The Hobbit, 48fps, and the Broadening of the Soap Opera Effect

12/19/2012 5:14:00 PM
Peter Jackson’s first film in his Hobbit trilogy—An Unexpected Journey—debuted in theaters last week, and despite huge earnings already, it’s a film that has been immersed in controversy—and one of those controversies relates directly to a certain home-theater debate that has reared its head over the past couple years. No, I’m not talking about the bewildering decision to split the story of The Hobbit into not two but three separate films (although that makes me roll my eyes). I’m talking about the decision to film the trilogy at 48 frames per second (fps) rather than the industry-standard 24fps, essentially bringing the dreaded “soap opera effect” to the big screen—at least, on 450 screens nationwide.
I wrote about the soap opera effect in “How to Avoid the ‘Soap Opera Effect’ on Your HDTV … Or Do You Want to Avoid It?” The point of that article is that many of today’s HDTVs ship with a default “smooth motion” or “real cinema” interpolation setting that makes 24fps film look more like 60fps video. For many home-theater cinephiles, this effect can produce an image that looks fake. Sets and props look unrealistic, special effects (especially CGI) are unconvincing, even acting seems like “actors on a stage.”

Since I wrote that article, the soap opera effect has become more widespread, with more and more TVs shipping with the default “smooth motion” setting enabled. And more and more people simply accept the setting—or worse, gradually consider it to be the new HD norm. In addition to all those home experiences, for the first time in a high-profile blockbuster, high-frame-rate digital video has entered commercial theaters. I have to consider that the higher frame rate is a viewing experience that today’s audiences actually want!

Peter Jackson himself, in a recent interview, supported this theory. In “Peter Jackson, ‘The Hobbit’ Director, On Returning To Middle-Earth & The Polarizing 48 FPS Format,” the director says: “[To me, it’s] the fact that the younger audience is embracing it. It's just a few old fogeys like us who aren't quite sure of it. [If] the technology exists, why should we as an industry say that we achieved perfection in 1927? Why should we sit back on our haunches and laurels and say, ‘We got it right in 1927’? What are we talking about? The next 100 years? The next 200 years? That's what films have to be? We shouldn't be doing that.”

He almost got me agreeing with him! Obviously, I’m all in favor of technological advances in film itself, in the exhibition experience, and in the home theater experience. And in theory, a higher frame rate would seem to offer a leap ahead in image quality. In some senses, it does. It’s certainly a sharper image, and you could even argue that it’s more realistic. But I would take the counter-argument: that it makes the image look unreal—disturbingly artificial—so close to stark reality that it enters an uncanny valley in the same way that some startlingly realistic CG animation (such as Robert Zemeckis’ work on The Polar Express, or the 2001 experiment Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) crosses the line from a representation of reality into the realm of creepy unreality. To my friends and me, all of us film lovers, the effect remains ugly, annoying, and cheap. It makes the film look flat, taking away any sense of depth, and no matter how many times I try to immerse myself in the effect, I can’t help but be distracted by it.

"Distracting" seems to be the early word from many filmgoers who have seen the 48fps Hobbit film. On message boards and forums across the Internet, I’m seeing most people voicing strong objections to the “artificial” effect of the higher frame rate. But I’m also seeing a disconcerting number saying that they don’t mind it—the equivalent of a virtual shrug, as if to say, “Well, if this is the way films are going to look from now on, sure, whatever. My TV looks like this, so I guess it makes sense to have it in theaters, too.”

For me, the clearest analogy to this soap opera effect is to compare a work of painted art with a photograph. It’s the difference between a representation of reality and actual reality. By finally embracing all the technological capabilities of HD video, we’re ripping away the last defining characteristics of film. Through digital evolution we’ve eliminated film grain, and with high-def discs we’ve made our home video experience match that of large-scale exhibition in theaters (in the correct aspect ratio, with fine detail, with brilliant sound), but now we’re to a point where technology is exceeding the experience of film that we’ve always known.

We’re not just perfecting the experience; we’re altering it. The veil will be lifted: we’ll no longer see the art from a perspective removed; we’ll see it stark and real, warts and all.

There are several loud champions of high frame rates out there in the media. One of them is a favorite film blogger—Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere. (See his recent blog post, “So … New.”) I can appreciate his point of view, but I can’t agree with it. I’ve seen too many family members settling for their TVs’ default smooth-motion settings; I’ve seen too many people looking at artificially cranked displays at Best Buy, at first confused and then oddly impressed by the new level of detail, as they stand there glassy-eyed as if hypnotized. You can see them thinking: “This is strange and different, but hey, it must be the new thing. I’ll take it!”

And now the essence of that thought has been reinforced by what will be one of the biggest movies of the year. High frame rates are becoming the new normal. And I don’t think it’s because I’m an “old fogey,” to use Peter Jackson’s term, or some conservative film traditionalist that I object to that. I don’t think it’s a matter, in this case, of embracing the latest technology. There’s a cost to this advance, and it amounts to no less than a cheapening of an art form.

What do you think? This debate will only get more fervent as still more HDTVs land in living rooms with the heinous motion smoothing settings enabled by default, and as still more blockbusters—including the next Hobbit—are released at 48fps. How do we want our filmed art to be exhibited and enjoyed? As Scott Tobias says in “You’re watching it wrong: Threats to the image in the digital age,” “It’s not just that people are watching TV wrong—it’s that they’re being encouraged to watch TV wrong. Funhouse distortion has become the norm.”

That’s what scares me.

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