Academic journal article Film Criticism

Removing the Pane of Glass: The Hobbit, 3D High Frame Rate Filmmaking, and the Rhetoric of Digital Convergence

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Removing the Pane of Glass: The Hobbit, 3D High Frame Rate Filmmaking, and the Rhetoric of Digital Convergence

Article excerpt

The results [of Showscan] have to be seen to be believed: interior scenes have the eerie reality of videotape magnified a hundredfold, and swooping exterior effects are as dizzying as Cinerama on speed.

--Los Angeles Examiner ("Big Screen Test").

Here's what The Hobbit looked like to me: a hi-def version of the 1970s I, Claudius. It is drenched in a TV-like specifically '70s-era BBC--video look. People on Twitter have asked if it has that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy, and the answer is an emphatic YES.

--Devin Farici (Farici).

High frame rate filmmaking, from a studio-era special effects technique to "the future of cinema" in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as its current resurgence in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012), has been promoted as a way to "improve" and enhance the cinema experience. Lately, for 3D blockbuster event films, promoters hope high frame rate will solve urgent viewer complaints of eyestrain, blurriness, and value for money currently tarnishing its reputation. (1) Despite high frame rate filmmaking's hype as an exhibition novelty, the more recent iteration is, in fact, an extension of Showscan, special effects artist Douglas Trumbull's high frame rate capture and projection system of the 1980s, which made innovative use of studio-era special effects techniques. A history of high frame rate filmmaking (HFR) and its various uses certainly places its recent revival into a long continuity describing historical aesthetic and marketing strategies. More urgently, practitioner and producer discourse reveals two intersecting problems the industry is having with fickle audiences at a time of uncertain technological and economic transition. Presenting pre-release clips of HFR to influential cinema writers and bloggers at Cinemacon in April 2012 as an improvement of the theatrical cinematic experience though the familiar rhetoric of "greater realism," the producers of The Hobbitt have been caught flat footed as they face surprise resistance to the particular aesthetic of HFR. We can call it an aesthetic of digital convergence, in which the look of HFR too closely resembles high definition television. As the rhetoric around HFR reveals a key moment for the stakes of cinematic representation, at the same time we can understand it as a cover for the industry's anxiety over how to increase theater attendance and box office revenue in a time of competing platforms and entertainment media. Of course, to the movie industry, what HFR "really" provides is irrelevant. For the industry, rhetoric about "improved realism" is promotional and aims to protect an expensive investment--in this instance, in 3D technology. Moreover, like experiments with IMAX presentations, parallel releases of 3D and 2D features, and redesigned auditoria, HFR is part of a broader marketing strategy to bolster the in-theater experience, in contrast to small screen viewing platforms like home televisions, personal computers, cell phones, and tablet computers. Much as they were during the 1920s transition to synchronous sound, producers are uncertain of what audiences will want from cinematic technology and representation, and so they aim to create, in Donald Crafton's terms, a "big hedge" in a time of economic and aesthetic instability (Crafton, 165).

Certainly, cinematic realism is a historically changeable style and set of codes that producers have long promised can provide impossibly vivid experiences. High frame rate filmmaking has been described positively, then and now, as "lifelike," "unmediated," and "hyperreal." By contrast, many have deemed the results of high frame rate filmmaking as "uncinematic," "too real," or "like a TV soap opera." The recent unfavorable aesthetic reception of high frame rate for The Hobbit troubles commonsense notions about realism in the cinema, especially that CGI technology should strive for a sense of more "direct" or "unfiltered" realism, whether characterized as greater perceptual realism or less evident mediation. …

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