Technologies of Unreality: HD/HFR offer Fantasies so Real they feel Unreal??
Keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free
My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real”
-Frank Ocean, Sweet Life
What does it mean for something to look so real that it appears false?
It’s Superbowl Sunday and we’ve gathered around the brand new, state of the art, HD television, but there is some dissension. Complaints have been launched that the display looks “too real”, so real in fact that it’s distracting from the big game itself. We try with little success to adjust the picture settings, having heard that it is possible to turn off the so-called ‘soap opera effect’ – a default feature on HD-TV’s that increases the frame-rate to eliminate motion blurring. But it’s a tough crowd and there are other, more difficult to alleviate, complaints: “You can see too much!…The coaches hairline looks too sharp…Everything’s in focus, I can see everything, I don’t know what to pay attention to!”. At first, I attributed this to a room of young people who – having cancelled their cable subscriptions some time ago – have been languishing in Youtube pixelated cat videos limbo. But was this simply the effect of their lag to catch up to new HD technology, or was there something more here? When I got home, I took to Google, and found thousands of forum threads pleading: “Help! My HD-TV looks too real” or “Help! The detail is so sharp that the movie props look fake..”
I recall in December encountering similar concerns when The Hobbit was released in High Frame Rate (HFR) – a process which projects at a higher frame rate than the ‘cinematic’ industry standard 24 frames per second (fps). [Note: 24 fps was not the result of a technological limitation, but economic/commercial decisions by film studios in the 1920s to settle on an affordable maximum frame rate that would allow for relatively realistic looking ‘motion-pictures’. While the 24 fps ‘cinematic’ look has served film making well, digital film making has opened up new opportunities: The Hobbit @ 48fps, and the possibility of Avatar 2 and 3 @ 60fps.] Despite Peter Jackson’s warning that “HFR 3D is ‘different’ — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records”, audiences and critics experienced a particularly visceral shock at the 48 fps format. In fact, some of the most aggressive attacks ever typed were launched at Jackson’s choice of 48 fps, calling it: “theme-park-ride-cinema” (New York Times), a “non-cinematic picture” (Reelviews), full of “exceptionally sharp, plasticine images…which do resemble what we see…on our HD television screens…as the ‘soap opera effect’ (Village Voice), “unnaturally crisp and clear as an over-amped hi-def LED screen” (Minneapolis Star Tribune), “so hyperreal that you see everything that’s fake about it” (Rolling Stone).
The critics were aligned in their contention that The Hobbit – when presented in HFR – was devoid of the ‘magic’ that had – for the past century – acted as a kind of filter between the world of ‘real’ experience and the ‘illusionary’ domain of cinema. With the combined immersiveness of 3D, bigness of IMAX, and the pristine hyper-realism of HFR, The Hobbit was the first, true example of the cinematic filter withering away. It was as if once the sweeping, cinematic 24fps blurriness was doubled to 48fps, audiences felt unable to experience the visuals before them as escapist fantasy. But neither were they of the opinion that they were looking at the real world of their day to day lives.
There is a paradox here, namely that the pristine, crystal clear, REALISM of HFR left audiences with the persistent nagging reminder that what they were looking at was UNREAL. And suddenly, adjectives like like “hyper-real”, which hitherto were found in the works of French postmodern philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco began to appear in the Entertainment sections of major newspapers. The New York Times reported that the “shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction”. It was as if Hobbit audiences were confronted with a hitherto unknown feeling of unease where the qualities of a fantasy world – designed by CGI artists from descriptions in a novel – began to bear a similarity to our own real world that was too close for comfort.
[Note: Very briefly, I’d like to point out a concept called the “Uncanny Valley“, which tries to explain the revulsion and anxiety we feel upon seeing something not quite human (a humanoid robot for example) with many human features. It may also apply in examples like this, where we are confronted with a fantasy world so detailed, sharp, and lifelike that it bears a very close semblance to the real world.]
It has long been understood (and is a familiar theme on this blog) that DISTORTIONS and ILLUSIONS are vital to sustaining our sense of reality. At first blush, this may appear contradictory, but the world we experience with our minds and our senses is not the weird quantum world ‘out there’. Our senses act as a filter, letting in only some of the world ‘out there’, our minds categorize and make sense of little bits of the world. It is this filtered, delayed, categorized, mediation of the world ‘out there’ that we refer to as reality. It can be traumatic – and psychologically debilitating – when one’s ability to categorize or mediate the world breaks down, and suddenly they are awash with a sense of things in their immediacy. In this regard, consider this reflection by Vincent Laforet in his excellent article about The Hobbit:
In my opinion, film is not necessarily about WHAT you see – but it’s almost more an exercise in what you DON’T or CAN’T see. The best Directors and DPs show you only what is relevant to the story and never introduce a random shot or character if they can at all avoid it. I’ve always preached that a director or photographer should INCLUDE elements in a frame or shots that add to the story, and EXCLUDE elements or shots that detract from it.
Laforet offers the reminder that “Shallow depth of field, motion blur, lack of sharpness, and movement all help to create movie magic.” Most interestingly, in support of our argument that distortions create a sense of reality, he quotes a VFX friend who exclaimed: “Motion blur is extremely important to what I do… that’s how I hide all of my mistakes and make VFX/CGI look more real.”
All in all, the ‘so real it’s unreal’ phenomena presents an intriguing lesson on the interaction of MEDIUM and MESSAGE, a reminder that the format itself is always tied up with the content the audience consumes. Perhaps with repeated exposure to HD and HFR audiences’ expectations of what cinematic ‘magic’ is will begin to alter. Alternatively, if there is something integral to the cinematic experience that relies on some degree of blurriness, delay and imperfection, we would be better off with less conservatism and more experimentation with the aesthetic filters and techniques that would ensure the sensation of unreality and escapism persists in an age speeding headfirst into crystal clear pixelation and constantly accelerating frame rates.
P.S. Another interesting factoid is that the cosmetic/make-up industry has had to keep up with constantly increasing HD resolutions and HFR frame rates. The now familiar technique of “airbrushing” was a response to actors’ every pore being featured during close ups, and the visibility of wigs and traditional cosmetics. As resolution and pixelation became capable of presenting a more ‘real’ human face, the face that viewers actually came to see became more and more ‘artificial’, airbrushed of their blemishes and flaws. On the symbolic level, each increase in resolution has caused a frantic covering up of what the increase revealed, leading to a strange dialectic whose synthesis is the creepy 21st century airbrushed face. It’s almost ironic that the drive to capture the most immersive and real experience, has yielded intolerable results, and spurred us to don artificial, inhuman, faces, replete with actual layers of HD makeup and virtual layers of Adobe airbrushing that eliminate entirely our all-too-human particularities and lines of age.