Today in New York the junket was held for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first in the new trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkein-based films from “Lord of the Rings” mastermind Peter Jackson. A sweeping fantasy epic that takes place above and below Middle Earth, featuring heroes both new and familiar, ‘The Hobbit’ is made even more audacious and mind-boggling by Jackson’s insistence in shooting the movie in 48 frames per second, which gives the 3D some much-needed oomph and, honestly, might make you a little bit sick (more on that in a minute).
During a press conference today, Jackson addressed the task of turning what was a relatively slim children’s book into his second set of trilogies (the second film, ‘The Desolation of Smaug,’ opens next Christmas, with the third, ‘There and Back Again,’ to follow in the summer of 2014), the differing reactions to the new 48 frames per second technology, the possibility of losing star Martin Freeman, who plays the young Bilbo and how the Star Tours ride at Disneyland partially inspired his decision to shoot in a high frame rate.
Why three films from a slender children’s story?
That’s a good question. It kind of surprised us a bit too. We were originally doing two films. It’s really a question of what you leave out. It’s misleading book, because it’s written at a very breathless pace. Major events happen over two or three pages, it’s like a children’s story. So once you start to develop the scenes and you do a little bit more character development than the book, plus we can adapt the appendices, which is 100 odd pages that Tolkein developed that takes place around the time of the ‘The Hobbit.’ And Tolkein himself wrote that to tie into ‘Lord of the Rings.’ So all those factors combine and give us the material to do it.
How they always wanted Martin Freeman for the lead role
Martin is the only person we ever wanted for the role. And that was before we met Martin. We knew him from “The Office” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” We felt he had qualities that were perfect for Bilbo – that very essential fussy English quality. He’s a dramatic actor who has a rare comedic skill. So that was going to be important. There was a lot more comedy in ‘The Hobbit’ than in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ It’s comedy of a fish out of water nature. It’s Bilbo reacting in a reluctant way to the adventures. We met him early in pre-production and we really locked into him for the role. And the delays that happened, mostly due to the MGM financial situation, we couldn’t offer the role to anybody and we couldn’t do anything contractually.
How they almost lost Martin Freeman and had to look elsewhere for someone to play Bilbo.
By the time we offered him the role he had already accepted the “Sherlock” TV series and by that time the first season had shot but the second season was going to be right in the middle of ‘The Hobbit.’ And he said, “Look, I can’t do it.” We were in trouble. I was panicking. We looked at other actors but unless we got this bit of casting right we knew we were going to be in enormous trouble. I was having sleepless nights.
We were about 6 weeks away from the beginning of the shoot and I was tormenting myself by watching “Sherlock” on an iPad at 4 o’clock in the morning. I was sitting there and looking at Martin and thinking there is nobody better, this is a nightmarish situation. When I got up that morning I called Martin’s agent and asked if we could accommodate Martin’s schedule for “Sherlock” within our shoot would Martin still be interested. Fortunately, the answer was yes. What we did with the studio’s approval, we started shooting ‘The Hobbit’ for 4 or 5 months so we stopped the shoot for 8 weeks and then when Martin came back we carried on. It was a blessing for us, too, because I got to edit the first four months of shooting, I got to prepare for the next batch of shooting and that little break was very welcome. It was quite a civilized way to make a movie at the end of the day, plus we got Martin.
Why Peter Jackson originally didn’t want to come back and direct “The Hobbit.”
I guess I thought that I wouldn’t enjoy it is the truth, because I thought I’d be competing with myself and I thought it would be interesting to have another director. And Guillermo [del Toro, who was originally signed on to direct, worked on the script for the initial two films and provided voluminous character designs] was there for a while, over a year. And with the delays we had another six months after he left. I was enjoying it a lot more – we were writing the script with Guillermo and developing it throughout this time. And another thing, which I hadn’t put my head around, was that there was a lot of charm and humor in ‘The Hobbit.’ It’s a completely different tone. This is not ‘Lord of the Rings.’ This gives me an opportunity to do something different. I thought it would be a lot of fun. And it was. The first day of shooting I was incredibly happy I was there.
Why, despite the furor, Jackson believes in 48fps and high definition frame rates.
The levels of detail are similar to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ The HD cameras you see more so you can see more detail but fortunately the team we have in New Zealand – the WETA Workshop, who design everything – have always wanted to put in a lot of detail. To me, fantasy should be as real as possible. I don’t buy into the notion that since it’s fantasy it should be unrealistic. The levels of detail are very important. The 65mm films that people used to shoot in was virtually a high definition of the film world, very fine grain film stock. And when we were setting out to do ‘Lord of the Rings’ we explored doing it in 65mm. The camera equipment was very cumbersome and we were going to have to develop the film in America even though we were making them in New Zealand… But it was something I wanted to do in that time. That big screen epic experience, the more immersive it is, that’s the sort of thing I like.
About the divisive reactions to 48fps thus far
I’m fascinated by the reactions. I’m tending to see that anyone under the age of 20 or so doesn’t really care and thinks it looks cool and doesn’t really understand it. They think the 3D looks really cool. I think 3D at 24 frames is interesting but it’s the 48 that allows the 3D to achieve the potential that it can achieve because it’s less eyestrain and you have a sharper picture which creates a more dimensional world.
The history of it was that I had seen a couple of high frame rate movies. I remember going to Disneyland and seeing the Star Tours ride, which is a high frame rate film, where you’re speeding in the “Star Wars” spaceship. And I had experience with it a few years ago – I directed a “King Kong” attraction for Universal Studios in California, which was a 60-frames-a-second 3D surround film on the tram ride. And I thought, Wow, this is so cool, I wish we could do a feature like this! But the mechanical projectors in the cinemas around the world were locked into 24 frames.
But the advent of digital projects allow for this to happen. The editor we worked with went to a technical convention and he said, “If you’re interested in a high frame rate, now is the time, because the projector manufacturers can probably do it and the cameras are going to be able to do it.” So we decided to take the plunge. Warner Bros. was very supportive, they just wanted some assurance that the 24 frames version would look absolutely normal, which it does. But once they were happy with that, they were happy, but we had to push that button that said “48 frames.” When we started filming there probably wasn’t a cinema in the world that could project 48 frames in that format. It was a leap of faith.
But the thing to realize too is that it’s not an attempt to change the film industry. It’s another choice. The projectors that can run at 48 frames can run at 24 frames. You can shoot a movie in 24 frames and have sequences in 48 frames or 60 frames within the body of the film; you can do all the shutter angle effects, the “Saving Private Ryan” strobing effects. It doesn’t necessarily change the way films are going to be made but it’s another choice filmmakers can have. For me it gave it more of that reality, that immersive-ness. It makes it feel like you’re leaving the cinema seat and becoming a part of the adventure.
I’ve been watching it for a year watching hours and hours and hours of it. With 3D, your left and right eye are seeing two different pictures. And with 24 frames you’re getting strobing and motion blur, your brain is trying to put this stuff together. And the more artifacts in the capture, your brain is struggling to resolve those two images. And 48 frames reduces those artifacts and makes for a smoother picture. As human beings we always have resistance to things that are different. I was a Beatles fan and I remember in the eighties when CDs came out and there was a sound of vinyl that people loved and suddenly CDs were threatening the sound of vinyl. I remember reading something that the Beatles said that they would never have their albums on CD because it was too clear and all the bad notes would be exposed. So you’re never going to hear a Beatles tune on CD. There was all this hysteria.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens on December 14th.