A lot of the buzz about “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — the first of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved book, which opens tonight with midnight screenings — has nothing to do with the story, the acting or the cinematography, but with the camera technology used to make it. Although the movie is being shown in both traditional 2D and 3D versions, several hundred screens around the country will also be making “The Hobbit”available in a brand new format called High Frame Rate (or HFR) 3D.
The early reviews of HFR, a kind of video that captures 48 frames per second instead of the traditional 24 of film, have been mixed-to-negative, and not just from the geeks. Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter complained that “The Hobbit” looked like “ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film a oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home. ”
McCarthy isn’t the lone curmudgeon either. Others have pointed out that the look of the HFR version, while admittedly sharper than traditional film, feels like a projection error, with the movement of the actors appearing unnaturally speeded up. Here’s James Rocchi’s amusing take, on Boxoffice.com: “What the 48 frame-per-second projection actually means is flat lighting, a plastic-y look, and, worst of all, a strange sped-up effect that makes perfectly normal actions — say, Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins placing a napkin on his lap — look like meth-head hallucinations..”
Being a lifelong Tolkien geek, I had to check it out myself, and I have to agree that it’s very disconcerting, although you do eventually start to get used to it. (Heck, after nearly three hours, I could get used to Gilbert Gottfried as Gandalf.) Gollum does look fabulous, and the epic battle scenes are pretty impressive.
Here’s the thing about HFR, though, which was invented to make movies look more like real life. It’s not necessarily that it looks cheap. It just doesn’t look like a film, or what we’re used to films looking like.
Film has warmth, texture and grain, all of which lend the moviegoing experience a kind of artificial grandeur that signals that you’re about to enter a world that isn’t real. HFR may look more like life, but it does so in a way that comes across as cold, slick and clinically — almost uncomfortably — close. More like science than art.
An early scene of Bilbo Baggins’s underground dining room, with his table covered in food and surrounded by jolly dwarves, felt like studio camerawork from a frenetic Food Network cooking show, not a cozy visit to Middle Earth.
Already, the studios behind “The Hobbit” have shifted to a defensive crouch. In a joint statement earlier this month, New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures attributed the negative reviews of HFR to “two anonymous sources” in media reports. “We share the filmmakers’ belief,” the statement continued, “that by offering filmgoers the additional choice of HFR 3D, alongside traditional viewing formats, they have an opportunity to be part of a groundbreaking advancement in the moviegoing experience, and we look forward to having audiences everywhere share in this new way of storytelling.”
For a bigger picture of the decidedly un-anonymous complaints, check out Studio Daily’s sampling of assessments of HFR.