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Movies: The Hobbit and 48 FPS Technology

Three things become apparent while watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with the new 48-frame-per-second projection technology.

#1: Certain scenes with 48 FPS are dazzling, even revelatory upgrades to regular projection technology.
#2: Certain other scenes with 48 FPS seem to be markedly worse than they would be with regular projection technology.
#3: The Hobbit has a lot of both kinds of scenes.

A quick primer on the new tech: regular film projects 24 images per second, fast enough that your brain can’t distinguish between each image and instead perceives motion on the screen. This means that your brain is effectively filling in the gaps between each frame – the concept behind 48 FPS is that by making your brain do less of this “guessing”, you’ll sense a smoother, more life-like picture. And in some scenes, it certainly feels that way. CGI and 3D both look a whole lot better and more immersive, and in general, medium to wide shots, where you can see full bodies in motion, have a stunning clarity and sharpness.

That is, as long as the camera isn’t moving. Shots where the camera pans any faster than a slow crawl look bizarre and odd, in particular distorting the motion of characters into a Benny-Hill fast-forward. And any close-up shot where there’s a lot of motion is a flat-out jittery disaster – shaky-cam style seems even more offensive than usual in this new presentation. (My guess is that with double the information heading into your brain, visual chaos is that much less tolerable. Note that fast zooms in one direction work a little better – perhaps because there’s less change being registered by your brain.)

Responding to critics of 48 FPS, supporters have taken the “Welcome to the future, old man” tack, saying that we’re all just conditioned to expect 24 FPS and we just need to adjust to this new format that is the future. There’s no doubt some truth to that, but I also don’t think it’s quite that simple. It would seem that a major transformation of movie technology would require at least some change to the way those movies are shot.

The cinematography and visual language of Jackson’s Hobbit, however, haven’t really changed at all from his 24 FPS Lord of the Rings movies. People making movies with this new tech are going to grapple with the questions of what kinds of camera movements and compositions work best now – maybe the standard majestic pans and swooping angles aren’t going to work that well anymore. Jackson doesn’t seem to have struggled with those questions much, maybe understandably enough, since the vast majority of people seeing The Hobbit will see it the regular old format. But if these filmmakers want people to buy in on this new technology, I hope they come up with something better than the strategy of blaming it all on our brains.

(It’s also worth noting that there’s a real future-forward contemporary feel to this technology that meshes uncomfortably with the old-timey medieval aesthetic of The Hobbit – I’d be very excited to see Michael Mann or Steven Soderbergh use it for a contemporary thriller. James Cameron will no doubt do his best to redeem the tech with the sci-fi of the Avatar sequels, which are being filmed in the format.)

It would also help if the movie itself wasn’t as much of a mixed bag as the use of the technology. Jackson has split his adaptation of this Lord of the Rings predecessor into three parts, making this first section mirror his Fellowship of the Ring as much as possible in its plot structure. This, of course, has the unfortunate effect of making you constantly consider how much better that film was in every possible way (an unfair comparison, maybe, but one Jackson continually seems to bring up himself).

Indeed, An Unexpected Journey really helps you understand just how much of a screenwriting miracle that earlier film really was. In Fellowship, Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pared down an immense tome into a briskly paced and elegant narrative, packed with a dozen characters who all somehow achieved complexity, moral shading, and vivid personality. The Hobbit is a much more ramshackle affair, cluttered with extraneous detail while skimping on the kinds of things that would seem to matter most. The story tells of how cranky homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) was swept up by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into the quest of a band of dwarves to reclaim their mountain home and treasure from a dragon.

But instead of a lively band of adventurers, we get a cluster of slapstick-prone dwarves, out of whom only one is easily differentiable (Richard Armitage as Thorin, a poor man’s Aragorn equivalent). Most of the first hour is set inside Bilbo’s Hobbit-hole, depicting what was a few brief chapters in the novel and stuffed with dull exposition, cornball humor, and multiple (!) musical numbers. At the same time, given the length of everything else, the segment does a remarkably rushed and hand-wavy job of explaining the reasons for the epic quest in the first place. (Amusingly enough, if you look at the movie’s Wikipedia summary, you’ll see the Hobbit-hole segment accounts for 50 words out of 900.)

All that said, the movie improves considerably once Jackson the obsessive chronicler of Tolkien minutiae gives way to Jackson the showman and entertainer. While the pacing and excessive reverence to Tolkien lore remain problematic, the big set-pieces are pretty universally terrific. Thorin’s flashback to a massive dwarf-orc battle is the film’s best illustration of the power of 48 FPS (slow motion, interestingly enough, looks tremendous at this doubled frame-rate speed), though a chase through a Temple of Doom flavored goblin kingdom comes pretty close.

But the most impressive set-piece is a simple battle of words and riddles between Bilbo and Gollum, who as “played” by Andy Serkis remains the most compelling CGI character ever created by a wide margin. Here he’s found in a thrillingly unbalanced and homicidal mode quite different from his conniving fawning in the Rings films, a nice counterpoint to Martin Freeman’s cool calculation and calm wit (Freeman’s main character here is perhaps the film’s only improvement on Fellowship of the Ring and its puppy-eyed Frodo).

It was always unlikely that Jackson was ever going to top his Lord of the Rings films – the director has been floundering since with films like The Lovely Bones. The promise of his Hobbit adaptation was that the modesty of the original story – a streamlined coming-of-age adventure instead of a sprawling epic – might allow him to shed epic grandiosity and get back to more simple action pleasures (Jackson’s 1992 horror comedy Dead Alive remains one of the most exhilarating zombie movies ever made). Instead, he’s inflated the original story to standard epic proportions, mostly for the worse. But there’s enough crackerjack spectacle here to at least make you optimistic about the next two movies – and when you think about the other recent precedents for sci-fi/fantasy prequel trilogies, maybe we should just rejoice that this isn’t a total disaster.