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Stereoscopic Cinema - A Discussion and Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I just posted this in the Film History and Appreciation forum, but think this is a good blog entry as well.

The title of this post, Stereoscopic Cinema, is meant to suggest that films like Avatar, The Hobbit and perhaps other well executed stereo films are in fact a new format.

I don't like the general use of "3D" - because 3D can mean so many things.

Muppetvision 3D and Terminator 3D are great theme park attractions which use elements outside of the screen to involve the audience in the experience. Old favorites like Captain EO and the 1950's 3D movies have stuff coming out of the screen but are not really using stereo to ehlp tell the story.

Then we have the batch of 3D films, mostly conversions, that have come out since Avatar. Though I do not see most of them in 3D, the buzz is that many of the conversions are done poorly just to try making some extra coin at the box office. How sad.

I just returned home from the 3D HFR version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Everything from this point forward assumes that either you have seen the film or have no intention of seeing the film, or perhaps you just don't care.

I care.

Ready? Let's begin...




First let's get the technical jargon out of the way. All the hype about 48fps is a load of bollocks. I thought the picture looked super sharp and realistic. Not 24fps cinematic, but I quickly came to the conclusion that both 3D and 48fps, separately or combined, are in fact new methods of filmmaking, not to be compared with existing methods. Ok 3D is not new, but done well and in the 21st century method is the new bit.

Whether shot on film, RED or cornflower blue, 3D is its own medium. Some directors use it well, others do it poorly. Previously mentioned conversions have had mixed results. Apparently you can get a 2D film converted in India for pennies on the dollar.

In the case of the Hobbit Part 1 - I think we need to stop calling it 3D. 3D is what you get when stuff pops out of the screen like at EPCOT. Jackson, Cameron and a few other masters of their craft are creating Stereoscopic Cinema. The closest thing I can come up with is the old Viewmaster stereoscopic viewer. As a young lad I enjoyed looking at those 12 frame stories in stunning stereo. In fact the unit we used belonged to my dad back in the 1950's, and most of the discs were from that era too, with the exception of a few we bought at the Magic Kingdom in 1977.

Yes, the Hobbit is a Stereoscopic Cinematic work of art. Not every scene needed to be in stereo, but it worked for me. After about 10 minutes I got accustomed to the new style of images and my brain adjusted. Once we left Bag End I stopped thinking about whether or not 48fps made a difference - it was then that I realized this is not traditional film so stop trying to draw a comparison. It is something new. Yes some of the scenes looked like video. Well guess what, digital cinema is video. Red is a digital video camera at film resolution, but still video. I'm no engineer, but I'm pretty sure only film cameras can shoot film.

We have talked about Showscan and other World's Fair / Disney oriented filmmaking techniques over the decades, including some great interviews with Douglas Trumbull here on the COW. Aside from IMAX, this is really the first time that a filmmaker has implemented entertainment-oriented techniques in a work of popular entertainment.

Ok that didn't make sense.

Venue entertainment vs movie theater entertainment. That better? Thought so.

Therefore, assuming that the viewer and the reader of a review knows that the Hobbit takes place inside a stereoscopic hyper-world, we can get over the technological hurdle and talk about the story. After all this is NOT a motion simulator ride at Universal Studios - it is a movie that just happens to be created and projected in a new format.

To draw a comparison - when you have read a book on a Kindle, you don't spend more than perhaps 2 seconds if any time at all describing the reading technology - you talk about the story and the characters.

______________

I just returned from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

As if Peter Jackson knew he might eventually make this film series, he teased our inner Tolkein with the opening scenes of both Fellowship of the Ring as well as Return of the King with the Smeagol flashback.

Ian Holm and Elijah Wood appear in the Hobbit to tie everything together nicely. If you always wanted to see the rest of Bilbo's home, this is your chance. They re-built the set and seemingly have built every room. And a technical note, they build two versions of many sets to accomplish the illusion of different sized characters.

Like Fellowship, the film starts with several minutes of flashback exposition to orient the viewer to who these odd looking little men are and what they are after.

The arrival of Thorin's company was very true to the book, and they even included some singing. I will say I hope there is more singing in Parts 2 and 3 because the Hobbit the book is chock full of Dwarfsong.

What a treat to see Ian McKellan reprise his great role of Gandalf and this is no cameo - he is at his wizarding best. If anything, in Fellowship he is past his prime (until of course he is reborn as Gandalf the White).

I think Martin Freeman did a great job playing the younger Bilbo and there is actually a resemblance to Frodo. Overall the Dwarves are well performed, and certain characters grow on you especially Balin and Bofur. Thorin seems a cold bastard for much of the film, reminiscent of Aragorn, until as expected a certain hobbit warms his heart. Much like in Fellowship, by the end the group has become a family - Thorin and Bilbo are like brothers.

The sets are of course fantastic, and seeing the entrance to and reveal of Rivendell was spectacular. All of the Rivendell scenes were magical, and as in Fellowship, it is the Elves who send our company on the correct path. (did anyone wonder if Gandalf and Galadriel may have had something going on in the past? They are both quite old after all). Seeing Saurumon pre-Sauron was cool and anytime Christopher Lee can do some acting is good for all of us. They filmed his scenes in London because at 90 years old Lee probably did not want to spend 2 months in New Zealand.

The action was entertaining and relevant with bits of physical comedy from the dwarves give some levity to the dark undertones that are brewing. We only hear about the Necromancer and see bits of the dragon - Part 2 should be filled with more terror, though it remains to be seen how gruesome the violence will become. We did have beheadings and killing of all sorts of creatures.

The scene with the trolls was fun and establishes Bilbo as resourceful and was the first time in his life he had to worry about anything beyond his next meal. It also establishes that the company work together and they do in fact care about their newest companion.

The music cues, most of them from the LOTR trilogy come in at the appropriate moments and come back during action and dialogue scenes again to tie things together for those us of who have seen the previous films, and for those who are just beginning their Middle Earth experience now.

I won't hit every plot point or set piece.

The scene with Gollum was well acted and very reminiscent of the book. They did not make Gollum look too much more lifelike than in the previous films. It was probably tempting to do so given advances in animation, but they could have wound up with digital Yoda (looked great but looked so much different than the puppet that all you could think about was how different he looked than the puppet).

The climax of the film was appropriate, although it seemed to have a few possible points where it could have ended.

As others have said, it could have been, perhaps, 20 minutes shorter - certainly not a movie for young kids if only due to the duration, despite toys, lunchboxes and collector glassware targeted at kids (or their parents who were perhaps 15 in 2000).

Was this movie awesome, incredible, life altering, industry changing, the next Avatar? Nope.

Enjoyable film, classic story, endearing characters, well acted and well written with appropriate use of technology - these qualities are so lacking from many 100 million dollar plus films.

Any complaints?

The usual complaints about noisy popcorn munching and crinkly plastic candy wrappers distracting me from the movie.

Before the movie a slide came on the screen saying "If you see any suspicious characters please alert the theater staff." How sad that we live in a world where we need these messages.

Too many previews.
3D commercials mostly not in 3D despite telling us to put on our 3D glasses.
Superman trailer looks promising.
Epic looks like Ferngully meets Honey I Shrunk the Kids - looks like great animation.
After Earth - yawn.
Tom Cruise movie Oblivion might be good - has a Phillip K Dick feel to it if not overloaded with needless effects - but I'm a fan of this type of movie. Not sure how his character reminisces about baseball games 60 years ago unless there is some cryosleep plot point we don't know about yet.

Overall a great experience. I could see Star Wars Episode 7 being shot in 48fps Stereo and it being quite enjoyable. Rumor has it Matthew Vaughn is directing - he did a fine job with X-Men First Class I thought - right mix of character development and action.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Mike Cohen


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Dec 28, 2012 at 2:58:04 pm 3D, Hobbits



I have a passion for my job, which entails training for medical professionals such as surgeons, nurses and administrators, not to mention various industries.

Technology is great, but how you apply your skills is what pays the bills.

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