ANALYSIS: High Frame Rate 3D is Revolutionary, Frustrating and Very Weird


“Whoa. Now this is weird.” That’s the first thought I had as the opening scenes of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey unfolded. It was my first glimpse of high frame rate 3D, and I’m excited to see more.

But that comes with an important ultimatum. Unless the entire movie industry decides to accept the format, I’d prefer to see less HFR than more of it. That’s because HFR has a number of unfortunate side effects, and it’s going to take a lot of creativity – and oddly, some restraint – for HFR to change the way movies are made.

Until now, 3D has been a sore point for a lot of people, filmmakers and moviegoers alike. The big studios like to push through “post-converted” 3D films with lacklustre, gimmicky 3D. You’ve seen it before – lame “reaching into the audience” gags, or 3D that isn’t noticeable at all, and thus a waste of the higher ticket price.

What’s worse is that exhibitors are perpetuating the problem, cutting back on 2D presentations of movies and forcing us to see them in 3D whether we want to or not. It’s at the point where you can buy “3D to 2D” glasses online, so you can get a 2D experience at a 3D show.

Peter Jackson promised HFR would be a revolutionary experience

Personally, I think it’s sad that there has to be such conflict over going to the movies. So when Peter Jackson trumpeted the effect of HFR 3D, I was excited. I wanted to enjoy 3D again, and learning that exhibitors wouldn’t boost ticket prices for HFR shows, I hoped that the high frame rate movies could offer the 3D we all hoped for.

So the question remains: does HFR make 3D better? Yes, it does – only in a totally unexpected way. In the first installment of The Hobbit, for example, Jackson dispenses with the “reach into the audience” trick, in favour of extending the background of the frame. Picture a theatrical performance on a stage with giant actors and sets. Compared to 3D films of the past, the effect of HFR isn’t to invade the theatre, but to make it feel like we’re joining the characters in their world.

It’s a wonderful reversal – one I wish could have been done with all the other 3D films that have come and gone over the years. Say what you will about the limp storytelling in James Cameron’s Avatar, but the 3D in that movie was quite stunning. I can only imagine what it would have been like with the help of HFR.

HFR also takes quite a bit of getting used to, as I’m sure you’ve heard from many a critic so far. Peter Jackson said the acclimatization would only take 10 minutes, but I’d put it at 30-40 minutes. That’s because the experience of seeing the new depth for the first time is, for lack of a better term, trippy.

Don’t ask me why, but as I watched old Bilbo (Ian Holm), shuffle down the halls of Bag End in the opening of An Unexpected Journey, my head did a few somersaults. It was as though my brain couldn’t quite process the fact that characters can now recede backwards in space (as they do in real life). More importantly, it wasn’t until a half hour into the film that I’d finally wrapped my mind around it.

A scene with Warg-riding Orcs was one culprit of HFR-hampered CGI

But HFR has another effect besides adding depth, and it’s not a positive one. For some reason, HFR makes physical sets, CG backgrounds and other digital effects look fake, like something out of a low-budget monster movie.

It’s especially bad in scenes with a lot going on; the key example from The Hobbit that comes to mind is when the pack of Warg-riding Orcs chases after Radagast the wizard. Whereas similar scenes from Jackson’s The Two Towers were convincing, here the digital creatures stick out like cheap Photoshop jobs on the New Zealand terrain.

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Another offending scene comes right at the beginning. When the dragon Smaug attacks the city of Dale and the Dwarf kingdom in the Lonely Mountain, shots of fiery destruction looked more like stagey cutscenes in a videogame. Maybe it’s because we’re literally looking at more frames per second of the digital images, and our brains have more evidence to help process the fakery. Whatever the reason, I didn’t like it, and if you haven’t caught a HFR screening of The Hobbit yet, I doubt you will either.

As amazing as HFR 3D can be, I suggest limiting it to genres – or even better, scenes – that can benefit from it. Don’t use it throughout a movie just because you can. It’s wonderful to see the frame transform into a stage-like, immersive space, but don’t let that cheapen the other special effects in the movie.

The success of HFR depends on support from the whole industry - not just star directors like Jackson

The responsibility isn’t solely that of directors or producers, either. It’s likely that the use of HFR is only going to spread, and so the industry will have to change to make it work. Digital artists will have to learn how to make their creations match the new HFR environment, as will production designers and costumers. Writers, cinematographers, editors – HFR affects them all in a way that plain old 3D does not.

That’s why high frame rate 3D represents the biggest shift – and the biggest opportunity – in the rise of digital cinema. There’s so much potential in the format, but HFR will only be successful if it’s used in an intelligent way. Just as Orson Welles helped redefine our ideas about cinematography and editing in Citizen Kane, Peter Jackson and his colleagues may point the industry towards another radical change. The industry just needs to be willing to embark on the journey.


What do you think about high frame rate 3D? Will it transform the future of movies? Or is it just another moviemaking trend, destined to fall by the wayside? Sound off in the comments section, and if you liked this article, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my recent articles about the movie industry here:


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