In 'Hobbit,' New Tech Mangles the Scenery
Sometimes trying to make things look more real has the opposite effect.
CREDIT: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Director Peter Jackson is always inventive — from creating fantastical imagery that portrays madness in "Heavenly Creatures" to pioneering artificial intelligence that animates swarms of computer-generated orcs in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
In "The Hobbit," Jackson pushes technology further, with eye-popping 3D. He also uses "high frame rate" (HFR) video that flashes twice as fast as a standard film — 48 instead of 24 frames per second — to portray movement fluidly. While the technologies are brilliant in some parts of the film, for most of it they fit no better than sneakers on a furry-footed hobbit.
Although 3D isn't so new, Jackson takes it to the extreme — with disconcerting effect as objects and even people come flying out of the screen.
In the first meeting between hobbit Bilbo Baggins and wizard Gandalf, the camera alternates from character to character as each speaks — pretty standard technique. When the camera is on Gandalf, however, he not only fills the screen but protrudes out of it — a King Kong-sized wizard floating in a movie theater. While there are many giants in the movie, Gandalf is not supposed to be one of them, and he looks far more fake than in a 2D or much subtler 3D movie. [See also Cheaper 3D Boasts Titanic Entertainment]
For much of the film, the camera focus and 3D effect tug the mind in opposite directions. In a flash-forward scene, the elderly Bilbo stands at the front of a room when his nephew Frodo, standing far behind, calls to him. The camera focuses first on Bilbo as he speaks, then on Frodo as he replies — another common effect in regular films that's baffling in 3D. Whatever is closer to the eye is more likely to be in focus. So why is Bilbo, who is popping out of the screen, suddenly a blur?
This happens throughout the movie, with furniture, tree branches and all manner of fuzzy objects pointing at the audience.
The 3D is brilliant, however, in the giant battle scenes, when it feels like being within the melee. But these parts, such as a battle with thousands of orcs in an underground kingdom, are mostly computer generated. And 3D has always looked good in animated flicks. It's fine in "Up" and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs."
Computer imagery poses a problem with the HFR video, though. By eliminating the blur of film, HFR shows fluid motion, more like that in real life. But Middle-earth is not real life, it's largely a computer model. The way that high definition removed the blur of low-res television to reveal cheap studio props, high frame rate removes the blur of slow-moving film to reveal the flaws in digital props.
Love 'em or hate 'em (or a little of both), the 3D and HFR effects make "The Hobbit" trilogy a very different set of films than "The Lord of the Rings" — even though so much of the cast, props and scenery are the same.