Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My verdict on 48 fps, and other Hobbit thoughts

So I did as planned last night: I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps.

I won't say 100% that I loved the technique. I'm still processing whether it looked too fake or too realistic. And whether each of those things might also be good things.

But I did love the movie. In terms of pure, simple enjoyment, I may actually have liked it better than two of the three Lord of the Rings movies.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers will likely be my favorite Tolkien movie no matter what comes with the next two Hobbit movies, but as an isolated adventure, I think it's very possible that I liked The Hobbit better than Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King.

Is that really possible? I'll have to think about it some more.

Of course, to call The Hobbit "isolated" is not accurate in any sense. The movie reminds us a number of times of the previous trilogy, not only with appearances by various familiar characters, but by the fact that the beginning involves the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) sitting down to write his memoirs in scenes that also feature Elijah Wood's Frodo. A keener eye might have picked this out, but I couldn't actually tell whether this older Bilbo is writing in a period before the events of the LOTR trilogy, or after.

Neither is it isolated in the sense that it's only the beginning of this new trilogy, and closes with a terrific amount of momentum toward the events of next December's The Desolation of Smaug. Because I was ready for it this time, the thing that initially bothered me about The Fellowship of the Ring (its open-endedness) did not bother me this time around -- it just whetted my appetite for the next film in the series. I've come to quite like Fellowship, but its initial impression on me was somewhat negative -- an impression that was retroactively rehabilitated by how much I loved The Two Towers. And though I also quite like and probably love Return of the King, it's the only one of those movies I haven't seen at least twice, and my lingering thoughts about it have started to focus more on its bloated length and numerous false endings. Still a brilliant film, but a brilliant film with an aftertaste.

Fortunately for me, the aftertaste this morning of The Hobbit is still quite good -- meaning that yes, maybe I really do like it second-best out of the four Jackson-Tolkien movies.

The most amazing thing is that I never felt the movie seemed intentionally elongated by filler in order to reach Jackson's standard epic length. Much has been made (including by me) about how it may have been unwise to stretch a 300-page novel into three movies, but the strains of that don't show in this first film. The pacing is very good -- I never felt it dragging. And the set pieces are simply awe-inspiring.

Another thing that was overturned? My idea that The Hobbit was an adventure without stakes. Having watched it, I'm now very invested in the dwarves' quest to retake the kingdom they lost to the dragon Smaug. It's plenty epic, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

Ah, but what about the 48 fps?

The fact that I haven't been eager to jump right into it should probably tell you two things: 1) I enjoyed the story enough that my impression of the format didn't hinder my appreciation of the movie, and 2) I'm still processing. In fact, am I actually procrastinating within the body of this post? Usually you procrastinate on starting the writing, not within the piece itself.


My first reaction was that sinking feeling, that realization that indeed, it looks like I thought it was going to look, which was "not good." Even seeing the MGM lion roaring at the beginning in 48 fps filled me with a sense of wariness about a bad decision that could no longer be reversed.

But as I watched, I got used to it, and started to enjoy the sense of intense realism the format confers. I don't think I'd ever felt more like I was there in Middle Earth than I felt while watching this film. And here's the reason for that: Most cinema is more beautiful than real life. The 24 fps frame rate creates a sense of a moving painting, not quite realistic in one sense, but certainly aesthetically pleasing, which is why everyone loves it. Here, I felt like I was standing in that room with those characters, because they did look grubby and dingy and flawed. They looked tactile, like I could reach out and grab them.

The effect of this is not universally positive. We do go to the movies to see beautiful things, especially in the case of Jackson's inimitable production design. You could say that as much as a film tries to immerse us in its world, we are most comfortable being a little bit at arm's length. Well, 48 fps removes that arm's length. It draws us right in, and confronts us with whether this is really what we want. And some people definitely may not want to be that immersed.

While on the one hand I'm suggesting it's more realistic, there are also times when things look pretty fake. For example, during a couple set pieces where everything moved really quickly, and especially those shot at a great distance form the subject ("helicopter shots" being one of the DP's trademarks), the characters looked like little toy models moving at abnormal speeds. It's easy to see how you could be distracted by this, but I instead decided it was just part of the film's unique look.

I think you just need to be ready for it. You need to be prepared for the fact that the visuals of this movie don't hold your hand and tell you how pretty they are. They're pretty, alright, but the 48 fps technique tends to fixate on what makes them grungy rather than what makes them pretty.

In a weird way, the effect on the CGI creatures is to also make them seem a bit more realistic. If the idea created by The Hobbit is that you are standing there in the same room as a wizard, a Hobbit and a bunch of dwarves, then it's also that you are standing there with a troll, an Orc, and Gollum. And if you decide that the format makes it feel like these are actors on sets, something too realistic in a displeasing way, then it stands to reason that these fantastical creatures are sharing that same set with these actors. Which has the effect of making them seem more like actual elements that might "really exist."

Would I recommend that you go see it that way? I don't know, but that's in part because I don't know who "you" are. But when I got home from the movie, I told my wife that she may not want to see it in 48 fps. It's definitely an acquired taste, and I don't know if everyone will acquire it, at least not in time to have the experience of this particular film salvaged. But one of the reasons I was recommending she not see it that way is because I did like the movie enough not to have her experience of it ruined. I was proud to hear her say that it was going to be 48 fps or bust for her.

Okay, some other thoughts inspired by my viewing of The Hobbit, some of which may contain mild spoilers that I'll try my best to speak of in the broadest and most generic terms:

Every trailer I was trying to avoid seeing 

I had to laugh when I took my seat, because it was just in time to see three trailers that I was trying my best to avoid.

In fact, the three most talked about trailers in the previous couple weeks all appeared to me before The Hobbit, as I should have expected they might: Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim and Man of Steel.

Because I don't want to already be sick of images from these movies by the time I see them, I didn't go out of my way to find these trailers on the internet. Even when links were posted to online discussion groups I visit, I still didn't follow the links. All in good time, I figured.

Good time arrived last night. Oh well.

At least all three of those films look absolutely terrific.

Blinded by the light

One obstacle I feared I'd have while watching The Hobbit had to do not with the 48 fps, but with my 3D glasses themselves.

Very early on I noticed a small light in the upper right corner of the glasses, which threatened to drive me to distraction. I couldn't figure out the source of this light. It seemed like a reflection of some light source in the theater, but if that were the case, then it would disappear when I angled my head away from that light source. It didn't.

Fortunately, the light either went away or my eyes just got used to it, because pretty early on I stopped noticing it. Or maybe I just got wrapped up in the movie.

One thing I'm now wondering: Do some of these more high-tech 3D glasses actually have a light in them, as part of the ongoing effort to combat complaints that viewers find 3D movies too dark? It would seem foolish to create an artificial internal light source, if it has the side effect of distracting the viewer more than the darkness of the image distracts him/her. Plus, in this case it would be completely useless, because the whole point of 48 fps is to remove the darkness factor that bothers people so much.

I guess I could google it and find out.

Gandalf ex Machina, Deus ex Hawkina

I recently re-watched Adaptation, in which one of screenwriting guru Robert McKee's key pieces of advice to his audience of wannabe screenwriters is to never use a deus ex machina. You know, that moment in a movie when the hero is saved by something entirely external to his journey, that doesn't spring naturally from the conditions that have been put in place. The example in Adaptation itself is when John LaRoche is attacked by the alligator, but the example I always think of is during one of the endings of Return of the King, when Frodo and Sam are saved from certain death in the Mordor lava flow when giant birds fly in to rescue them.

This being Tolkien, I should not have been surprised to see numerous other instances of deus ex machina in this film.

Most of them are carried out by Gandalf. In fact, I counted three and possibly four instances where Gandalf's 11th hour involvement in a particular skirmish was the only thing separating our heroes from defeat. Oddly, though, Gandalf also displays a fair amount of human frailty in these affairs, often urging his compatriots to "Run!!" in no uncertain terms. One wonders why he can't just magic his way out of any situation, but apparently, he can't. Perhaps it has something to do with getting them to fend for themselves.

One other instance, though, involves possibly the very same birds that we saw at the end of Return of the King, which I will call hawks for the purpose of the play on words above. When in doubt, call in the hawks.

And speaking of things that fly ...

Flight of Conchords' Bret McKenzie is in this movie. I didn't note where or when, but I saw his name in the credits.

Not too surprising, since he's a Kiwi and this movie was shot in New Zealand. But I still find it funny.

I just looked it up in Google Images. He's an elf. I guess I didn't recognize him with the long straight hair.

That can't be his real name

And speaking of the end credits, I noticed that the makeup and hair credit went to a guy named Peter Swords King.


Not really. I just looked him up on IMDB, and he's credited there as Peter King. The "Swords" must have been added as some kind of inside joke. Still, having the name "King" alone makes him a pretty funny fit for this series of films.

The multi-talented Andy Serkis

I may have found Serkis' work as Gollum even more impressive here than in the other films, but in reality, it's probably exactly the same amount of impressive. In all three films he gets incredibly juicy emotions to act out, and this one is no exception.

But that's not what I'm talking about when I say "multi-talented."

Another thing I noticed in the credits: Serkis was also credited as "second unit director," a title I now see he holds for all three films (which makes sense).

I guess if Gollum's only going to be in about 20 minutes of the movie, might as well have Serkis do something else. It's just impressive that he can also do this job effectively.

Okay, I'm going to shut up now


(That blank line represents me saying nothing.)


Don Handsome said...

Interestingly enough, I find myself in complete “agreement” on 48 FPS and complete disagreement on the movie itself.

For me the experiment of 48 FPS was the only show here. The technology was not a total win for me, but I did like feeling that I was right there in the action. I snuck into another showing of the film (in 24 FPS) on my way out of the theater – I stayed for only ten minutes or so, but I did catch one good comparison scene (in which plates are flying all about) and I REALLY noticed a difference. Here the 48 seemed to really pop and seemed to have real time weight-in-flight. The 24 example on the other hand seemed unfluid by comparison – I can only describe it as a subdued version of what happens when I’m having streaming issues with Netflix and it appears to be skipping a few frames here and there to keep up with the audio. I feel like this is a good indicator of the power of the 48, but I must admit that I doubt I would have missed it if I didn’t know what I was missing. If I saw the Hobbit only in 24, I doubt it would have occurred to me that that scene was choppy.

As for the film as a whole…I thought it felt stretched too thin. I’m not a big believer in the “first” LOR trilogy on film, but those DO have rich and deep tapestries within them. I didn’t feel the Hobbit went deep at all, in fact I felt like if you were to dwell on any single aspect of it for too long (like, at all) you could eventually see right through it. Transparency is not becoming in a fantasy film like this. I don’t fault the 48 FPS for this, but I do fault another directorial decision – the one to stretch a short novel into three (presumably) three-hour movies…

Vancetastic said...

I love the term "weight-in-flight." You've captured the essence of 48 fps there.

You weren't a big believer in the LOTR trilogy? I thought you were basically in agreement with me on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the films. Maybe you were, just not to the same extent I am.

We'll agree to disagree on the story. Even if I hadn't liked all the individual set pieces, which I did, I knew the emotional center of the story had really gotten me when Bilbo explains why he rejoined the group even after they'd made him feel like an outcast. I thought the emotions were played just right in this. (Whereas I thought they were a bit overdone in Fellowship of the Ring, one of my other complaints about that film.)