It's technically two films in one.

For the first time, special high-frame-rate (HFR) Red Epic cameras have been used in a film.

It's a fantasy in more ways than one for Jackson, since he's also shot the movie in 3-D, but what difference is the new technology going to make?

The worldwide cinema standard for both filming and projecting movies is 24 frames per second, and HFR doubles that. By recording and playing visuals at twice the current rate, it more closely approximates what the human eye actually sees, so the theory goes, so HFR provides more clarity and less motion blur and judder. [What is HFR?]

So what? The more frames that are filmed, the less the camera's shutter is closed, and the more motion data is produced - with the human eye seeing a much smoother movement. In short, movies shot and projected using HFR cameras look more fluid and more involving. Film grain, judder and those awful panning shots are the hallmarks of movies through the ages - and some will miss them, no doubt - but in this ever more refined digital age, they're about to be replaced so that films look more like video.

Welcome to hyper-real films Purists might not like it, but HFR has more going for it than smoothness since it also brings picture quality up to date with modern filming techniques. Most film directors like to use moving camera shots to create suspense, intensity and a sense of motion, but the finished product can seem awkward on the big screen. Action sequences and panning shots, in particular, look much smoother using higher frame rates.

That goes double for 3-D, with some even saying that higher frame rates are essential if 3-D is to survive as a viable format. The problem with 3-D, both in cinemas and at home on 3-D TVs, is blur and "crosstalk", which is where the image meant for the left eye is visible to the right, and vice versa. The result is confusing and disturbing, and leaves some viewers with a headache. Upping the frame rate - literally doubling the information seen by each eye - ought to make watching 3-D easier, in theory, since there's less of a gap between each frame of film.

An Unexpected Journey is the first instalment of three movies based on Tolkien's 1937 novel, the others being The Desolation of Smaug (due next year) and There and Back Again (2014), all of which have been shot using the new technique.

Aside from the odd complaint of motion sickness, there is, however, a problem, because while the film studios and directors are equipped with the latest and greatest cameras, digital cinema equipment and projectors able to handle HFR footage are somewhat rarer. In fact, the only place to see the movie in all of its hi-tech glory is the UA Cinema's iSquare & IMAX on Nathan Road, Kowloon, where tickets for the special showing of the movie in HFR and 3-D are selling for HK$170.

Everywhere else, An Unexpected Journey is expected to be shown in plain old 24 frames per second because existing digital cinemas can't cope with both HFR and 3-D. The digital cinema specification does already support 48 frames per second, but it's been utilised for 3-D, not higher frame rates; movie directors have been mostly busy creating two 24-frame images for us to watch through 3-D glasses. However, watch An Unexpected Journey in HFR and 3-D, and each of your eyes will see 48 frames every second. A stunning 96 frames per second is a huge leap forward.

Even if regular digital cinemas could do both, a technical upgrade is on the cards since there's a drive in Hollywood to increase frame rates to 120 frames per second. James Cameron - who, like Jackson and a handful of other directors, has enough clout to change how Hollywood does business - has said that he intends to film Avatar 2 at 60 frames per second, as well as in 3-D.

However, it's the 120 frames per second format that would provide pure mathematical nirvana since it's divisible by both 24 and 60. Therefore, upscaling, backwards compatibility and oversampling would be simple.

A move to either 48, 60 or 120 frames per second is on the cards, but will require digital cinemas to upgrade to expensive new projectors.

What the industry does from here is anyone's guess, and will be wholly dependent on demand from movie-goers. At least we know where the dwarves and dragons of Middle Earth stand.