January 2nd, 2013


The Hobbit: 48 and 24 Frames Per Second

And so I saw the Hobbit, in both 48 frames per second and 24.

In truth, it is not a film worth seeing twice, but I was curious and, in my life, that's enough to justify anything.

Set before The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit returns Peter Jackson to the director's role on Middle Earth, to tell the story of how Bilbo Baggins found the Ring of Power, met some dwarves, and generally had a bad time of it. Divided into three films, The Hobbit, unlike the previous Lord of the Rings, is a single, slim novel, but the introduction of extra material to help it work as a prequel for its already existing successful films, as well as a cast of thirteen dwarves, pretty much ensures that it would be, at the very least, two, and yes, three films. If you're a big fan of the book, you will probably have issues with that, but from a structural point of view, the film mirrors the opening of the first Lord of the Rings film fairly closely, ending not with the breaking of the fellowship, but rather with the consolidation of this 'new' fellowship. There are times when it could be cut down--indeed, a much leaner, meaner film could have been made by cutting ten of the thirteen dwarves out, as well as various scenes involving storm giants, goblin kings, and more; but then, in all likely, I wouldn't have seen Christopher Lee again, and that, perhaps, is worth it. Still, it is fairly obvious that Jackson wants to mirror his successful first trilogy in terms of structure, thus creating six films that echo across each other, and should that work it will actually be pretty sweet, assuming of course that you can afford to put aside the time to watch them all.

Overall, I thought the film was decent enough, no better nor worse than the first Lord of the Rings film, but there are some disappointing problems with The Hobbit, mostly stemming with a general inconsistency across it. The dwarves, for example, start off looking vaguely decent, with Richard Armitage's Thorin looking, in all honesty, like a Little Viggo Mortensen, or as I like to call him, L'l Vig. From him, however, it's a swift descent into comically designed dwarves who have the misfortune, as one of my friends pointed out, of looking like they are suffering from down syndrome. Since the film cannot accommodate most of the dwarves to have speaking parts or characterisation, they are instead defined by these poorly thought out designs, and these have the unfortunate result of allowing you to think that the minders are taking the downie kids out for the day. But inconsistency is a general problem with the design of the film, from cardboard pumpkins nestled between real sheep and beautifully built CGI cities, to Gandalf's power, which functions as a bad narrative device, revealing itself as all powerful when it is required and less powerful when not, though this last problem has been in all the films and has more to do with Tolkien than with anything else. But still, it remains a problem, and when at the end of the film Gandalf is blowing flame into pine cones to set the first aflame, you can't help but think, 'Dude, didn't you just knock down a billion goblins? Don't you fight a motherfucking Balrog soon enough? Just go down the fireball the shit outta that pale orc.'

So there's that, and it niggles, all the way through.

But what, I hear you say, of the 48 frames vs 24?

Well, that is the reason I saw the film and I saw it first in 48,and it was... awful, frankly.

It looked like a cheap, fan made version of The Hobbit, where somehow Ian McKellen had been kidnapped and forced the reprise his role under threat of losing his toes. For the first thirty minutes, I actually had to fight the urge to get up and leave, telling myself that it would get better--that I would, somehow, adjust to the faster frame rate, but I never did. I wanted to do so: I had paid the money, I had found myself there, and I was keen for a shiny new film toy. But there was never a moment through the entire thing where I thought, 'This looks great.' I always, always thought it looked awful, and I could never allow myself to flow with it. The CGI looked awful. The actors looked both real and unreal, a weird combination of men and women who never quite fit their part. The scenery was uniformly uninspiring. The list goes on, and it goes on in negative ways, resulting in my first opinion being of the film in 48 frames that it was cheap, nasty, and like bad fan work.

There is a lot of conversation out there about it: one article explains that the the frame rate brings in the Uncanny Valley, where things look too real to sustain disbelief. Another points out that it is simply what we, as viewers, have been conditioned to see, and that in time we will adjust to it. There's more, of course, and you can look them but; but personally, I neither know, nor truly care which one is right--the end product is that my reaction to 48 frames is so negative, so very much in the no category that I would not go to pay and watch a film in the faster frame rate, no matter who was responsible.

Whereas, when I saw the film a second time, in 24 frames per second, it was rather like watching a different film. The inconsistencies of set design and dwarves still remained, but Smaug--what you saw of him--did not look truly awful, the actors looked as if they had settled into their characters, and the CGI was overall fine. Of course, that said, in either 48 or 24 frames per second, the storm giant fight in the mountains was awful: poorly designed, poorly conceptualised, poorly everything. But beyond that, the rest of the film looked great, and it looked like a film, like the previous Lord of the Rings films, with beautiful scenery, a fully designed and crafted world that I did not mind spending the time in, and which I was happy to pay money for.

In the end, it is the reaction of the last emotion that justifies whether to use 48 frames or not, and I say, for myself, you can let it die. Like Beta.

Yes, like Beta, for all you people who loved it. Just like Beta, so you can all say for years to come, that the wrong one died.

For which I will slap you, hard and fast, with a Beta tape I found.