Nerd Rant: Is High-Definition Technology Killing Practical Special Effects?



At the end of this week, theaters across the country will debut The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the long-awaited film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel story for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While the film itself is getting positive reviews, I've noticed that many of the critics have also commented on one of the film's technical aspects--namely, the visual effect has resulted from the film being shot at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the traditional 24 fps. The film's director, Peter Jackson, chose this new format for the sake of giving his film better image definition; some critics think that Jackson has achieved his goal in spades, while others think that the movie looks much more artificial than had it been shot at the normal frame rate.

In particular, Andrew O'Hehir's made this observation about the 48 fps format when he saw The Hobbit: "(F)or me ... this cinematic innovation apparently meant to create an atmosphere of magic realism makes the whole thing look immensely more fake. Mountains and fortresses that are presumably digital creations look like painted backdrops; humanoid figures of hobbits, dwarves and wizards appear just as artificial as the goblins, specters and trolls. ... Personally, I found the Thomas Kinkade-like glow of The Hobbit’s images both fascinating and disconcerting, and felt that it accentuated the movie’s other flaws."

I've noticed before on Blu-ray how higher definition can make multi-million dollar film productions look cheaper than they actually are, as if they were shot for television instead of the silver screen. Granted, this doesn't happen on all Blu-ray transfers--for example, the Blu-rays for Jaws and the Alien series look fantastic--but I've noticed it happening with enough frequency that I can only wonder how things will further change when and if the 48 fps format becomes the industry standard. In short, here's my question: Can practical special effects still be used if high-definition technology exposes their artificiality, or will only high-definition CGI special effects technology be able to keep up with the new fps format?

Essentially, special effects involve the creation of celluloid-ready optical illusions in order to enhance the audience's experience of watching a movie. In some ways, special effects are like stage magic: Just as magicians have to carefully control what a live audience can and cannot see in order to make stage tricks appear magical, special effects artists have to control what a movie audience can and cannot see in order to maintain their suspension of disbelief. The effects can be a complicated as stop motion animation or as (relatively) simple as forced perspective shots, and many special effects techniques have deliberately exploited the shortcomings of film as a medium to keep the audience unaware of the effects' artifice. So, what happens when special effects artists are forced to contend with a film format that is intended to show everything in such high detail?

Of course, filmmakers want fake things to appear real for the purpose of capturing the audience's imagination. Yet film projects that are heavily based on special effects--scale miniatures, animatronic costumes and puppets, complex applications of makeup, etc.--shouldn't look too real, because if they do they'll look exactly like what they really are: fake. Will practical special effects still have a place in 48 fps movies, or will the 48 fps format serve as another damaging blow against the usage of practical effects and further promote the usage of CGI special effects in their place?



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