Shrinking Our Toolbox
When we set out to make a film, what is the end goal? For me, it is to help the audience escape for the small amount of time they are watching my film. I use many tools in order to do this. You see, the audience must suspend their disbelief for the time they are watching a film. We’ve all heard that before:
Suspension of disbelief.
Many experts in screenwriting say that when an audience suspends their disbelief, they can only do it in a limited capacity. What does this mean and how does it apply to screenwriting? Well, first off, these experts advise us that if we’re writing a fantasy premise, limit it to one element that asks us to suspend our disbelief. Blake Snyder (“Save the Cat”) goes over this in his book. Whether you agree with it or not, it seems to be a valid point:
DOUBLE MUMBO JUMBO as Blake Snyder calls it: Don’t add more than one piece of magic in one movie. In other words, don’t have an alien invasion (first element) and then ask us to believe the dead come back to life, bite the aliens, and they turn into zombie aliens (second element). While this might sound like a great Syfy movie, it might not work. Depends on the type of film you’re making.
How does this relate to HFR and 3D?
We’ll get back to that, but let’s move on to an important belief of filmmaking:
LESS IS MORE.
Many of us believe that filmmaking is a subtractive process. Think about it. What are some go to methods for making a more cinematic image? In no particular order:
- Shallow DOF
- More contrast
What do these all have in common? Less. Shallow DOF removes parts of the image through blur. Contrast crushes/clips details at the high and low end. 24fps is less than 48fps or 60fps. Less. Less is more in filmmaking.
MORE IS LESS
3D and HFR (high frame rate) cinema provide us with more. More for the eye to look at. More frames per second. More opportunities for the audience to call our bullshit.
3D is a tricky one. Most people don’t like it and it seems to be more of a gimmick than a storytelling device some say. What’s the problem with 3D and how is it shrinking our toolbox?
DEPTH OF FIELD
A deep Depth of Field is one of the issues with 3D. Aside from some instances of making the film look cheap (more like a home video camera), it removes one of the tools in our toolkit. A large depth of field removes the ability to control where the audience looks. When you have those insanely detailed environments, and in order to make it easier on the viewers’ eyes, the trend is to make the DOF so deep that you see everything. This is done so it resembles more what the human eye sees (a deep DOF), as the argument for 3D and HFR is to make the movie-going experience more like real life.
Removing this tool removes part of the control we have over the viewer. Again, we’re trying to trick our audiences into believing our story; we’re asking them to suspend their disbelief. By showing them everything, we’re limiting our ability to manipulate the them. By showing them everything, they don’t know where to look. By showing them everything, the only place they know where to look… is everywhere.
HFR, oh how I hate thee. I’ll admit, I personally hate the look of “HFR cinema.” It just looks cheap. I was walking around BestBuy and noticed something that looked like The Avengers on a 55” LED TV. I stopped, kept watching, and immediately my thought was, “What is this, a late night talk show/SNL parody?” To my horror, I realized that it was actually the film itself playing on a television set up with motion smoothing/higher Hz to simulate higher frame rates. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
People say kids under 20 don’t care about the looks of HFR cinema. Gamers don’t care about the look of HFR. The next generation doesn’t care. If you came up with movies shot at higher frame rates, you wouldn’t be so attached or partial to 24p.
Honestly, look/aesthetic is just part of the story, but it’s enough for me to dismiss HFR altogether. But let’s take it further. What higher frame rates does is decrease the amount of motion blur. Those that support HFR consider motion blur an artifact. I look at it as a tool. It distinguishes a movie from any other video source. It distinguishes a movie from reality.
TOOLS – NOT ARTIFACTS
Call me crazy, but what many supporters of HFR cinema call artifacts, I consider tools. Sure, you have to handle cinema cameras with care. You can’t go all Blair Witch with them and expect good results (if that’s not the intended look). But these “artifacts” are not limitations. They are tools we use in filmmaking to make our storytelling more believable. Let’s face this fact:
Most films have visual effects nowadays.
These visual effects might not be as in-your-face as Transformers, The Hobbit, or any other blockbuster, but visual effects are a tool we all use.
Depth of field as a tool was already mentioned. It’s fairly obvious. We don’t see as much of the frame, which allows us to hide many things. It allows us to manipulate the audience into looking where we want them to look. However, Shallow DOF is another way we can integrate VFX into a shot and have it be believable. Just watch the many VFX shots in the film Monsters by Gareth Edwards to see what I mean. Showing less or showing VFX for a shorter period of time can sometimes help integrate VFX into a shot. Our mind thinks, “Oh ok… the camera went out of focus there and so did the large tentacle. It must have been there.”
24fps & MOTION BLUR
Motion Blur at 24fps has a wonderful aesthetic to it. It just looks like a movie – admittedly an established look based on decades of cinema. Sure, one can say that it’s just because we’re used to it, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a tool.
What makes VFX blend into a shot well? Basically, we have to imitate and simulate what the camera captures. Take, for instance, a shot of buildings in the far distance. There are many naturally occurring phenomena that the camera captures while shooting. This could be anything from heat distortion to haze. When we’re trying to blend 3D elements or CGI into a shot, we have to duplicate the phenomena in order to make elements blend seamlessly into the shot.
So what are some of the methods to make CGI elements blend? We already mentioned heat distortion and haze but what about blur, grain, color correction, and yes, you guessed it… MOTION BLUR. It’s yet another layer we can add to help the Visual FX elements blend into a shot.
If you’ve been listening on Twitter and other social networking sites, you’ve seen many people say that some of the VFX in THE HOBBIT stand out as particularly bad and fake because of the 48fps smooth, drastically less motion blurred images on the screen. What we’re essentially doing is we’re removing elements, methods, LAYERS from our toolbox of tricks that help fool the audience into thinking what they’re seeing is real. Why on earth would we want to do that?
It’s A Wrap
By removing all these elements in our toolbox – some of the best tools to produce our “movie magic,” we severely limit ourselves with ways that we can trick our audiences into believing the worlds we create in our films. There has to be some distinguishing factor between films (“make-believe”) and the reality of the world we live in (news, sports, etc). We want to escape. We want to LEAVE reality. We don’t go to the cinema for reality. We go to the cinema to ESCAPE reality… to escape our problems… to escape real life in order to be entertained. We don’t need anything else pulling us back to reality while we’re trying to escape it.
Blake Snyder said that DOUBLE MUMBO JUMBO is adding more “magical” elements than we care to believe. I propose that by removing elements like 24p motion blur, Shallow DOF, etc, that we are performing REVERSE DOUBLE MUMBO JUMBO (speaking of Mumbo Jumbo…).
What do I mean? We’re REVERSING Snyder’s theory and REMOVING too much of the “magic” from our movies. We’re removing the very magical elements that have helped us distinguish film from reality. Shrink our toolbox – remove too many layers – and the magic is gone.
Are you willing to give that up?