Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth with “The Hobbit” at the higher frame rate of 48 is certainly a bold experiment. It’s new; it’s different; it’s smoother; it’s more heightened. But there’s no question that HFR 3-D is already causing an aesthetic divide. For some, it’s jarring; for others, it’s jaw-dropping. For me, it was an unexpected delight. I’m as passionate about film as anyone, but from the moment we first entered Bilbo’s Hobbit Hole, I surrendered to the clarity and opulence of the journey. It was like opening a window into a familiar world yet truly seeing it for the first time.
Yes, it was strange at first, as though I was on the set with the characters (and the motion was sometimes awkward in the way it was sped up or slowed down), but the intimacy greatly enhanced the experience. There was no displeasing soap opera-like video look: Andrew Lesnie’s lighting and subsequent color grading were remarkably diverse, ranging from the naturalistic to the impressionistic and much of it breathtaking.
“Is it better or worse? I didn’t quite know myself at first,” Jackson admits. “It’s different — it’s more real. Is that a good thing? It’s like saying your favorite color is blue or red and arguing in favor of that color. Then as we started shooting it and we watched dailies for hours on end, there’s a length of time that you relax into it. I don’t even think about it now.
“The real question is: Do we basically sit back and continue to watch audiences dwindle and surrender to kids watching movies on iPads or do we see what we can do with the technology today to enhance the cinema going experience? To me, it’s a very fundamental decision, whether it’s high frame rate or 3-D (which is more immersive) or 4K or 8K. But at the same time, it’s also interesting that there’s a fear of change. As humans, we seem to have a fear of the new. I remember hearing CDs for the first and there are still people today who insist that vinyl’s better and will buy all the albums that they can if they’re available on vinyl and that’s what they’ll play. And I remember the hysterical headlines about the Beatles never being available on CD because you were never going to get the same clarity as you did on vinyl. And I can see that with 48 we’re going to go down the same road.”
Yet despite the additional rendering cost (which is quadrupled in 3-D), which Jackson is covering himself through his vast resources at Weta, he definitely has no regrets. “I find it a much more gentle experience because the 3-D at 24 frames is forcing your brain to process all this blur and strobing and I find that a lot more assaultive. Forty-eight to me is a lot smoother and more genuine. It’s not just the movement but the clarity, which is why filmmakers chose to shoot in 65 mm or continue to shoot sequences in IMAX. Fortunately, the Red Epics were designed alongside ‘The Hobbit’ so they gave us everything we needed.”
It’s all about delivering a new kind of spectacle in keeping with the looser and more whimsical tone of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” “We embraced the fact that this was not ‘Lord of the Rings’ and wanted to be faithful to the way the story originated,” he explains. “Of course, we’re in a strange situation because the book that Tolkien wrote 20 years before ‘Lord of the Rings’ is the second story that we’re telling. It’s the wrong way around but the genesis of the project, which was written as a children’s story, is what we wanted to be faithful to. It has a fast pace and a much younger feeling than the more apocalyptic sequel.
“But at the same time, I wanted it to feel like we were the same filmmakers returning to Middle-earth again. I didn’t want to change my directing style. The advantage of doing the prequel the other way around was echoing ‘Lord of the Rings’. You see the genesis of threads, which I like because that’ll make the unity all the more resonant when viewing the two trilogies sequentially on Blu-ray.”
For instance, one of Jackson’s favorite moments in “Fellowship of the Ring” occurs in the Mines of Moria when Gandalf sits on the rock with Frodo and says, “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” Thus, in “The Hobbit,” Jackson finally shot the scene when Bilbo spares Gollum’s life and liked how he was able to complete an unfinished story arc. Likewise, we understand what Gandalf meant earlier when he told Bilbo, “True courage is knowing not when to take a life but when to spare one.”
Indeed, one of the dramatic highlights of “The Hobbit” is the chance encounter between Bilbo and our old friend Gollum in a cave and a change of possession of the precious ring. It’s where the HFR 3-D really shines and reveals just how far the wizards of Weta have advanced technologically in the decade since “Lord of the Rings.” It’s really a touchstone: Gollum no longer looks like a CG creature but another character. The eyes, skin, hair, and movement are totally believable. And the smoothness of the higher frame rate only enhances the look. Plus it’s so well acted by Andy Serkis.
In fact, they shot the Gollum scene first for an entire week, which Jackson says was like being at the bottom of a mountain looking up into the clouds — the beginning of a long journey. “It was a great way for Martin [Freeman] to find the character of Bilbo right at the outset in this Riddles in the Dark scene,” Jackson explains. “And he had Andy Serkis coming at him with full energy. I felt sorry for Martin — he had to stand his own against Andy. But I’ll tell you what: it was good. And what I did to help Martin is that I staged the scene, which is around nine minutes long — the longest scene I’ve ever done–as one continuous performance. Fortunately, with the Red Epic cameras we had 20-minute capacity on the cards, so I was able to run the whole scene continuously from different angles, which allowed us to cut them together. I just let Andy and Martin go for it and Martin spent that whole week exploring. By the end of that scene, Martin knew who Bilbo was.”
Having already shot and edited part two, “The Desolation of Smaug” (December 13, 2013), Jackson likens it to “The Two Towers,” which is his favorite “Lord of the Rings” movie. “It’s strange because it doesn’t have a middle or an end, and I like it that way. I’m getting the same impression of the second ‘Hobbit’ movie.”
The finale, “There and Back Again” (July 18, 2014), meanwhile, draws on appendices Tolkien added to the end of “Lord of the Rings.” “Emotional connection is important,” Jackson underscores. “The danger with these sorts of stories, especially when you’re doing three of them, is the structure becomes more about the geography. You can’t tie a climax around a place. It must be tied to the emotion. We wanted to take Bilbo on a journey with Thorin [the dwarf warrior played by Richard Armitage].Their relationship provides the emotional climax.”
By then, of course, we will have had two more experiences with 48 fps before James Cameron raises the bar at 60 fps with his two “Avatar” sequels.