December 13, 2012

Spoiler Free Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Guest Post)

On this eve of the official premiere for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, many of you are probably watching the trailer on repeat, listening to the soundtrack, and thinking about dwarves - I don't think it's just me. Several lucky folks have already seen the film (some more than once!), and reviews have been hitting the internet at a rapid pace. I've read mixed things, but that's okay because 1) I'll see for myself and 2) The opinion of people I trust is valuable to me and their reviews have all been positive. So, when I saw Brian Ward was looking to share his feelings about The Hobbit, I asked if he'd want to post them here. He's a huge fan of Tolkien, but I also know he's able to separate his love for the material from the evaluation of the film - he's cool like that. So without further delay, check out his review (and yes, he discusses 48fps):

What do you do when you finally get to see The Hobbit and have so very much to say about it but don’t have a personal blog? Clearly, you seek out another Tolkien geek with an amazingly awesome blog and you write a guest post for her! But this isn’t a review of Jackson and Co.’s film, per se; though I’ll certainly be expressing my spoiler-free opinions on the movie, including, yes, the controversial high frame rate in which the trilogy was shot and is being exhibited in a limited number of theatres. This blog is everything that went through my head as I left that theatre in “beautiful downtown Burbank” on Tuesday night. And, for this opportunity to unload the terrible burden on the association areas of my cortex, I couldn’t thank Amy nearly enough.

And so it begins…

Just as it’s been for SO many people throughout the 75 years since its original publication, The Hobbit is a very personal book for me. When I was five years old, growing up in a small town in North Carolina, I was outside playing with the neighborhood children when they—as backwoods kids tend to do—decided to poke a nest of wasps (the actual Apocrita; not to be confused with yuppies) with a stick. Moments later, with an ice pack over my right eye and bawling, I was being cradled within my mother’s arms, seeking comfort after a stinger had found its way into the inner corner of my eye. I was thoroughly convinced that I was heading briskly toward death. Or, at the very least, blindness. Instead, only moments later, my eyes were opened then and for the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I actually go blind one day. So in the case of legitimate blindness, let’s just say this statement is strictly metaphorical.

“Son,” began my father, as he sat me down on the sofa. “Something just came on TV that I think you’re going to want to see.” And there it was in every bit of its Rankin/Bass glory. In a television screen in my family room there lived…a hobbit.

To say the animated movie is an abridged version of Mr. Bilbo Baggins’ journey to, well, there and back again would be a bit of an understatement. Much is left out from the already short novel, but the film did everything it was meant to do. It entertained me. It thrilled me. It made me laugh, gasp and, you betcha, cry. It even inspired me to sing “Down, Down to Goblin Town” often as I marched toward my bedroom. And when my father explained to me that it was based on an even better book, the Rankin/Bass movie just made me want to learn to read at whatever level necessary to read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Since the third grade, I’ve read The Hobbit and its sequel once a year and, yes, I have just as much glee today as when I first read them in 1985.  In fact, no matter my love and appreciation of Sir Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf the Grey (and later, the White [and later, the Grey…again]), the Rankin/Bass film was so influential to me that, to this day, I can’t read either novel without hearing the thunderous, yet paternal voice of John Huston in my head.

It was my personal dream to be the man who brought The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, though “they” said it could never be adequately done. So when I heard the news that the latter was in preproduction at New Line Cinema, I was absolutely crushed. When I heard a split-second later that it was to be co-written and directed by Peter Jackson, I was absolutely elated. I’d been introduced to Jackson’s work while a student at Appalachian State University, a small town many would argue—at least at the time—wasn’t so unlike something you’d read about the Shire itself. Everyone knew one another. Tales of yesteryear still spread throughout the community. And there were plenty of adventures to be had if you only dared to take that first step outside your dorm room and into the Blue Ridge Mountains. While there, I happened upon a film called Heavenly Creatures, a true story about two young Kiwi girls responsible for the death of one of their mothers. The story was brilliantly executed, using a fantastic blend of live-action and computer-generated effects. None of it was too flashy and all of it was imperative to put you into the mindset of these two very desperate girls. Later, I discovered that the director—one Peter Jackson—had also been responsible for two other dark comedy/horror films I’d seen and loved called Dead Alive (overseas, it was known as Brain Dead) and The Frighteners. I was hooked and needed to see as much as possible from this director. My best friend and I found very hard-to-get VHS copies of his even earlier works, Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, and loved them for very different reasons. And with that, it was settled. If Peter Jackson could create fare that ranged so dramatically in genre and tone, but entertained so equally, he would become my new favorite director. So hearing that these movies were being made without my involvement, but by my favorite director was, needless to say, incredibly bittersweet.

That is, until I saw my first bit of footage from Fellowship of the Ring. From then on out, I had nothing but confidence, admiration and joy that my favorite director was helming this epic. I’d have never been able to accomplish the feat he and his team would.

The immediate follow-up question after the tremendous success of The Return of the King was whether he’d move onto The Hobbit next. And that question was repeatedly met with a negative response. And I never blamed Peter for it. The tone of The Hobbit is considerably different. It’s basically a story for kids, while The Lord of the Rings is decidedly not. The trolls—named Bert, Tom and Bill Huggins, for god sakes!—, for instance, are basically comic relief and barely pose any kind of real threat. This is fine, because it’s only the first of many tests of character, strength and faith that get increasingly more difficult as The Hobbit progresses. But these aren’t characters you’d have ever found in The Lord of the Rings. After all, the first menace the four hobbits face in Fellowship of the Ring is a creepy-as-hell Ring Wraith. Much, much different tone. Making The Hobbit wasn’t something Jackson wanted to do. I respect that. But he was basically forced into the director’s chair, once Guillermo del Toro had to step down.

Jackson needed something to get him excited about returning to Middle Earth and, ultimately, competing with his own masterpiece. Ironically, technology was the answer to this problem. A theme woven thoroughly throughout Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is anti-industry or, more to the point; the effects industry has on the natural world around us. But in this era of filmmaking, it’s that very technological revolution that seemingly brought Jackson’s excitement for Middle Earth back. The piece of technology in question was the RED camera and its ability to synch multiple cameras running at the controversial high frame rate of 48 frames per second.

When film was introduced to audiences, it was done so with hand-cranked projectors that relied on the projectionist to run the film at a reasonably steady speed. The films those projectionists were cranking were shot using a camera that was also hand-cranked by a camera operator, so viewing of these films were rarely perfectly simpatico between the director’s vision, the cameraman’s arm and the projectionist’s arm. But as time moved forward and automation came into play, the standard frame rate for film—in order to make movement look as lifelike as possible—became 24 frames per second. With the advent of television over time, broadcasts began the standard of video mastering, which runs at 30 frames per second, hence one of the distinct visual differences between film and television. But film has always remained loyal to a 24 frame per second standard, due in large part, to the audience’s comfort level with it. After all, very few—if any—of us remember anything less and certainly have seen very little of anything more.

But, like the titular hero of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson sought adventure. He knew there was something out there beyond the confines of the Shire (24 fps) and seems to have found Rivendell (48 fps). The controversy over the higher frame rate comes with our perception of movement. The very familiar film “blur” with which we’ve grown accustomed and even comfortable is nearly non-existent in this new presentation, making many things easier on the eyes, especially in 3D. That easier feeling, quite frankly, is oddly uncomfortable for many. It’s very reminiscent of old BBC television or live TV specials where there’s something just a little bit faster or more fluid than a standard movie. Add in the 3D effect and, well, now you’re watching live human beings performing a stage play on a large film screen. You notice fewer cuts in each scene and you begin to have the sneaking suspicion that you’re literally watching 13 dwarves, a hobbit and their great wizard running the scene right there in front of you live. It’s awe-inspiring and, yet, for some, very worthy of downright loathing. It does change the way you see a movie and some have argued that it makes everything look fake. But, personally, I don’t think the frame rate really has much—if anything—to do with that.

To shoot effective 3D, you obviously need depth. To see that depth, you obviously need to light it thoroughly. And therein lies the problem. The Lord of the Rings is quite dark and moody. Praised for its realistic effects, miniature work and even computer-generated imagery (CGI), The Lord of the Rings relied and benefited greatly on the use of light and shadow. Light a miniature the right way and no matter how small it is, it’ll look like it towers miles above your head. If you light it improperly, it’ll look like something made by a 7-year old with an endless supply of popsicle sticks, Elmer’s glue and an unsteady hand. Clearly, in today’s technological age, it’s not a difficult feat to shoot something in high levels of light only to make it look considerably darker by adding shadows and contrast via computer. But these scenes rarely look genuine, often replacing black with shades of blue and giving audiences far too many details that should otherwise be hidden by shadow. Unfortunately, most scenes within Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit are too well lit, giving everything an artificial quality not seen in The Lord of the Rings. The opening attack on Erebor, for instance, looks like we’re watching live humans super imposed into a set the size of Mattel’s Castle Grayskull. It doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence for the rest of the film, particularly when you’re also trying to process this new thing called “high frame rate.” And, sadly, I feel like it’s this simultaneous processing of the HFR that’s taking the brunt of the blame when I legitimately feel it has more to do with the production of the 3D.

If there’s one thing, besides the (sometimes uncomfortable) feeling of having a live performance right in front of you, that absolutely appears to work in HFR 3D, it’s CGI. Don’t get me started on how much I despise the use of CGI in most occasions, but as Jackson proved with Gollum/Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings and later with King Kong, CGI can be done well and reasonably convincingly. I wasn’t expecting pleasant things, when I thought about the fact that you’d have to double up the amount of CGI rendering to accommodate the additional 24 frames per second and the thought of seeing these things in 3D…ugh. I wasn’t expecting what I got. And what I got was very lifelike digital creations. The “Riddles in the Dark” scene between Bilbo and Gollum is all I need to point to. Granted, it was the very first scene shot on The Hobbit, so they’ve had more time with it, but Gollum is so lifelike, I swear I could’ve lassoed him with a piece of Elven rope and taken him home with me. The movement is so smooth and the weight and dimension of the character are so convincing, it literally solves the problem of computer-generated images not appearing to exist within the same frame as their live counterparts. Sure, there are scenes with CGI creations that look, quite frankly, video gamey, but when it matters—and Peter Jackson and his team at Weta seem to know exactly when it matters—the CGI is given a lifelike quality that I’ve never seen on film before. And I have to believe this is chalked up to the audience seeing it in the combination of 48 frames per second and 3D.

I’m eager to see the film in 24 fps to see if my next hypothesis holds true, but the HFR 3D does seem to have an effect on performances. Once again, Sir Ian McKellen plays Gandalf the Grey quite magnificently and Martin Freeman is a natural Bilbo Baggins. However, as I’ve said, when watching the HFR 3D, I got the feeling that I was watching a live show in front of me. It was like watching a stage play and, as anyone who’s seen their fair share of stage plays can tell you, there’s a distinct difference in the feel of performances. There are edits in The Hobbit, mind you, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was simply watching one single take from many angles and the performances felt more like stage acting than film acting. And this is something I attribute to the feeling the HFR 3D gave me. Only by seeing the film in a standard format will I know for sure, but it’s certainly something to consider.

Here’s my biggest lament. HFR 3D could absolutely be the future of cinema…but it won’t be. I’m eager to see more of it. It’s distracting—disturbing, even—when you see it for the first time. But I firmly believe, like anything to which we’re exposed over and over, it’s something I could very easily get used to. By the end, I loved the intimacy it gave me with the film. I only wish we could experiment with it for a while to figure out exactly how to light a scene and still make everything feel as intimate as The Hobbit does. I’d also like to see a film that doesn’t rely so heavily on visual effects play with HFR 3D. A straightforward action movie could really go places with this new technology. And, I dare say, a romantic comedy could even benefit. Imagine one of those cheesy scenes between boy and girl or boy and boy or girl and girl on an ice rink with one slipping and sliding all over the place as we track along with them… In 48 frames per second and in 3D, we’d literally feel like we were a third wheel watching this meet cute. And I kinda wanna see that. Sadly, though, the backlash that Peter Jackson seems to be getting from audiences, critics and theatre owners is going to quash this format for studios too quickly to really get a sense of what we can do with it. But, personally, if I can sit for two hours and watch a Quentin Tarantino movie made to look like the celluloid was run through battery acid a few times, I can just as easily sit through a Peter Jackson film that looks like an intimate personal performance right in front of my face. It’s a visual style choice like any other. And it’s one of which I’d like to see a lot more.

Ultimately, if you’re a fan of Tolkien, you’re going to be a fan of this movie. Like with Lord of the Rings, Jackson’s taken a liberty or two, but for the most part, they’re liberties with which I’m comfortable because they appear to make sense within the narrative. There are a few things inserted that fans only of The Hobbit novel won’t recognize, but fans of the extended appendices of The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion will certainly welcome. For some, it drags in places, though I never felt the time pass. Regardless, the last hour is truly something to behold. And I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. To be honest, just as I’ve always felt with The Hobbit, I’m very ready to go there…but I’m not so sure I’m ever going to want to come back again.


  1. An interesting post on the technical aspects. At the end he writes "Like with 'Lord of the Rings', Jackson's taken a liberty or two..."

    That's the only line I disagreed with. A "liberty or two"? Many elements were added or changed in the film that were not featured in the book, which, in its physical form, is shorter than 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. The film version will be three times the length of Fellowship, so it is safe to say Jackson has added a good amount of detail that, since it wasn't included in "The Hobbit", is more than a simple liberty or two. It's Jackson's retelling as opposed to his previous ventures, which were faithful representations.

    I'm not saying that makes it any worse for the film, just a line I read and had to comment on. I enjoyed Unexpected Journey for what it was and find this post on the technical aspects more interesting than I expected.

  2. I always loved watching the Appendices to LOTR, and The Hobbit was no different. I would definitely recommend this five-disk set--the extended edition of the film is amazing, and all the special features/appendices are just really great and interesting, too.

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