Wednesday, December 19, 2012
The Hobbit in 3D at 48fps: My Thoughts
First off, let me talk about what I thought of the movie itself before I get into my impression of the gears behind the screen. I actually found it fairly underwhelming. I don't know why I wasn't more excited to see the movie; I saw every LOTR film at either midnight on Thursday or prime time Friday. I'm no superfan. I've never read The Silmarillion. But I have read all the appendices in LOTR. I love the world Tolkien created, and I know the map of Middle Earth better than, say, our own Middle East. But I was lackadaisical about getting these tickets.
I think it's problematic to step back to The Hobbit after the previous films have been so ingrained into the minds of those who care. The tone of the book is very different from the Big Three, and the movie caught that tone pretty well. It's not easy to go from "We must save all of Middle Earth from annihilation!" to "We're a bunch of interchangeable dwarves herp derp come on an adventure with us, total stranger. Here's a random song. Do you have any more food?" While the movie did catch that mischievous, adventure-for-the-sake-of-adventure tone, they tried to bridge the gap by really playing up Thorin's need to recapture his kingdom and making the conflict between dwarves and orcs something much more serious than I remember from the book. They created an orc leader for the film, to personalize the action more, whose name I could never properly understand but was often referred to as the Pale Orc. More on him later. That attempt to bridge the tonal gap may have actually hurt this film to some degree. It was jarring to go from bumbling Radagast talking to his animals, and the dwarves cleaning Bilbo's apartment to a song, to epic battles rife with orc decapitation and/or dismemberment.
The movie hit a lot of the same beats as the original trilogy, so much that I felt like I was watching some strange parallel telling of the same story. The way Bilbo first puts on the ring, a dramatic last-minute save, Gandalf facing down a large enemy on a bridge underground (seriously?); there's more than one way to make a fantasy movie, Jackson.
That being said, the cast is great. I was happy with Martin Freeman as Bilbo, which I fully expected, and while it's impossible to give each of the twelve dwarves a full personality and still get your story out in under six hours, I liked the ones we did get to know. Now that this story is out of the way, I'm actually pretty excited to see the next two installments. While this all felt like extremely well-trodden territory, I think the next two films focusing on Mirkwood, Erebor, and Smaug himself should be much more engaging.
Alright, onto the tech. When the film opened I'd forgotten we were about to see something at 48fps (most times I forget what movie I'm even there to see), so I was completely thrown when it did start. My eyes are so accustomed to 24fps that everything seemed to be moving too fast, like a silent film shot on an old crank-powered camera. I assume that was my brain trying to compensate for the extra frames. That passed after a few minutes, but the movie never stopped looking like a TV movie from the 80s. Did you ever see the live-action Alice in Wonderland on PBS when we were kids? That's what this looked like. Video, in short. It also looked like the smoothing feature you see (and immediately turn off, if you know what's good) on HDTVs. It was of course very sharp, and when there was motion you didn't have the blur you get on slower film. But I can't say I liked what we had instead. I'm really trying to look at the whole thing with objective eyes, and not turn my back on a new technique just because it's something I'm not used to. Allegedly the higher frame rate is supposed to benefit CGI, which in some cases seemed true and in some, not at all. The Pale Orc I mentioned was, as far as I can tell, almost entirely CGI, and I thought he looked great. His moments were very human, in that he was mostly still and framed close-up, and I thought it worked very well. What didn't work was any sort of extreme motion with CGI characters. Radagast, the brown wizard who loves his animals more than people, is pulled around on a sled by some very fast rabbits. When that happened, it looked awful. It was a cartoon. Then, we'd see a ghost creeping up on someone and it looked fantastic. Very hit and miss.
I could see this being an early attempt at something that may become mainstream in the future, in which case we may look back at this film and see it like we currently see those crank-camera silent films I mentioned earlier. I certainly applaud Jackson for having the guts to go through with a decision like that. I'm DYING to hear the back and forth with studio execs about the higher frame rate. Studio suits are a notoriously terrified, flighty, herd-like people, so I have absolutely no idea why any of them approved shooting a mid-nine-digit budgeted trilogy in an unproven format. Kudos to them?
This is the second movie (after Avatar) that I've seen in 3D, and it will be the last. It neither added nor subtracted from the film, but it did subtract an extra $7 from my wallet. Every shot I remember is 2D in my head. It just didn't matter at all. But, you can't see this film at the higher frame rate without also donning your 3D specs. Touche, Hollywood.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he's an actor and writer.