Friday, December 21, 2012

Hobbit's New Tech is a Graft-On

I just saw The Hobbit - in a theater offering a grand slam of IMAX, 3-D, and high frame-rate (here's a list of which theaters are playing which formats). And I have an observation to offer which I haven't seen others making.

It's true that the high frame rate yields a sharp video-ish look more reminiscent of television soap operas than what's normally thought of as "cinematic". And, yes, the extra sharpness sometimes reveals stagecraft (makeup, fake-looking sets, etc.). But I tried to lose myself in the storytelling rather than obsess over technicals. And it quickly became apparent that the only time I was disturbed by the new technology was when the film aimed to look old-school cinematic.

The problem is that Jackson seems to be adopting this technology as a graft-on. He's carried over his bag of filmmaking tricks from the Lord of the Rings films, changing only the theater presentation. This is, in other words, a conventional film unconventionally projected, which results in a gap so distracting that many viewers report being taken out of the story. Indeed, each time I found myself wincing at the "soap opera" look, I noticed it was a moment when Jackson was misapplying an old-school move which no longer washed. Viewers at this higher frame rate have too keen a vantage point; filmmakers can't get away with falling back on old ways. They need to not just step up their game (e.g. makeup and sets); they also must reinvent it.

Technicolor films weren't just black and white films with color added. Nor were talkies silent films with attached soundtracks. Each advance forced deep rethinking; in fact, innovation usually wasn't fully absorbed until a new vanguard of filmmakers arrived to completely digest and incorporate what at first had seemed an empty gimmick.

But The Hobbit is nowhere near that. I wish it was a good enough film to merit multiple viewings, so you could sample various formats and judge for yourself. But unless you're a Tolkien fanatic, this is one you'll only watch once. And since (with a few exceptions), Jackson is using the exact same approach as his previous work, I'd suggest you view it the way he himself was obviously visualizing as he shot: in 2D, with normal frame rate, just like The Lord of the Rings.

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