So like all good geeks and movie enthusiasts, I visited my local cinema in the last few weeks to see the first film in The Hobbit‘s trilogy. Wisely, I chose not to reread the book beforehand. As it turned out, it was also wise of me to pay attention to the reactions of other people regarding the look of this high frame rate production. The reactions were all over the map; our landlord and chief bottlewasher Widge was definitely not on the fence about the subject. As for me, I happen to be on both sides of the fence.
Let’s dive into this head first, shall we? Did The Hobbit look like rubbish? Like with most questions in life, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer to this one. The projection I saw–3D and high frame rate–looked sometimes brilliant, sometimes average, sometimes goofy, sometimes like a fast forwarded documentary in hi-def.
[ad#longpost]This last quality was the one that made parts of the movie look cheap and that’s definitely due to the high frame rate. Still, that alone does not make anything look less well-produced. I think Widge is on the right track when he says that the production was not ready for the higher frame rate. There was one object in the film that made me cringe again and again. Feel free to laugh at me or make obvious phallus jokes but…Gandalf’s staff, which was supposed to look like a majestic piece of well-aged wood, instead looked like fake plastic (which of course it probably is). Done laughing? All except for Scott, I mean? Good.
The higher frame rate literally means that there is double the amount of information for your eyes and brain to take in. Therefore, what looked like a wooden staff in The Lord of the Rings now looks like a prop. This is a challenge that the production met most of the time. The costumes especially looked great, which is probably due to the fact that they were real clothes…and the same goes for the gorgeous landscape. The swords used in movies are usually amazingly convincing looking while actually being made of rubber or plastic and the ones in The Hobbit managed to avoid looking like props.
When it comes to the actors, there is something to be said about the close-ups: I did not see the makeup, but I simply knew it was there because the skin sometimes looked unnaturally smooth. This sometimes worked (just as it worked in a lot of movies before, think of the unnaturally perfect look of Galadriel’s skin in the original trilogy) and sometimes not so much. Many close ups were ruined by a look of fake smoothness that is hard to describe but I am confident that the camera crew, makeup staff and lighting department were not very happy how this turned out. It definitely had to do with the light because this weird look did not occur in all of the scenes. During night scenes and in Bag End, for example, everything looked fine.
Now, as to the issue of the hyper-real look the movie adopted due to the higher frame rate. Let’s first focus on what good it did for me. I’m not a fan of 3D, never have been. I hate how much darker and fuzzy the picture becomes and I hate that I am forced to focus on certain areas of the screen because otherwise my eyes start to hurt. At least the first two aspects of 3D have been less of an issue with The Hobbit: the image was clear, sharp and bright. Even those who hated the high frame rate look of the movie will agree, that still images and scenes with little to no movement looked incredible.
The issue most people seem to have mostly occurred in scenes with a lot of light and some movement. For instance: the prologue. In those scenes, there is an abundance of sunlight and every move seems to be at least fifty percent faster than it should be. Until, that is, we focus our minds on them. I don’t have enough understanding or knowledge about the human eye and how we perceive visuals or how this technology interacts with it but specifically but I learned two things: I got used to it more and more as the movie progressed and when the camera moved as well my brain just gave up. Too much movement–please stop input immediately.
There have been a lot of comparisons when people discuss the high frame rate version of the Hobbit. One more commonly heard claims: the movie quite often looked more like a play because it was so lifelike. I only felt like this in a few scenes, where the focus was on a smaller group of people, and the light was good but not too bright along with the fact the movements were slow. Then, it almost felt like I was watching Ian McKellen on stage…as if I was there. This illusion was quickly destroyed by camera movement though.
But especially in the last third of the movie, I felt the movie was even more fake than it should look. My gut compared it to a computer game cut scene. Now, my gut does not have the best eyes but it does have good instincts. Many computer games have more than your normal 24 frames per second–which gives the movement more of a real feeling and is quite often the one thing that makes first person shooters playable. As soon as I realized this, the movie did not longer look fake to me–just different.
This might be the key to the higher frame rate: the audiences’ expectation. I went into this movie accepting the likely possibility that I would hate the way it looks and that it would always feel like a fast forward version of itself. Therefore I was not surprised and tried to adapt to the film. Now, one might say audiences should not adapt to movies–but we do this all the time. More often we adapt to the content, the style of the narration or the world the movie is set in.
That being said, there are a lot of things that Jackson and his team can improve for the next two installments of the franchise. I am curious to see if the 2D version of The Hobbit looks just the way The Lord of the Rings did, or just different from it in a, well, different way. I would also love to see a 2D version in the high frame rate. More importantly though, I would love to hear from other people about their experience with the movie. Share your comments below.