Thursday, January 3, 2013

Thoughts on 3D, IMAX, and HFR

In the last couple of weeks I have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in IMAX high frame rate 3D, with the attached preview of Star Trek Into Darkness, also in IMAX 3D (read my extended thoughts about that preview on my Star Trek blog), and Life of Pi, in 3D, but otherwise plain old 24fps normal sized screen. All three offer very different cinematic experiences which I think show us interesting developments in cinema technology.


I was a little sceptical when the first few of the modern wave of 3D films came along, I thought at first it was all a gimmick. However I have quickly turned around, and am now an enthusiastic supporter of 3D cinema, and even got myself a 3D TV! I think all three of technologies I'm writing about here are aiming to make cinema feel like a more "realistic" experience, and of all three I think 3D goes the furthest to making that happen, but is also the most distinct and visually impactful as an art-form. Watching Life of Pi, I was blown away by the 3D; it completely sucks you into the world of the film, and makes the stunning and fantastical visuals come alive.

3D is most impressive for me when it completely immerses you in the image, some of the most stunning scenes in Life of Pi did this amazingly, especially some of the underwater shots where I literally exclaimed "woah" out loud a couple of times I was so taken aback. As film makers grow more familiar with 3D as part of their movie making I hope they learn to use it to such impressive effect more often. Aside from Life of Pi I can only think of a few examples where I felt similarly as dazzled; Tangled, specifically the sequence with the chinese lanterns; How to Train Your Dragon, most effectively in some of the flying scenes; and a few shots in Avatar.

Life of Pi also excelled in its use of 3D to make it a more visceral experience. I'm talking here mainly about the tiger - I'm not a horror fan, so don't know how this compares to some of the vile imagery of that genre, but I felt genuine fear when experiencing some of the tiger attacks in Life of Pi. The 3D makes it seem so real, so unavoidable, it was like being attacked by a real animal. I guess our ancient instincts to fear dangerous animals are still very much ingrained in me because I felt those scenes like nothing I've ever felt before on screen. And I certainly wasn't the only one, I have never experienced such incredible reactions from a cinema audience before seeing Life of Pi.

The 3D in The Hobbit, while flawless, mostly did not move me nearly as much. Where it was effective, and in common with Life of Pi, was in wide landscape shots, where you really felt a sense of scale. In Life of Pi they contributed to a feeling of isolation in the empty ocean. In The Hobbit they make it seem grand and beautiful. You thought those stunning shots of Middle-earth throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy were impressive? Well try those sort of shots in 3D from The Hobbit and you have some really breathtaking epic imagery.

One thing I am quite curious about with the 3D from The Hobbit is how on earth they made it work on any false perspective shots they did - Where Gandalf is seen much larger than a hobbit or dwarf due to placing him nearer the camera, but filming the actors in the same shot. I know they used this trick to great effect in The Lord of the Rings, and am curious whether filming in 3D meant they had to do more compositing of separate shots this time because of the effects shooting in 3D must have on a false perspective shot. Guess I'll wait for the bluray extra features to find out that!

The Hobbit, Life of Pi, and Star Trek are all heavy on visual effects, which being mostly computer generated can be made natively 3D relatively easily. Of the three I believe Star Trek was the only on that wasn't actually filmed on 3D cameras as well though. I am generally very skeptical of post-converting 3D; if you're going to do 3D, do it properly I feel. However I thought the job they did in the short section of Star Trek I've seen so far was pretty darned good. I'm still not sure if I want to endorse post-conversion by seeing the whole film in 3D, but what I've seen so far did make quite good use of 3D.


I had only seen one IMAX film before, a mesozoic documentary, I think it was probably the Sea Monsters film. I can't say I was all that impressed by the MASSIVE SCREEN format. And seeing my first feature film in the said format didn't really impress me that much either. It's bigger, but, you can still see you're in a big room with flat screen, with a black edge around it and a bunch of people in front of you. It just didn't feel that special. If the aim with IMAX to help make cinema more "real" or immersive, it just didn't work for me.

When I saw Life of Pi a couple of weeks later on a normal screen it did, for the first few minutes, feel kind of small, having recently experienced cinema in huge scale. But that was quickly forgotten. So I'm not convinced IMAX is anything to make a fuss about. It's just, bigger.


The really new, and seemingly quite controversial, development: The Hobbit has broken new ground in film making by doubling the frame rate. This means rather than having a flow of still images just fast enough to trick you into thinking the sequence of stills is in fact a moving image, we get twice as many images in the sequence. As a result everything is smoother and crisper, because the motion blur has been cut in half.

I'm sure many of you have read the same negative reviews that decry the HFR experience as I had. So I was ready to be unimpressed. But, I was not unimpressed. I was in fact, impressed. In those landscape shots mentioned about, and in action sequences, everything being so smooth and sharp is noticeable. In a good way I feel. The incredible scenery in The Hobbit in smooth crisp 3D is simply beautiful - I'm sure the New Zealand tourist board is once again jumping for joy at glowing advert for their country this film is!

Where I can see the cause for concern is in a limited number of shots that were clearly done in sets rather than in real world locations of with CGI convincing enough to make them seem real. In just a few shots the level of realism afforded by the HFR picture was too real for filming a not real thing. You could tell they were sets, and you could tell they were artificially lit. I am sure if HFR takes off then the set dressers and lighters will learn to refine their craft even further to make those sets seem more real. Until then I think the slightly less than perfect exceptions are worth baring for the majesty of seeing the rest of Middle-earth in the detail HFR allows.

It was quite interesting to experience HFR in The Hobbit next to the preview from Star Trek Into Darkness, because it highlights how very different the two films are. The new Star Trek films are proudly cinematic; they've got lens flares, and shaking and roaming cameras, continuous sets, etc. Star Trek fully embraces cinema as an art form with its own particular visual queues that make it as distinct as an other medium. The Hobbit on the other hand, shot in perfect 3D, with the hyper-realism of HFR seems determined not so much to be an example of cinema, but a window into Middle-earth. I don't think this is a bad thing, I did enjoy the film, but I do appreciate different media embracing their own values - I don't really like movies pretending to be comics, I'd rather paintings look like paintings than photographs, and maybe I don't need The Hobbit to pretend it's sucking me into the real world of Middle-earth. I'm not sure though that this can all be attributed to HFR; the makers of Star Trek aren't afraid to let the viewer know this story is told through a camera, I'm sure they could shoot through a HFR camera and still have it come out as stylised, while enjoying the benefits HFR gave The Hobbit.

The Films

A finally some general thoughts on the films:

As you might have guessed from my gushing above, I thought Life of Pi was truly phenomenal. It is absolutely beautiful, and I think makes the most effective use of 3D seen so far; it was integral to the experience of this film. It is also a delightful story, with a charming central character and quite funny at times. It's one of the best films of 2012, so don't miss it!

I'm in two minds about The Hobbit, I did enjoy, a lot. It was beautiful, funny, had outstanding performances, especially from Martin Freeman, and stealing the show Andy Serkis ever so briefly as Gollum. I even enjoyed the songs, something I found annoying as hell in the books! It is a long film, but not in any sort of annoying way; it's sort of like going on holiday to Middle-earth, which is a beautiful holiday to go on. In that way it sort of reminds me of the wonderful film, Monsters; it's a bit meandering, but you become so immersed in the world you just sit back and soak it all in. As a film on it's own, I think it's too long and ponderous, but already being invested in the characters and the world they live in, it's just like going home, which is nice.

Of course as a devout trekkie I cannot wait for Star Trek Into Darkness. The preview was exciting, funny, and visually rich. I am also so very excited about Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch playing the bad guy, he's already stolen the trailers and I'm sure will shine throughout the film.


  1. An interesting read. I dont think i've read your casual writing in a while so i was taken a little aback. I'm intrigued; did you buy a 3d TV for 3d or because the cost was similar to those of other TV's of a similar quality that you were considering?

    I had not thought of the forced perspective stuff, so please let me know what you uncover. Sounds like you felt similar to me about The Hobbit (although not my feelings on the speedy feeling of viewing HDR...). I almost could have done with another song to be honest.

    Cant wait for Trek but i feel from various sources now including yours, that i probably wont like Life of Pi very much.

    Will try to keep in touch of the blog, especially as i am back on Tumblr this month!

  2. Taken aback how so?

    And what makes you think you wont enjoy Life of Pi?

    I wanted a new TV, and it was only little bit more to get a 3D one, and as I like 3D, that seemed a good thing to get :)

    I post all my 8of5 blogs via facebook/twitter/tumblr as 8of5, and also as real me all of those for articles, like this one, I feel might interest normal me friends :)

  3. I've seen both The Hobbit and Life of Pi in the cinemas - but not in 3D - and both were really good films.

    Martin Freeman was really good of course, and I enjoyed seeing Aidan Turner from Being Human play a dward as well, and the landscapes, again beautiful. I did think the Hobbit felt a bit serious and sometimes a bit like a 'prequeal' to LOTRs, which the book wasn't. Then again The Hobbit book is close to my heart, so I'm a bit precious of it!

    As the HFR - I actually didn't notice it! Most films are really clear and in high-definition now, so I couldn't really tell there was a HFR, though it seem very hi-def and bright.

    Life of Pi was a beautiful film and even without 3D, trust me that tiger was scary! Especially in that moment it leaps and kills the hyena.

    Thanks! Girl with a Gun Mic

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