Concerning Hobbits...
Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 8:20PM
Andrew Howe

After weeks of studiously avoiding all references to Peter Jackson’s new epic from Middle Earth, I can finally emerge from my Hobbit hole and add my own voice to those echoing across the social networks. I have now seen the Hobbit Unexpected Journey twice in a few days but, before I make comment, I feel I must give full disclosure. I am not a typical film goer when it comes to Mr Tolkien. I have read the books including the rather challenging Silmarillion. I have the extended editions of the films in multiple formats and have watched them back to back. I also have the radio plays and have played the online game since it started in 2007. I am not an uber Tolkien geek as my Elvish is weak, I have no Dwarvish and I will not utter the words of Mordor here. However, the word “addict” would not be inappropriate.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy are amongst my favourite films and are still amongst the benchmarks for DVD and Blu-ray transfers. I knew from the moment I heard about how the Hobbit was to be filmed that this would be a benchmark moment. Could a film experience that I found so immersive really improved by 3D and a high frame rate?

The first problem is which of the many versions to watch. Over the last decade, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter had been the staples of our traditional family christmas cinema visit. This pretty much narrowed down the choice of location and showings and the first viewing was 3D, normal ratio and frame rate. The second viewing was in Manchester and was IMAX 3D HFR. I have not seen a 2D version ... yet.

At the first viewing, I was trying not to think too technically. I really like the first viewing to be about the story. It did set a benchmark against which I could judge the technically more interesting IMAX HFR version. Visually it was typical of 3D movies in being a mixed bag. A lot of the problems I have stem from the glasses. These are mass market items with flat lenses of poor quality. The tint is very dark which robs them of contrast and the poor optical quality exaggerates convergence issues, particularly when warn over prescription lenses. My pet hate of over overly bright ceiling house lighting also introduces a bunch of unwelcome reflections. I do have a much better pair of clip-on lenses for my LG passive telly, which I know are much better, but I am not very successful at remembering to bring them. If you can get passed that, and I know many can’t, then the 3D is very good. It for the most part it gets out of the way and lets the story unfold. Its never showy or gratuitous and adds to the spectacle in a subtle way.

So, on to round two. The Odeon at the Print Works in Manchester was one of only a couple of Odeons in the UK showing IMAX HFR. There was an immediate issue for our comparison. This being rather a late booking we were in a less than ideal location. We were central but, in technical terms, we were too bloody close. This meant that it was “traditional” IMAX in that the screen more than filled your vision but it also meant that I could see pixels - quite big pixels. Watching the fast cut trailers from that distance messes with you head and your stomach. Given some of the rumours about HFR I was not feeling optimistic.

So on to the main feature, does HFR work or not? I don’t think the answer is actually as simple as I has been made out. I did not feel like I was watching a 200Hz telly picture processed to within an inch of its life - at least not most of the time. There were times when it was definitely preferable to my eyes than the 24fps 3D version. Action sequences were easier to follow and pans and fly throughs were so much smoother. The IMAX glasses were also much better than the RealD ones detracting less from the colour and contrast. However, it is not all good news. In some shots HFR seems to mess with the physics in the CGI. I lack the expertise to explain why, but it just seemed a to make some shots a tougher sell. More seriously, some shots did exhibit that 200Hz showroom TV look. It is because it was only periodic that the effect was so jarring. Like being pulled from the movie theatre and dropped in the set. I can’t agree with Peter Jackson on this point, it is the precise opposite of immersive. I can see what he means by looking at window into Middle Earth but what it shows is not the reality but the trickery. Perhaps if it was like that all the time I could recalibrate, but to see it occasionally was too disruptive and that means that I have to give the nod overall to the RealD 24fps version for the telling the story and engagement. Alex and I have chatted a lot about the version since we saw them and this does not appear to be a generational difference. We agree on all my main points here.

As for the film itself I really enjoyed it. I have seen the criticisms about the length. You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that there is going to be a lot less story compression than in Lord of the Rings. I really don’t care - I am an addict as already stated. PJ can do it unabridged plus foot notes for all I care. I know it could be edited down into a much tighter film but I am glad they didn’t. If you are one of the folks complaining about the length who also complained about how long it took the extended editions to come out on blu-ray then you should take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror of Galadriel.

I am also happy with the tone of the movie. If you are familiar with the books then you will realise the dilemma in trying to make The Hobbit after Lord of the Rings. To treat The Hobbit merely as a prequel is to miss the point and yet Peter was so successful in creating the places and people of Middle Earth that to abandon these elements is almost sacrilegious. There is a degree of compromise involved in bringing together these competing elements but I am happy with how it is resolved.

Addendum

For the sake of balance I decided to go and see the non 3D version too. This time I was back at Vue but watching it in 4K in their IMAX theatre but not IMAX ratio. I also had a decent seat this time - not a pixel in sight. So did I miss the 3D and what was my level of immersion? Of the three versions this was by far the easiest to watch and I kept noticing little details that I had missed in the reduced resolution or contrast of the 3D versions. It is the most cinematic of the three but perhaps not the most filmic. The 2D presentation was so crisp, clean and detailed that it has lost that organic quality of the Ring trilogy. The grade was also brighter and almost HDR at times. 3D tones all these things down. There were also some times that I felt I was not watching the primary version from a lensing point of view. For this reason, it's a close call between the 2D & 3D versions. If it was my call as DoP I would have gone for 2D and Alexa but perhaps that is just hobbit conservatism and I am still too in love with the Shire.

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