Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Very Short Review Of The Hobbit

I've been looking forward to The Hobbit for some time. Not just because I liked The Lord of the Rings, but because it is the first technical demonstration of cinema development since Avatar. And being a total cinema geek, for better or worse, I was giddy as a school girl. A very large, hairy, school girl.

First, the movie. It is better than I was expecting. After learning that Jackson was going to be stretching what is arguably a simple, twee, children's adventure story into three movies, giving them the benefit of the doubt was a difficult task. The film mostly pays back that benefit.

Many have complained about the slow pacing of the film, and I didn't mind that at all. I liked the leisurely walk through Tolkien/Jackson's world, and enjoy the time given to appreciate the texture of everything. I disliked the overly-goofy portrayal of some things. The Hobbit book was distinctly more childish than The Lord of the Rings, and I don't mind that element coming into the movie, but they went a bit over the top with the trolls and especially Radagast the wizard, who is borderline Pythonesque.

But now for the part that actually got me out of my hovel and into a theater for a midnight premier: 48 frames per second.

It's not bad! I was honestly expecting it to be worse than it was. In recognition of Jackson's push to have this done, The Hobbit successfully convinces me that there may, in fact, be potential in 48fps at some point in the future. That is still only a possibility, though, and my initial beliefs may yet hold true.

Many people have had a hard time describing the sensation of 48fps. Some call it too real, but I actually see it as less real. Anyone who has ever played extensive video games knows that one of the reasons why they don't look real, regardless of the polygon count or texture detail, is because they lack blur. It doesn't matter if it is at 30fps or 300fps. Since there is no actual object moving through the visual field, there is no blur. There are, instead, 300 perfectly clear, distinct images flashing in front of the player.

Game companies tried implementing motion blur to increase realism, but that generally had a negative effect on the game play, because it is actually better to have everything crystal clear to better facilitate navigation of the world in which the game takes place. But for movies, there are no bad guys that the player needs to dispatch. No details that the player must discern else fail at the game. A movie is a movie — an artistic creation intended to be experienced, not interacted with. The director has absolute control of whether what appears on screen is clear or indistinct. Realism via blur is thus desirable.

It is for this reason why sets and props looked fake. Not because they actually looked fake, indeed, in photographs, everything looks great, and at 24fps, everything looks great. No, they looked fake for the same reason that video games look fake, no matter how detailed they get.

Perhaps think of it another way. A film is a series of still images. We need to get motion out of these images. A very short exposure for each individual frame will give very clear individual images, but it will fail to catch much motion. Much like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where measurements of particles can either be accurate about location or direction, but not both at the same time, a photo can either tell us where something is going when the photo is taken, or tell us where something is when the photo is taken, but it cannot tell us both.

Movies are not about where things are, they are about where things are going. The more we know about where things are, the less we know about where they are going, and this plays tricks on our minds when happening forty-eight times per second.

Importantly, and this is something that has been lost in the discussion, is that frame rate only tells part of the story. As I'm sure you started considering as you read the above paragraphs, the exposure time is just as important as frame rate, because it is the exposure time that determines the amount of blur. Cinema cameras are based on exposure time in the terminology of rotary disc shutters, and an excellent work up of this is available at Wikipedia.

So with all of that description out of the way, back to my belief that 48fps may actually be useful. Once I got accustomed to the new rate, it provided a unique and enjoyable texture in many of the scenes. The large, sweeping shots that would have otherwise suffered severe strobing, such as the mountain shots and field chase scenes, were buttery smooth. And since these shots would have had very little motion blur at 24fps, the majesty of the image is not greatly altered.

Likewise, any scenes that involved slow motions, such as discussions and activity in Rivendell, looked great. The water flowing and trickling around the elven city was wonderfully detailed and smooth. And during these scenes, the 3D looked great. Jackson was correct in saying that 3D looks better at a higher frame rate. Unfortunately, Jackson had a penchant for severely deep focus, which produced shots that were cluttered and overwhelming in 3D. Doubly unfortunately, not doing deep focus causes its own problems, when the eye naturally tries to refocus to see objects in the background and foreground.

And perhaps because of the skill of Jackson and his team, there are even a few high-speed scenes that look magnificent at 48fps, most memorable is the stone giants fighting with one another. It needs to be seen to be believed. And scenes shot in slow-motion, because we are accustomed to no blur, such as when Thorin walks through flame to fight his nemesis, looked awesome.

Sadly, for every scene that looked good in 48fps, there were five scenes that looked awful. The shot that most perfectly embodied every issue was when Radagast the wizard is being pulled on his sled by... magic bunnies... and there is a brief shot of the camera rushing forward through leaves. It is one of the worst-looking shots that I have seen in recent films. It looked exactly like a video game.

All things considered, The Hobbit is a success. The 48fps is only a partial failure, and while it is stretched a bit far, it's not nearly as thin as I feared. In fact, I think that it works pretty well. Moreover, Jackson's additions like the Pale Orc Azog, the conflict between the dwarves, elves, and Saruman really add some gravitas to what wasn't a really epic story to begin with. It builds excitement at seeing what else Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro have added, and turns the entire thing into something unique.

I liked The Hobbit. I liked the early extended stay in Bilbo's house. I liked the time given to appreciate the details. And while it doesn't elicit the same gleeful impatience that I felt for the second part of LOTR, I can still scarcely wait for next December.

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