Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Back on Boxing Day in 2012, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, in a cinema that was showing it at 48 frames-per-second or "fps" (which has been dubbed "HFR" for "High Frame Rate" by the dubious Hollywood marketing wags), in stereoscopic 3D (which I'll dub "S3D", so I don't go mad from typing). The glasses were passive, meaning that they are the recycled polarized version, rather than the large, powered, alternating, active shutter glasses that some stereoscopic presentations are afforded. I was almost exact centre seat-wise, and two rows closer to screen row-wise, so it was almost ideal seating (two rows back and my resting eyeline would've been exactly centre to the screen).

I must say that my viewing of the film was mostly for research purposes, as I work in the animation and visual effects industry. I'm not a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings films. In fact by the last one I was mostly done with them, though I do have them on DVD, again mainly as work reference. I've never read any J.R.R. Tolkien works, and have no desire to do so. My main previous experience with Tolkien was though the Rankin/Bass animated musical versions I saw on TV as a child. Other than the Lloyd Alexander books I read in my pre-teen years, straight up fantasy fiction with wizards and the like has never really been my bag.

The first strange thing I noticed was that when the "Wingnut" title card came up, it was severely aliased, which was very noticeable as white text on a black background. Then the main Hobbit title came up, and the image was fine with no aliasing, banding, or noise of any kind, and I wouldn't see that problem again until the the very end, with the film's white-on-black closing credits.

I had heard complaints that the film looked like a videotaped stage play, so I was braced for that look. When the film's prologue began, what I was not prepared for was the experience of the majority of the footage looking as though it was fast-fowarded, as though someone was zinging through old VHS tapes on a VCR. That the prologue was mostly manically choreographed and edited only exacerbated the issue. It was such an onslaught of visual ugliness that I seriously considered leaving the theatre for a refund. I stayed, but I continued to notice this phenomenon repeatedly throughout the film, mostly when either characters and objects in frame or the camera did any fast movements, whether subtle or broad. Natural things like running, fighting, or falling just looked strange at times.

I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of the so-called "Benny Hill Effect".

Where the 48 fps frame rate really benefits the film is in its improvement of the S3D experience. Where stereoscopic films at 24 fps often suffer from a View-Master look, where the scale of subjects often looks miniaturized and the depth somewhat shallow, I found the scale, heft, and depth of subjects at 48 fps with S3D seemed closer to reality. In particular, wide, slow arcing shots of landscapes with characters moving through them had a deep, epic quality. S3D at 48fps was also much more comfortable on my eyes, as I could shift my focus around the frame without experiencing the usual eyestrain that occurs with S3D at 24fps.

In general with 48 fps, I found that scenes with subtler, dimmer lighting were preferable to those with more stylized, direct lighting. Scenes at Bag End mostly looked awful, and scenes at dwindling campfires or in caves looked quite nice, for example.

Most of the VFX work is of the highest calibre, but there are a few rushed effects here and there, the worst of which is the sequence when Radagast the Brown on his sleigh driven by rabbits is pursued by orcs on wargs, which visually is exceptionally phony. Many sub-par vfx shots are also in the terrible prologue, and there is an dwarf-orc war in multiple flashbacks that might have worked better if it weren't so visually stylized with haze and blooms.

Aside from all this talk about technique, as far as the actual content of the film goes...

Martin Freeman is charming as Bilbo Baggins, the title character, and his comic timing well serves the light nature of the original narrative. Unfortunately writer/director Peter Jackson works against this tone by trying to shoehorn in as many connections to his previous Rings trilogy as possible, with all the portentous bloviating that entails. A 200 page light-hearted adventure romp for kids shouldn't be turned into a three film, nine hour drag, methinks.

I wasn't bored, but it was overlong, and the only two characters that held any interest for me were Bilbo, and when he shows up, Gollum (again acted by Andy Serkis - and - a boatload of Weta character animators, despite anything you hear or read to the contrary). Their sequence together, which I think is known as the "Cave of Riddles", is likely the best of the film.

It was a bit of fun to see Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords in a small speaking role.

In summary: the film content-wise is mediocre but not terrible, and technique-wise it's often off-putting, and will continue to be for subsequent films until they get the kinks sorted out (and there are a lot of kinks to sort thus far). It is the first of its kind, though, so I guess that's something.

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