Opinion

At the Movies: A convergence of art and technology

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Directed by Peter Jackson

 

Any review of this most recent tale of Middle Earth is hampered by considerations of the technology, as well as the adaptation and performances – so I’m going to split this column into parts.

 

The Technology

This is a high definition movie screened in both 2d and 3D versions – both of which we have become accustomed to, regardless of where our preferences lie. The difference is that Peter Jackson shot the film (and in some theaters it’s being screened at) 48 frames per second (fps). Traditionally, almost all film has been shot in 24fps – in other words, for every second of film that you see, 24 separate images pass before your eyes. There are some exceptions to this, like a lot of animation that often only has 12 separate frames per second, because it’s easier and cheaper to draw half as many still images.

 

The outcome of this long held traditional frame rate is that we have, over time, associated the cinematic experience with 24fps – that’s the look that we think of when we think of film. So much so that for many years, as digital video cameras have become more and more popular and advanced, it has become the norm to have them equipped to record video in the same frame rate, despite the fact that it isn’t the most logical speed for a digital medium.

 

Meanwhile, most television production in the US has, traditionally, been shot at what is known as 60i – or 60 partial frames per second, with every frame capturing only half of the lines of information. So frame 1 might have all the odd numbered lines of data while frame 2 has the even numbered lines, etc. That’s why it was often difficult in years past to capture a good quality still image from a TV, because a full image consisted of alternating lines that were shot a fraction of a second apart. More recently, a lot of scripted television shows have switched to 24fps, but faster frame rates are still common in reality shows, daytime soaps, news programming, sports, and content such as documentaries on several cable channels.
Here’s where it gets odd. With television shows being screened for many years in 60i and much early video production being shot at 30fps (which is somewhat similar to 60i, only with a full image every 1/30 of a second rather than a partial image every 1/60th second), that appearance has become associated with television just as much as 24fps has become associated with film. And we tend to think of film as being higher quality than television, in terms of image, when a 60i or 30fps video stream actually carries more images than a 24fps film image. Which is entirely counter-intuitive as the end result is that when you speed up the frame rate, we tend to think an image no longer looks like film and, instead, looks more like lower quality television – despite carrying more data and including more images flashing before our eyes.
By shooting in 48fps, Jackson accomplished a couple of things: He produced an extremely high quality image, and he did so in a way that makes it very easy to convert back to 24fps (simply by skipping every other frame). By comparison, James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Avatar”) is experimenting with 60fps (60 full frame images, not 60i) for his future projects.

 

But the effect will be disconcerting to some viewers – not only does it look less like film, it’s also sharper and brighter than anything you might normally see on your TV. At times it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a projected image – it’s more like the screen has been replaced by a giant window and enormous actors are performing live in front of you – but in the most well lit and dust free room ever constructed. And it’s an unforgiving image quality – every detail is right there, in stunning clarity –every wrinkle and hair, including on actors who were also in “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy and who are now older, despite playing younger characters (as “The Hobbit” takes place before “The Lord of the Rings”).

 

Another odd outcome was that for all of the stunning clarity of some shots, others seemed moderately blurry – as if a little out of focus. For example, Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) looks craggy and older than before, while Saruman (Christopher Lee) looks a little soft and ethereal. It reminded me of the original “Dallas” when every shot of Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) looked like it had been shot through a pair of nylons. Even her headshot at imdb.com (the Internet Movie Database) looks a little that way.

 

I didn’t hate the high frame rate effect as much as some seem to, nor did I have any problems with nausea as some viewers have reported, but it takes a lot of getting used to and was, for me at least, quite distracting. It simply didn’t look like any other film I’ve seen. But that’s also something that will likely diminish over time if we see more films like this and if we adjust our expectations accordingly. It also raises the stakes for makeup artists, costumers, and set builders, whose every piece of work can now be examined in enormous detail.

 

Another, somewhat related technological change is that Gollum (Andy Serkis via motion capture) is now rendered in greater detail. Time and computer advances now allow for far greater depiction of facial muscle movements and Gollum is more facially animated and less like a botox patient than before. But it’s also a more detailed Gollum being seen at that higher level of clarity, as described above, and at times the outcome seems more expressive but also more artificial.

 

The Adaptation

“The Hobbit” was first published in 1937 (and first editions are listed on ebay in the $45,000-$60,000 range) – and it had more of a children’s story feel/style to it than “The Lord of the Rings,” which followed almost two decades later. It’s also a much shorter book, at 300+ pages compared to “The Lord of the Rings” at approximately 4-5 times that length.

Most books, when being adapted into standard length movies need to have some content discarded during the adaptation process. Despite being made into three very long movies, even “The Lord of the Rings” lost content along the way. But “The Hobbit” is also being made into three similarly long films and it doesn’t really have enough material in it to justify that style of adaptation. So, instead, material is being added to the original content to pad it out, while other existing content is being stretched beyond its inherent comfort range.

 

For example, in this story about a hobbit going on a journey, it takes 40 minutes before he decides to join Gandalf and his band of dwarves on their quest.  And the film doesn’t really feel like it’s fully underway until about the midpoint, as the group (not a “fellowship” this time) make their way to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarves’ lost treasure in gold, currently being guarded and hoarded by Smaug, an enormous dragon with little regard for non-dragons.
It may be worth noting here, as I wrote while reviewing some of the previous films, that I’m a fan of Tolkien’s work. Most noteworthy is his accomplishment as the creator of an entire world and multiple timelines for it. Tolkien was a scholar of ancient languages and created his various fictional languages for his works before writing the rest of the content. And in creating his Middle Earth, he made out of whole cloth a world with a history as richly detailed, and with cultures as fully imagined, as if somebody had conjured the entire history of Western Europe out of thin air on a whim. It’s a stunning achievement that, in my opinion at least, is even greater than the actual writing which is sometimes a little bland by comparison. To some extent, I think the same is true on a far lesser scale of J.K. Rowling, whose “Harry Potter” universe is more inventive than her prose.

 

But “The Hobbit,” as mentioned, was children’s literature while “The Lord of the Rings” was darker – and we’re getting the film adaptations in reverse order, which also gives rise to some stylistic continuity concerns. For example, during those first 40 minutes while Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is deciding whether to tag along (actually, for the most part he’s quite certain he won’t), his Hobbit hole (his house, in case that sounds euphemistically awkward) fills with far more eager dwarves. There’s a scene with Gandalf trying to remember their names, which feels a little like “Snow White” and another scene in which they sing a merry song and juggle the dishware, much to Bilbo’s (and my) alarm. The latter sequence feels almost like a slapstick scene out of an English Pantomime version of a fairy tale – and doesn’t entirely seem to belong alongside later, darker scenes of Orc bloodlust and violence. But this is a film that also bounces between cutesy bunny rabbits pulling an unlikely sled, and limb and head severing swordplay. It’s not so much a film for all ages as multiple films for different ages spliced haphazardly together.

 

The end result is an inconsistent film that feels like it could have been fully realized in one lengthy outing, which might have been over-extended in two installments, and which has no business being on screen in three. Except from a financial perspective.

 

The Performances

In general, the acting is good – although it’s also affected by the high frame rate screenings, as every line on every face, and every subtle nuance is more obvious than normal and occasionally the acting seems as visible as the effects and scenery. McKellen is back on form as Gandalf, despite suffering the reverse aging problem of shooting the earlier story after the later story. Martin Freeman (who is probably most known as Watson in the British versions of the recent “Sherlock” reincarnations) is neat in the role of the younger Bilbo Baggins (with Ian Holm back as the older Bilbo, introducing the story – which feels like more of the unnecessary narrative padding).

 

Andy Serkis does well again as the face behind the face of Gollum, seen via motion capture (which he has become known for – although he also worked behind the camera this time around). And the rest of the cast of characters is solid enough, although I was distracted by an oversized white Orc (the villain of the piece) that doesn’t seem nearly as well realized as Gollum (the same being true of the trolls and goblins), and some of the dwarves who seem a little more Disneyesque than warrioresque.

 

Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving reprise their roles as Frodo, Galadriel, and Elrond respectively but, even in the stretched narrative, none of them have much to do.

 

Overall Impression

I honestly walked away with very mixed emotions. The little kid in me who read the books is always going to be a little excited to see them up on the big screen. But the adult in me can’t help but see a third of a short kids’ novel being adapted into an almost three-hour movie as though it’s an epic – and there simply isn’t enough content to warrant it. As stated, it doesn’t really make any sense except in financial terms, as three opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise instead of one or two.

 

I didn’t react as negatively to the high frame rate as some have, but it definitely distracted me and took some considerable getting used to as the movie progressed. That may actually be the only upside to the extended length, as one can get used to the image quality for an hour or so before anything significant happens.

 

There’s also the problem of revisiting places already visited that is inherent in many projects. It’s hard to tell whether the relative lack of wonder compared to a first viewing of “The Lord of the Rings” films is more a result of the image quality feeling off or simple familiarity. It’s hard to imagine how we might have felt about the projects had they been made in their original sequence – but my personal impression is that the prior films were simply more captivating, whatever the reason.

 

I’ll still watch the next episodes – and not simply because I write a film column, I want to see them. But I’m not jumping up and down and squealing with anticipation – it feels more like an academic exercise of some sort, coupled with a screen test of the new technology. And that doesn’t seem to bode well for at least some folks who actually have to pay for their films and who make tough choices of which ones to see or not see. It’s certainly not my top recommendation for the holiday season, even based on what I’ve seen so far.

 

Afterthought

I decided to gatecrash the midnight opening and watched the first 20 minutes or so of the film again, but in the “regular” 24fps 2D version – and I preferred it. Everything looks more “normal” for want of a better word. It may sound like a Luddite view of new technology, but I’ve been working with different frame rates and changing definition for years and what Jackson has created just seems too good – not just better than what we’re used to seeing on screen, but better than what we’re used to seeing in real life to some extent also. It’s all a little too perfectly lit and shot – I’m not used to sitting across a room from somebody and counting stitches in their clothing.

 

The lower quality version wouldn’t fix my other concerns, regarding the pacing and the dull first hour of the film, but even in the first few scenes I was just enjoying watching them more, and not being distracted by the unusual viewing experience (although at least the 48fps 3D imagery gave me something to ponder while the story languished during the initial screening). If I had to do it over, I’d probably have chosen to watch the two versions the other way around – once ordinarily to enjoy the story and again to experiment with the visuals.
I also wanted to re-examine something that had bothered me a little the first time – the Hobbit feet in the opening scenes looked a little clunky and I wondered if it was an effect of the super clarity showing up flaws in the fake feet. But in lower quality they still looked like bulky foam rubber socks. On the other hand, one white bearded dwarf who looked a little too pristine in the brighter, sharper screening, as if he was about to play dwarf Santa at the dwarf shopping mall, looked a little more real and simply weather-beaten and grey. If I’d had more time and patience, I might have stayed long enough to compare a later scene in a rainstorm to see if the rain looked equally conveniently placed as it did the first time I watched it. But I’ll save that for another day when I’m not on deadline.


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