DID WE SAY MASSIVE SPOILERS?! Yes, we did, so before reading further know that everything revealed to me will be revealed to you! Tuesday’s unspooling of 10 minutes of THE HOBBIT at CinemaCon took the place quite by surprise and should be considered a special moment in the history of cinema — where the first public audience witnessed a new future for movies, so brace yourself. I will interpret everything I saw and how it matches up with Tolkien’s universe … there are SO MANY cool and revealing things we can now expect in the first film alone! Let’s explore the veracity of Peter Jackson’s adaptation with hasty vigor. There is also the matter of the 48 frames-per-second format and the blogosphere’s mixed reaction to the look of the new technology, so read on …
DRIVING THROUGH THE DESERT AT NIGHT
When Calisuri chased me down on Monday, April 23rd, after a flurry of desperate phone calls, tweets, and texting, he said “Dude, how fast can you get to Vegas?” My heart leapt in my chest: I felt the CinemaCon buzz afresh and knew the highly-anticipated 10 minutes of HOBBIT footage was suddenly accessible! We thank Warner Bros. for kindly granting TheOneRing.net an opportunity to be in the room with other journalists and the nation’s movie theater exhibitors to see the studio’s 2012 preview.
I left my Dragon Dice game night in a hustle, grabbed a rental car and was on the highway towards Las Vegas quick as a bunny. I’ll get to the bunny-sled later, but yes… it’s all true. I would only crash in town one night, enter CinemaCon and see the presentation at 10:30 Tuesday morning, and then drive back to Los Angeles hopefully in time to host our webcast TORn TUESDAY at 5pm. Indeed, it was the fastest ‘there & back again’ sprint this poor Ent has ever attempted. A traffic-snarled return trip delayed our webcast significantly, so with apologies to that audience who couldn’t watch live I’ll report everything here from the top down. The nice folks at ThorinOakenshield.net have captured the audio portion of the show.
First assembly that morning, on the very same stage where Celine Dion famously performs at Caesar’s Palace, included an intriguing “State of the Industry” address by the head of the National Association of Theater Owners (the folks putting on the trade show). The focus was on business economics and technological advancements that affect exhibitors, especially the big chains: Regal, AMC, Cinemark, etc. Notably, the conversation was framed around digital projection technology and the recent announcement by Twentieth Century Fox they will no longer distribute their films on 35mm prints, but digitally only — a move the studio will phase into place within 2 years. This context becomes important when we get to PJ’s presentation of the higher-frame-rate he’s used on THE HOBBIT.
We were treated to live appearances by filmmakers ready to proffer their new work. It was great to see the DARK SHADOWS stuff from Tim Burton (he looked twitchy and delightfully eccentric as always) — but the next time you bring Johnny Depp out, at least let the man say something. He just waved and Thank You’d the excited crowd only to leave the stage again… Christopher Nolan appeared and showed some of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, which looks like eight ways of awesomesauce! They fixed the unintelligible Bane problem by re-recording his ADR. Anne Hathaway looks surprisingly darker and sexier than her squeaky-clean image. That’s some interesting casting. Baz Luhrman, appearing pre-recorded, introduced his 3D adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY, which to my mind looks like a tantalizing cross between MOULIN ROUGE and HUGO, and all to the good — it’s really gorgeous.
When we got to the Peter Jackson intro bit, the audience was asked to put on their 3D glasses and there he was! Our familiar PJ was on-screen in 3D, sporting a little salt & pepper in his beard and looking rather hale for someone who is working so hard, yet eager to review notable technical advancements throughout movie history. He thoughtfully explained the adoption of different frame-rates when silent movies went to talkies. Saying that the industry had settled on a standard of 24 frames-per-second for more than seventy years now, it was time to bring everyone a sample of what 48 fps would look like. “Why build a ten-minute segment? Because I wanted to give you ample time to take it in, because it will take your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the look of it,” he explained. It was a fascinating preamble, but needful in that these film exhibitors, perhaps more than fans, want to know what goes into this new tech and what impact it may have on their business. As Ringer fans, our concerns are fidelity to Tolkien, and perhaps to another extent the movie-core fans want to see fidelity to PJ’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, as we expect the complete set of five films will be considered of a piece.
RETURNING TO MOVIE MIDDLE-EARTH
The first thing we saw in 48fps were gorgeously bright shots of the clouds and mountains of New Zealand, the kind of sweeping areal photography that made us swoon in LOTR, thinking again that the country itself was the best piece of casting for Middle-earth. For a breathless moment I felt rather like someone in an audience seeing their first color film after endless years of only Black & White photography. Someone had lifted the glass off the windshield and you were looking at something *real* and in three dimensions.
I was indeed taken aback by the presentation. What all did I see? I’ll break it down for you, keeping in mind this material was “unfinished” meaning incomplete green screen shots, no color-correcting, borrowed music cues from the Trilogy, etc. It was a non-continuous potpourri of scenes, most if not all from the first installment THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.
CHOCK FULL OF SURPRISES
**SPOILERS BEGIN HERE**
Aside from several seconds of familiar content seen in the teaser trailer this past winter, the clips quickly hit brand new territory:
- The White Council featuring Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond.
This showed Sir Christopher Lee in front of greenscreen, looking at the table where Gandalf has just placed a Morgul blade. Urgent discussion ensues about the nature of the weapon, and a luminous Cate Blanchett gets the lion’s share of the expository dialogue. She explains how the Men of the North once battled against the Witch-King of Angmar, and succeeded in burying him in a spell-protected crypt, “so dark and deeply buried it would never see light again.” Gandalf raises his eyebrows as if to say, “It’s right here, so never say never.” Hugo Weaving provides the deep-voiced “But that’s impossible!” incredulity of the scene while the faintest flicker of wickedness passes across Saruman’s face. I loved it! Intrigue and nervousness among the White Council… sounds great except it doesn’t exist in J.R.R. Tolkien like that. Nowhere in the books did the Dúnedain show the ability to imprison the Nazgûl. This is our first evidence of the filmmakers applying new narrative invention with material culled from the Appendices of LOTR. We evidently won’t see the Battle of Fornost or hear Glorfindel’s famous prophecy being uttered about the Witch-King’s ultimate fate, as his dark enemy flees into the distance. So be prepared to tell your non-Tolkien reading friends what really happened with the Nazgûl.
Cut to the prison-crypt, where Gandalf is investigating in the dark, using only his staff as a light source, and then BAM! there’s Radagast right behind him. Here is the wonderful Sylvester McCoy giving us a daftly adorable new wizard. Strange that Radagast is not shown as a member of the White Council, though. Setting that aside, I must admit McCoy’s portrayal, along with Martin Freeman’s wonderful Bilbo, are the two performances I most admire so far.
Radagast? Oh let me tell you, he’s got so much going on! He is wearing a funnily-shaped hat with dominant brown and black hues, underneath which is revealed a bird’s nest with hatchlings making a mess all in his hair and beard! McCoy brings a disarming, childlike quality to the character. As Gandalf whips around to see who is sneaking up on him, he exhales rather irritated, “Oh, it’s you,” followed by Radagast’s frightened admission that the crypt they’re standing in “is not a nice place to meet.” He also has a glowing crystal piece in his staff, and leaning over the vertical shaft, they both look down over the edge, as Gandalf counts a total of nine tombs, all with their spells broken and bars ripped.
I’m not remembering these clips in the correct order they were shown, but we also see a brief shot of Radagast being pulled along the forest floor in a sled drawn by mighty grey jackrabbits! I kid you not, it was a ramshackle version of an Iditarod dogsled, made of twisted branches and bracken, pulled by six or seven oversized rabbits. I think it was Radagast, but he went by so fast — what other character could it be? And this point the filmmakers are making a complete departure from Tolkien but it honestly doesn’t bother me. I like the idea that the writers and WETA’s clever artists can come up with something wholly new. It seems quite silly on paper, but it’s also whimsical enough to fit in nicely with the tone of The Hobbit book. It’s definitely no sillier than a line-up of farm animals setting up a feast and doing catering service in Beorn’s house, is it?
I believe this Radagast will be a most memorable character that moviegoers love to love. I think he’s an innovation for this story. Can’t wait to see more of McCoy in this role.
- Riddles in the Dark with Sméagol/Gollum and Bilbo
This is where Martin Freeman really has a few minutes to shine. But it’s insane to think anyone can outshine Andy Serkis in the perfection of his Gollum creation. Mr. Freeman holds his own and it’s a wonderful characterization of a new Hobbit we have never quite seen. This Bilbo Baggins doesn’t remind me of Merry or Pippin, even though he has a light comedic touch. He certainly isn’t like Sam or Frodo, and yet the Baggins’ sense of adventure is written in his eyes in subtle ways. Yes, I can see those kinds of details at 48 fps.
How does Gollum look ten years later? Have the digital animation masters at WETA created something new? Well, in this writer’s opinion, Gollum looks really fantastic, but not like a reinvented wheel. He is the very familiar and pitiable Sméagol/Gollum we already know/love/hate. He and the other CGI creations fare quite well with the enhanced clarity of this higher frame rate. These two most classic of Tolkien’s characters engage in a bizarre moment of competing desires to eat raw flesh versus the desire to escape alive, all handled with a funny light touch. Expect this Riddle Game to be a standout episode in the first installment.
- The Trolls – Tom, Bert and Bill – all with dialogue!
The sequence with Bilbo trying to pickpocket a massive Stone Troll is another highlight that was given a more minutes of continuous screening time before cutting to other shots. We have seen the statues of the Trolls in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, especially in the Extended Edition, and now they are finally alive and moving — and *speaking!* They have heavy Cockney accents and, as expected, are quite brutish and primarily motivated by hunger. Still don’t know the names of the voice actors providing the Tolkien-true performances. The digital compositing of Bilbo against the larger-scale Trolls wasn’t exactly cleaned and finished, but it’s impressive when the camera moves overhead to let the audience pretend they’re sitting on a branch watching the mayhem below. The birds-eye view helps the trick of scale, methinks. Here, however, the Dwarves do not approach the Troll’s campfire piecemeal, as in the book, but come charging forward in a brave attempt to rescue their comrade. Kili makes the first decisive stroke against one Troll’s calf-muscles, then we see Thorin chopping relentlessly at their feet, screaming “DROP HIM!” which they do. We do not see the famous Gandalf “DAWN TAKE YOU ALL AND BE STONE TO YOU” moment.
- Gandalf in Dol Guldur with Thráin
This was just a little bit of this, but it leads up to the stuff in the teaser trailer. Gandalf is seen skulking about in Dol Guldur’s dungeon level (this is the closest we will ever get to sounding like a Dungeons & Dragons module) acting very much like he is being followed. Trying to elude the unseen pursuer in the dark passageways, our grey wizard twists about in every direction, still not seeing his foe. Then there’s a horror-movie JUMP! moment when Thráin pounces on Gandalf. No other dialogue or follow-up, it was over as fast as that. What I’d really like to see is the moment where the crazed-from-torture Thráin actually calms down enough to give Gandalf the key and map!
- Legolas and Tauriel in an action sequence and a tense threat to Thorin!
I witnessed the whole Company of Dwarves struggling through Mirkwood forest, greenscreen everywhere, and most obviously they were covered with spiderwebs and goo. Their run through the forest is abruptly cut short with an arrow in Thorin’s face. It is rather reminiscent of the bit in FELLOWSHIP where Haldir and his team bring weapons to bear against Frodo. Too bad I didn’t see anything of the new Tauriel character played by Evangeline Lilly — except one swooping action shot where she slides cowboy-style across the ground with her bow drawn, ready to kill… Fans have asked only one question about this invented character: what does she look like? Well, brown is what she looks like. I mean, she is sporting the same outfit we’ve seen Legolas wear but not in green. Her hair is not blonde — actually she seems to be the first chestnut brown-haired Elf we have seen in PJ’s adaptations. Orlando Bloom makes a triumphant return to the role of Legolas spitting out a venomous threat to Thorin: “I won’t hesitate to kill you, Dwarf.” I’ve never heard Legolas sound quite so pissed off. It’s really, really cool.
WHAT WE DID *NOT* SEE
I need to address the hundreds of questions that came during our live webcast. Everyone was eager to see their certain favorite things from The Hobbit represented but I’ve only got what they gave me. Here is a quick list of the more glaring abentees:
- Bree. The HOBBIT characters don’t seem to be shown traveling to familiar LOTR locations.
- Weathertop, anyone?
- Elves on horseback teasing the Company of Dwarves.
- Gandalf having a conversation with Thráin.
- Any Dwarves singing. This was such a powerful moment in the teaser trailer, but it wasn’t shown at CinemaCon.
- Goblins or the Goblin-King. I’m just dying to see what they design for these guys.
- Stone Giants high in the Misty Mountains.
- Thranduil the Elven-King of Mirkwood. Nowhere to be seen.
- Much more of Tauriel. Sorry, there was just that one shot.
- The Carrock
- The Wargs/Goblins scene with the burning pine trees.
- Any great Eagles. This is still a mystery whether they will be shown talking or not.
- Beorn or his environment.
- Radagast’s home, Rhosgobel.
- A single giant spider.
- Bilbo above the canopy of Mirkwood, the air filled with dark butterflies.
- Long Lake, or any residents of the area, or the ruins of Dale.
- Billy Connoly as Dáin, cousin to Thorin.
- The Lonely Mountain/Erebor
- The great dragon Smaug himself. I expect he’ll be the most closely guarded creature design secret in film history.
- Basically anything that would be in the 2nd installment in 2013.
THE 48 fps ‘CONTROVERSY’ SUCH AS IT IS
So now that we’ve covered all those juicy bits, where do we stand with the current conversation of people not universally embracing this new film format? It seems, upon a quick review of the interwebs that there are mixed voices — and some who just don’t like the higher-resolution of 48 frames per second. It’s not surprising at all. Really, nothing should be taken too far or too broadly as to suggest the footage PJ showed at CinemaCon was a failure in any way. It’s just a matter of taste.
My gut reaction to what I saw was: “Wow, that sure does look different,” because like everyone, I’ve been used to the film-like quality of projected images used throughout my lifetime of going to the theater.
Does it look like High-Def video? Yeah, sort of. The image is actually so pristine, crystal clear, and brightly contrasted that I did have a moment of thinking it was like live broadcast HDTV. But it hasn’t been color-corrected yet, and many nuances of shade and light will be adjusted before December 14, 2012.
The footage will look different by the time the editing process is complete, that’s the one thing we can be sure of. I would like to refer to an excellent conversation thread in our message boards where Ringer fan Owain has smartly observed what is happening here. HDTV sets falsely create a look of “high frame rate” by duplicating frames that aren’t there, while the RED Epic cameras PJ employs are shooting the actual real-time source. But it is not going to be to everyone’s taste. If you would rather see it on traditional 24 fps, there will be plenty of theaters around who will show it that way. Not every theater in every city will have completed the digital upgrade, so expect a wealth of choices when buying your ticket at different box offices. It’s also very true what Owain said, “Human nature likes gradual instead of major/abrupt change.”
But when you look at the advent of 48 fps as a sea-change in the exhibition of movies, you can’t ignore the conclusion that film is dead. Period. We are already beyond the point of no return with other old film and television formats (Silent film, B&W, Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, etc.) that are gone the way of the dodo. The newest generation of an audience is used to watching everything in high-definition. If today’s filmmakers attempt to bring a new technology into our theaters to make the experience more realistic and lifelike (whether it’s advanced 3D or higher frame rates), that will also necessarily take us further from the age-old problems of stuttering, strobing and print scratches we have put up with for decades as moviegoers, only because there was no alternative.
A friend told me that PJ is not making a fantasy movie here; rather he’s making something to look as close to ‘reality’ as he can. Therefore the 48 fps in 3D is perfect for bringing hightened realism to this movie experience. Another friend countered that point by saying it’s harder to accept the fantastical when it’s looking so real-world. Hmmmm.
It may polarize viewers. Perhaps this will be an interesting barometer of taste across age groups, if nothing else. I expect the older audiences like what they like, and the younglings are ready to embrace something fundamentally different. As consumers, we will not suffer from a lack choices to seeing our beloved Middle-earth in the traditional form of 24 fps projection versus the shiny new one. So it’s a win-win for everyone, and will be a test of how far the mass marketplace is willing to go with the newest technical zeitgeist.
If you throw pasta at the wall and it sticks that’s great, and if not, that’s fine too. Just go back to cooking it awhile longer.
Much too hasty,
* Follow Clifford Broadway on Twitter @quickbeam2000
Producer & co-writer of the award-winning documentary feature RINGERS: LORD OF THE FANS (Sony Pictures Home Video, 2005), Clifford has contributed to two volumes published by TheOneRing.net representing their best articles & essays: The People’s Guide To J.R.R. Tolkien from Cold Spring Press (2003), with a foreword by Tom Shippey, well-known Tolkien scholar and author of The Road to Middle-earth.