Premieres, schremieres — where’s my 48 fps Armitage?
Let me start off by admitting that when I started writing this, I wasn’t sure that it was more than a gripe and I’m still not sure it’s really worth a whole post or the time I spent writing it. It’s a bit disjointed. And more than usually opinionated, perspectival and uninformed. And, as I realized by the time I got to the end, quite a bit disgruntled.
[Right: Invitation to NYC premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Source: RAFrenzy]
Given everything that I already know about what I’ll be doing in December (and my assumption that the universe will find a few more things for me to do that it hasn’t sent the memo about yet), though I’ve noted them as they appear, I’ve been relatively personally uninterested in the news of premieres, whether Wellington, London, New York, Tokyo, or (presumably) elsewhere. And let’s be honest — it’s not the kind of thing I’d be likely to do even if any of those cities were more convenient to my December plans. I’ll see those events more comfortably from my computer screen, or in photos and caps. I’ll read fan reports. Hopefully some readers will write them!
If you want to go, I want you to go! But I’ve been assuming for myself that I’ll see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when it premieres in the movie theaters closest to my parents’ house. I’ll try to go to a midnight show, but circumstances may intervene. I won’t be wearing a gown but probably a thick winter jacket and boots and a scarf. All of which is fine. I’ve never been a big party girl.
But if I’m not so interested in the premieres, what I DO want to know — my burning question — is where will the film be showing in regular rotation in the 3D 48 fps format?
Not at my parents — or possibly within hundreds of miles of them, that’s for sure.
Despite rumors to the contrary, corporeal Servetus does have a real-time social life. I try to limit it because of my introversion, and I can, because — not having lived here all that long — I still have a small group of friends. Anyway, in the inner circle with the Peskies and the Fuzzies are another couple — a woman who has the same year-to-year contract as I, who teaches a similar subject and has the office next to mine, and her husband, a professor of film with a specialization in cinematography. We bonded over beer, and I’ve learned a lot about Belgian varieties from FilmProf. We all went out for dosas — OMG India I love you! Thank you for sharing this particular culinary delight!!!! — a week or so ago. FilmProf was talking about the camera he’s planning to buy for his upcoming film projects (instead of refereed publications, he has to present films as part of a body of creative works for tenure), and I asked him, jokingly, if he would name the new camera he’s planning to buy. He wasn’t going to. I noted that Peter Jackson names his cameras, and from there the conversation went on to Jackson’s career, 48 fps and the merits and negative externalities of both.
[At right: Peter Jackson in 2010 with an Epic Red camera.]
FilmProf has a specific take on Jackson as filmmaker that I found interesting even if I don’t know enough about the issues involved to judge. We started talking about how FilmProf’s prospective camera costs about $3,000 U.S. and how cheap that is; I asked about the potential democratization of film-making (pursuing earlier discussions we’ve had about whether a film degree will eventually become the functional equivalent of an English degree). I assumed that price would be a great thing for him, but reported ambivalence. He said that the appearance of the technology at this price resulted from developments in film which Peter Jackson has played an important role; he cited one of these as Jackson’s use of Red Epic digital cameras. Another one would be the widespread turn to 3-D filming, which Jackson is heavily involved in, if not a catalyst.
Although I wasn’t paying attention at the time — I was more preoccupied with Armitage’s nose and his eyes — Peter Jackson explained this stuff in vlog #4. I would have sworn when I started blogging that I would never care about frame rate or indeed about any of it, and I bet that’s what you’re saying now. But I put my feet on that path the moment I wanted to explain how Armitage appears — because I only ever see him through digital files of some kind. Less than two months in, I acknowledged my huge debt to screencappers, and when I started capping things I wanted to illustrate — an early commentator told me how, and I took that step on June 10, 2010 sometime before 1:33 p.m. German time — I became committed to caring about this question sooner or later.
My difficulties with capping (and later, vidding) are preliminary steps to the problem of frame rate and 3-D; my issues are microcosmal versions of the ones that filmmakers deal with. Capping can be a lot of fun — it’s an intriguing way to look at someone — but it has very frustrating moments. When we watch film or video, we see a picture the brain makes by editing together and smoothing the data the eyes are uptaking from individual images, or frames, into a cohesive picture.
Typically the materials we watch are broadcasting at 24 (for cinema), 25 (for much of Spooks, although the directors shot some of the action sequences at higher frame rates to make them look more intense) or 30 fps (the HD Robin Hood files I have carry not only more pixels, but also have this slightly faster frame rate). Screencappers looking to capture something they’ve seen thus constantly deal with the issue of not being able to see clearly the thing they want to capture due to motion blur between frames, a problem that makes high definition cameras so attractive. On top of the organic visual issues, as soon as we verge on the terrain of the computer files that allow us to access this information so easily, we start dealing with the question of the codec — the means by which information is stored in a file and then “unpacked” and transmitted to the screen you’re watching it on. Most of caps I’ve made is taken from data stored in mp4 files at 24, 25 or 30 fps, which means that if I slomo something, I don’t see every detail of its motion, and I also see things that aren’t quite “there” because of residues left behind by the frame rate or the codec.
Even if you don’t cap yourself, you’ve probably seen these residues from time to time. It’s a particular problem for vidders. Interlacing, the attempt to create the perception of a higher frame rate without broadcast of additional data (usually 50 fps from a 25 fps source) makes the viewing device draw only alternating lines of an image on the screen at any point, which is almost invisible to the human eye when watched as intended, but creates problems when viewing at any other speed. This strategy means that doing anything to change the rate of motion, including stopping the image entirely, can cause blurriness. (Video editors incorporate various mechanisms for editing or smoothing this effect, but it means that changing the speed of any clip you want to use in a vid can be time-consuming — you wait while the computer churns.) The inability to change easily the speed of viewing of interlaced video (which is common in the UK) is particularly frustrating when watching Richard Armitage, because we want to see exactly how he’s moving, and often his moves are very subtle or extremely fast, and can easily get lost in the blur.
If you’d like to see an easy-to-follow practical demonstration of how different frame rates from 15 to 60 fps affect your visual perception of motion, click here. Increasing the frame rate at which something is filmed attempts to address these problems by increasing the amount of data available for processing and thus providing a means for the brain to smooth its perception of motion. Although our brains are satisfied with less data, and will happily trick us into perceiving things we’re not actually seeing in order to make video look like real motion, it still looks more realistic if we give our brains more — a conclusion that appears to be a strong motivator for Jackson, as we’ll see below. If the promise of current technological developments holds, eventually we may even be able to photograph visually things that we can’t see with our own eyes. Up to a certain point (thought to lie around 60 fps), however, the human brain / eye can still detect these differences, which makes raising frame rates attractive under certain circumstances — and some of these apply to 3D filming.
[Right: Peter Jackson explains his cameras to the viewer in vlog #4. Source: Heirs of Durin]
Jackson’s vlog attempted to explain exactly what he was doing and why audiences should care — at a slightly odd level, I now think, as I needed to gather more basic information in order to understand his claims, and I suspect what he said was much too elementary for experts. After hearing what FilmProf said about these developments and watching that vlog again, moreover, I suspect he’d have said that some of the material presented there is tendentious. What I understand from our conversation that is uncontroversial: Conventional film is made in 2D because the conventional film camera only has one aperture or “eye.” (Depth perception is created by stereopsis — by the brain editing the difference in the data it gets from each eye.) Although the brain watches a 2D film and “decides” by means of visual cues for the viewer to perceive it in 3D, filming in 3D enhance the perception of depth to the viewer, making action or motion more exciting. It achieves this goal by mimicking human stereopsis– by taking the single “eye” of a conventional camera and augmenting it with a second “eye” at the same distance from the first “eye” as found in a human head (hence all that discussion of the “interocular” and the way that mirror rigs are used to simulate the human one) to recreate depth in the same way a human brain sees it. It installs visual filters for the viewer in special glasses that assist in this process. Modern systems of 3D cut the amount of light that goes to each eye in half. This polarization is accomplished by not showing the same frames of the film to both eyes — the glasses cause the viewer to see alternating frames of motion. Consequently, in exchange for the illusion of 3D, the viewer accepts an image that is both less smooth (fewer frames=choppier motion) and a good deal darker (frames supply light to the eye, so fewer frames=less light) than it would be in a 2D film. In addition to headaches and eyestrain, motion sickness can result from these tricks to the brain.
Most viewers don’t suffer these ills, which would make 3D substantially less popular. A more common experience for viewers, though: Seen at 24 fps, the usual cinema frame rate — a film can look blurry because the brain still notices via motion and light level that frames are “missing.” 3D filmmakers take steps to help the brain compensate for this effect — one is the oversaturation / overcoloring to increase light provision, which some commentators have noted in the vlog images (which we are seeing in 2D) so that 3D films often end up with a typical color palette. In turn, bright colors complicate the brain’s attempts to edit flickering images into single ones (so-called flicker fusion); accelerating frame rate allows viewers not only to see more elements of motion, but perceive flickering images of bright colors more realistically and smoothly.
Thus — and here’s where it gets controversial — 48 fps it is not exactly the same as 24 fps — it is an attempt to compensate for apparent drops in smoothness of perception (due to motion and coloring) that are created by filming in 3-D in the first place. 48 fps (or higher rates) are supposed to restore the apparent resolution of the film up to the level of 24 fps made without 3-D. The burden of proof for a 3D film, then, is whether the gain from 3D is worth the “expense” of all of these compensations. Jackson has stated repeatedly that it is, that “motion is more gentle on the eyes.”
The above points constitute perceptual critiques of 3D film that play into aesthetic issues. Additionally and in response, film critics have advanced a further series of aesthetic criticisms of 3D film that don’t need to occupy us here. Readers who have been following the saga of this particular film know that media journalists –admittedly unaccustomed to seeing a film style that Jackson is pioneering — were lukewarm to negative on Jackson’s screening of clips at CinemaCon, which led to a decision not to show that version at ComicCon in San Diego. And some industry commentators believe that the market for 3D is oversaturated, with viewers not seeing what they’re getting for the hefty addition to the ticket price, beyond a pair of useless plastic spectacles.
But FilmProf made a criticism of the 48 fps decision that differs from all of these. It came up because I said that I had read that Warner Bros. was not going to release the 48 fps film in most or even many markets. His argument might be characterized as related to democracy and sustainability.
In response, FilmProf noted that 35mm film technology was incredibly democratic — the same machinery for projecting it was readily available, relatively affordable, and thus available quickly in every cinema in the world. It presented little financial or technical obstacle for a relatively low traffic theater in an obscure part of the country to use it. Digital projectors and prints are now standard, but technology turnover has unleashed a projectorial arms race. In contrast to the universality of the earlier technology, FilmProf asserted, fewer than a handful of theaters in the U.S. are technologically prepared to show this film (reading around, I note that in August, Variety stated that no theaters were prepared and that the necessary software upgrade wouldn’t even be available until September). He also told me that the necessary equipment constitutes a non-negligible expense — it apparently costs around $400,000 to purchase and install — and even if you have a system that’s upgradable, it’s still expensive. (Note — these are his assertions. I didn’t check them out. Even if the numbers are off, however, if the equipment is both rare and disproportionally expensive, the principle still holds.)
[At right: Christie Digital HFR IMB for installation into a series 2 d-cinema projector -- and you're ready to show The Hobbit -- if you have the series 2. If not, you have to upgrade that, too. You'll need it for the upcoming Avatar (2014 and 2015) sequels as well.]
FilmProf thus sees Jackson quite negatively — as a representative (along with James Cameron) of a direction in film-making that banks on a belief that the future direction of the field will rely on ever more sophisticated technologies to attract viewers. As Jackson says, “Nobody is going to stop. This technology is going to keep evolving.” These technologies will generally become more expensive, and will gradually — in FilmProf’s opinion, undesirably — limit the live theater-going experience to urban or suburban sophisticate audiences with money to burn. This vision puts theater owners in a terrible position — either upgrade projection technology at a horrendous expense in order to show the films their customers want to see, or go under when disappointed audiences stay away. Equally troublesome, from his perspective, was the tendency that these trends entirely contradict the apparent democratization of film technology represented by his wished-for camera. More people may make films, he suggested, but the ones that make it into theaters will be made by ever smaller groups of filmmakers who can assemble the ever more massive financing to pay for these technologies — leading to an ultimate reduction in the sort of spectrum of feature film that will be made, as every film has to be a mega-success, leaving much less room for experimentation.
You may make what you wish of this argument. I can see holes in it myself; it doesn’t account for other distribution mechanisms beyond theaters — and FilmProf is clearly a partisan of physically going to the movies (as opposed to watching them on a computer screen). One might argue, for instance, that in the face of the emphasis on shareholder profit for big corporations, stagnant wages for average workers, and rising costs for everything but labor, the only possibility that cinemas will have to survive in the future is to generate profits from showing spectacles that can’t be reproduced meaningfully on smaller device screens. However, some things in his argument seem clearly correct to me and have historical parallels. I find interesting the ways in which his critique parallels problems noted from the digital divide in the U.S. with regard to the Internet. The Internet expands our access to information — for everyone who has it — but the assumption that all viewers of the Internet can grab bandwidth, and thus information, with the same intensity leads to a situation in which information distribution remains inequitable even old sources of information or methods of obtaining it disappear or are destroyed. Cell phones killed the payphone without regard to those who can’t obtain them or whose networks are temporarily out of reach. We’re already seeing a world of film in which scripts that can “only” expect to generate some profit are rejected in favor of guaranteed successes with big budgets and relatively limited themes. Finally, the burden placed on theater owners is troubling in just the way the McCormick reaper was for farmers in the nineteenth century — buying one wasn’t a guarantee that a farmer could stay afloat. But not buying one was a guarantee that he couldn’t.
And, frankly, if it’s really true that as of two months ago not one cinema in the U.S was prepared to who the film, FilmProf is winning at present. Who is going to see this film as Jackson intended it to be seen? The film is going to be distributed in six formats — 2D, 3D and IMAX in both 24 and 48 fps. Most people are not going to see it in his intended format. I at least want to have the opportunity to judge whether the aesthetic gains from this format are really worth all the things that get lost as a consequence. As I said earlier this spring, I’m keeping an open mind till I see what Peter Jackson thought he saw.
If I can see it.
So here’s my gripe. Variety reports that the film might not even be distributed in 48 fps in all major U.S. cities. And that absolutely sucks for me.
[At right: filming rig for The Hobbit from vlog #8. I can't resist noting that it bears certain resemblances to a WWI-era rail gun. Source: Heirs of Durin.]
I’ve been waiting patiently for this film for two years now. I’ve been hydrating my thirsty fangirl soul at the stream of publicity, and I’ve been sold on the whole thing — green screens, isolated shooting set, huge camera rigs, amazing shots — all because I love watching Mr. Armitage and I have been encouraged to cultivate the belief that I am going to see things in this film that I have never seen before. I’ve been grateful that Peter Jackson has taken the time to keep us updated and let us see glimpses and bring us along slowly. I have regularly stifled my worries that he wants to do this film in this way because he spends way more time watching this kind of thing than I do (just as I felt, at the Captain America premiere, that the film had been made for an audience that plays a lot more high speed video games than I do). I’m papering over my anxieties with the belief that Jackson is going to obtain an amazing performance from Richard Armitage, and that the visual effects available in this version will keep me analyzing and thinking, feeling and reacting, for a good long time — maybe up until the next film. I want to see Armitage moving, doing his action dancing, manipulating his features in that subtle but effective way. Yeah — I’m on board to see Armitage, a better Armitage, and now that I know all the technological arguments, an Armitage without motion blur. A realistic Armitage whose movements I can really dig into.
Mr. Jackson — if you’re so convinced by your vision — why aren’t you pushing harder to sell it to the theater owners?
[At left: Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com.]
Because, if it’s really fully adequate for me, and apparently most members of most film audiences in the U.S., to see the film in 2D or the regular rate — and the film has to be downgraded and motion blur edited back in in order to prevent precisely the choppiness that the high frame rate 3D film was supposed to correct — then it seems like FilmProf was right. 48 fps 3D is set up to destroy theaters and replace them with nothing. Moreover, if it’s really okay for me to see your high frame rate masterpiece in 2D, that makes it seem like all of this hassle with 48 cameras and months of filming and mirrored rigs was pointless — a technological game played by tech lovers on behalf of tech lovers. Masturbation by gigabyte.
And if the equipment and upgrades are that expensive, the number and accessibility of red carpet premieres might be equal to the number of cities that actually show a 48 fps 3D version of the film.
So where we started: what I want to know is where — in what markets — I am going to be able to see the darn film as Jackson wanted it seen? Because it’s starting to look like it’s going to be harder than I thought. I figured Chicago and Minneapolis would be sure things, but I’m starting to wonder if we’re only talking Los Angeles and New York City. In which case I might as well try to make it to a red carpet (though don’t ask me how). Or maybe I’ll just wait five years to see it.
Mr. Jackson??? I surrender. You made me care about resolution and frame rate and motion blur. You made me believe that those things will let me see my Armitage better, more fully, more convincingly. I want to believe that FilmProf was wrong.
Where’s my 48 fps Armitage gonna be???
I better look at some Thorin to calm myself down.