Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cinematic Realism Considered - Part 1

Cinematic Realism Considered - Part 1

There are some directors in Hollywood who have declared, a priori that the end game of feature filmmaking is to create an experience for the audience that is as close to reality as possible.  Toward that end, there has been a great deal of talk recently about the introduction of high frame rates (HFR), ultra high resolution (UHR) and more effective 3D, preferably without glasses to create an experience so close to reality that the lines between cinema and real life become not just blurred but invisible.

The Hobbit:
When people were exposed to Peter Jackson’s 48 frames per second (fps) 3D release of The Hobbit there was a fairly significant negative reaction. Exhibited at twice the normal rate of 24 fps, the lack of motion blur was unsettling to many moviegoers as was the enhanced clarity of the image.   The increased frame rate delivered more visual information to the audience per unit time but it also exposed a good deal of the movie making magic to the moviegoers, particularly the makeup and consumes.  Indeed, the heightened visuals apparently even influenced some audience members' reaction to the acting in a negative way.

Does this mean that HFR is something to avoid in filmmaking and theatrical exhibition?  Of course it doesn’t, it simply means that Peter Jackson pioneered a new paradigm in filmmaking that will over time achieve greater maturity and acceptance for both the filmmaker and the audience.

Several weeks ago I was at the International Broadcast Conference (IBC) in Amsterdam and went to a special 48 fps screening of the new trailer from the next Hobbit, Desolation of Smaug. I must admit that it was a unique visual experience for me but certainly not one that I would consider negative. In fact I was very impressed.  The only time that my suspended disbelief was disrupted is when a foreground character rapidly traversed the screen from left to right in front of the subject of focus. That character appeared to have no motion blur so it seemed to me part of the production crew walking by… and there in lies the problem. We, as moviegoers have a set of expectations that have been established since the first movie we ever sat through and much of those expectations are violated when watching a feature film at twice the speed that we consider normal. Is that bad? Well yes and no. Yes, in that it can take you out of the moment if you're not used to it. No, in that once the movie going audience is acclimated to this uniquely different cinematic experience they undoubtedly will learn to accept it.

Variable Frame Rates Will Likely Be The Norm:

Today most 3D converted films are of exceptional quality but the Industry has regrettably not explored or experimented with more diverse genre for the medium.  Instead we seem to have settled on a narrow sample that many creative and production people in the Industry consider ‘appropriate’ for 3D. Unfortunately the same fate could happen to HFR in that it might be considered appropriate for a subclass of films. Fortunately, the effectiveness of HFR appears to be  shot specific rather than genre specific. Consequently selected shots like wide-angle vistas will be sped up to 48, 60, or even 120 fps while close-ups might be exhibited at slower frame rates, etc.  I'm hopeful that variable frame rates will make the HFR applicable to a wide range of genres.

I’m not going to make a case for or against the latest trend toward cinematic realism nor would I ever criticize advances in film production and/or projection technology regardless of the stated end goal. However, there are questions that this movement toward realism evokes that go to the very heart and definition of cinema.

What exactly is the ideal cinematic experience? That question will be addressed in:

Cinematic Realism Considered – Part 2.