HFR cinema, Ang Lee, The Hobbit, Gemini Man, and is this really the future?

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Gemini Man is the latest film to arrive in cinemas shot at HFR; Brendon questions why cinemas don’t seem supportive, and looks at the audience backlash too.

Things in Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi are not always as they seem. The tiger, of course, is famously unreal but that’s just the start of it, and some of the film’s computer-enhanced images might surprise you.

One unexpected bit of CG work in that film marked a dramatic turning point in Lee’s directorial aesthetic – and also, history may soon prove, the overall development of cinema. Lee’s regular editor Tim Squyres told the story to IBC.

“There were shots of [Life Of Pi's lead actor Suraj Sharma] bobbing up and down in a boat where his performance started to get lost in motion blur and we had to artificially sharpen his face, digitally replace his eyes.”

Take down any movie from your DVD shelf and hit pause during any kind of action (a ball being thrown, a pan past a shelf of books, clapping hands) and you’ll capture a still image of motion blur. It’s part of the cinema aesthetic, at least typically. For decades now, almost all films have been produced at 24 frames per second, and at this ‘low’ frame rate, motion blur is normal. In fact, it’s a good part of what gives film it’s ‘film look’ and a lot of people like it.

We might argue that many seem to have fetishised the 24fps, blurry look, much the way that celluloid has been fetishised over digital cinematography. But that, actually, all of digital, analogue and low and high frame rate cinematography are valid artistic options. That a sentimental, nostalgic audience doesn’t do well with change so it’s going to take a while for evolution to take hold. But HFR (high frame rate) cinema offers tools and storytelling options that, in time, are going to be accepted and embraced.

For me, Squyres’ example, of an actor’s face being rendered unreadable and a director who went to great digital extremes to re-create the lost performance (or at least something like it) is a compelling case against the 24-frames, motion blurred look of most films. The usual way of making films really isn’t always the best choice for storytelling, it’s just the default.

After encountering frustration with 24-frame cinematography on Life Of Pi, Ang Lee started to experiment with high frame rate shooting. Squyres explains that Lee went on to shoot tests of his proposed Muhammad Ali movie at 24, 48, 60 and 120 frames per second, and learned that from 60 frames per second up, the cinematography was bypassing the issues he’d run into on Pi.

Lee and his collaborators quickly noticed that the high frame rate look had other, powerful effects on how the actors appeared on screen, besides preventing motion blur. Dialled-down and subtle performances were read more clearly at higher frame rates, allowing for a register of acting that favours nuance over bolder strokes. Perhaps more trickily, any make-up put on an actors’ face would tend to show up on screen, meaning that they would have to perform without their usual on-screen masks. The net effect, however, is greater possible range and sophistication in a performance once an actor knows how to dial themselves down to the right level.

The series of successful experiments led to Lee’s next feature, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, being shot with what he called “the whole shebang.” In practice, this was 4K 3D at 120fps – meaning 120 frames per second per eye, or ten times as much cinematographic information as a 4K 2D film at 24fps.

Unfortunately, only two cinemas in the US and one more in each of Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai were fitted with the equipment necessary to screen Billy Lynn the way Lee had captured and finished it, and so such screenings were thin on the ground. As far as we have been able to discern, there has yet to be a single screening of Billy Lynn in anything above 24fps in the UK.

But why? How was a director’s hard work and aesthetic intention so readily ignored during the release of his film? Well, it seems that the deck had been rigged by the release of The Hobbit.

Peter Jackson attempted to kickstart the HFR revolution by shooting and releasing The Hobbit movies at 48fps. Unfortunately, a number of critics (not including this one) took against the aesthetic and there was a lot of passionate online criticism of how The Hobbit looked.

According to its detractors, HFR film-making looks ‘cheap.’ Many say that it looks like video, and it’s popular to compare its style to that of a TV with ‘motion smoothing’ switched on.

Of course, HFR film-making is not cheap. It’s anything but. Also, it is video, as opposed to some kind of recording onto celluloid, though I’m at a loss as to why that’s any kind of problem. And the ‘motion smoothing’ criticism? Well, let’s zoom in on that a moment.

Motion Smoothing

The Motion Smoothing technology you might find in a TV is extremely unpopular, and rightly so. It takes material shot originally at a ‘low frame rate,’ like a 24fps movie, and then creates an approximated higher frame rate version through interpolation.

There’s no way for a TV set to create 48, 50 or 60 frames per second out of 24 source frames without, basically, guessing. An algorithm is used to draw new, never-actually-recorded frames and then plop them in between real frames.

Recently, a number of popular and credible film-makers formed a coalition against motion smoothing and successfully campaigned for a new ‘film-maker mode’ to be added to TVs, providing a one-stop option for making sure the images on screen are being presented in an ‘approved’ manner.

When Tom Cruise, Ryan Coogler and Christopher Nolan decry motion smoothing, what they’re taking issue with is the ‘guesswork.’ Motion interpolation settings take film-makers’ carefully created, painstakingly adjusted sequences and messes with them, slapping in junk frames all over the place. Of course they’re appalled. They should be.

Don’t forget, however, that what’s happening when a Nolan film shot in 24fps gets played on a TV with motion smoothing, this is no more of a betrayal of the directors’ intended aesthetic than when an Ang Lee HFR 3D movie gets shovelled out in nothing but a 24fps 2D version, as happened with Billy Lynn in the UK.

It’s worth restating that motion smoothing is not at all the same as recording 48, 60 or 120 frames in the first place and then sharing those frames with the viewer. Motion smoothed video and high frame rate video don’t look the same – they just look unlike 24fps video in some of the same ways; what’s missing are some effects of 24fps playback. Unfortunately, that seems to be enough to fool many eyes and hearts, at least at first, and there’s not much distinction being made between the radically different aesthetics of a motion smoothing TV set and a 60fps cinema screening in the public discussion.

Motion smoothing is the frame rate equivalent of colourisation, and just like colourisation is no sort of case that all films should be shot in black and white, motion smoothing is no sort of case that everything should be shot at 24fps for ever more.

This week, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is released. Once again, he went in with “the whole shebang” and, as with Billy Lynn, very few cinemas will be equipped to screen the film in 4K 120fps 3D. There will be 14 cinemas in the US showing the film at 120fps, but it will be in 2K resolution.

Unlike Billy Lynn, however, a 60fps option will be very widely available. Chances are you’ll be within reach of a cinema that’s offering a HFR 3D version of Gemini Man. Critics seem to be rather more accepting of Lee’s experiment this time around too, though many have still thrown the ‘motion smoothing’ slur around.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Lee referred to audiences as having been ‘brainwashed’ by 24fps. We’ve seen so much motion-blurred cinema over the last century-plus that we’re surprised, unnerved, sometimes confused to see a film that doesn’t play by the same rules.

Do remember the fuss that greeted Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring?

Motion blur is an ‘artefact.’ It’s not a natural part of the image outside of the cinematographic process. It’s only there because of the nature of the technology, the movie camera used to create the image, and there’s nothing inevitable about that. It came about through circumstance, and 24fps was not chosen as the default in pursuit of motion blurs but as a cost-effective compromise, a way to provide enough frames that something like fluid motion is created but, at the same time, to not make the production of movies ‘too expensive.’

The technology of film-making has changed many times over the history of cinema, and it’s bound to keep changing in future, and when Ang Lee, Peter Jackson and James Cameron say that HFR cinema is inevitable, I’m inclined to agree. Digital cinema renders the reasons 24fps was initially chosen entirely moot, and now, all there is backwards-looking fear of films that look ‘weird.’

What’s more, I’m thrilled by the artistic and storytelling possibilities that open up when the blur goes away and much more temporal information gets captured – if only HFR cinema had been around to capture Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch! We haven’t even scratched the surface of what is possible at high frame rates but not at 24fps – dig into ‘micro-expressions’ and start to think what a studio like Pixar might do with a HFR format. But Gemini Man undeniably marks another step forward in the aesthetics of mainstream cinema. I’m hoping it’s also a herald of more and better things to come.

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