The Hobbit Countdown runs every other week and geeks out on all things related to Peter Jackson's upcoming trilogy based on The Hobbit.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first film ever to be released in seven formats. Seven. Formats.
In an era where studios are still pushing 3D movies and the public simply wants good storytelling, here comes Peter Jackson in his return to Middle-earth surfing the lead wave of a new cinema technology, crashing at a theater near you December 14.
Tickets are available now and selling, according to Fandango, very well. The last Twilight film capped the online ticket sales charts since October 1 but The Hobbit toppled that, capturing 33 percent of all tickets sold. It also had more buyers than James Bond’s Skyfall, despite that film’s luxury of actually opening in theaters.
Do consumers buying all those tickets to Middle-earth even care about formats? Some do, many don’t, but one thing is clear: The Hobbit films are loaded with new technology. And, maybe we need to stop and chat about what to expect in the cinema, so hold on while we take a tour of modern movie technology. Now, ultimately, all the technology is really only a tool to tell the story so none of this will matter if the storytelling isn't good, but for today, lets leave that discussion alone.
For a long while, Jackson didn’t want to make The Hobbit. He tried to get Guillermo del Toro to do it and cowrote the screenplay with him, partly because he didn’t want to compete against his own wildly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was onboard to produce the film but after lawsuits, studio financial crises’ and eventually the director leaving, the Academy Award winner took the plunge to return to Middle-earth and tackle an episodic structure with more than 13 main characters; not a story very suited for the cinema. And when he did take it on, he played it anything but safe.
The first departure from his own Rings style was to shoot in all-digital format. For this film, he abandoned film. He used digital cameras, the Red Epic to be specific. Using leading-edge cameras weren’t enough though. He also wanted to shoot in 3D.
Shooting any movie in 3D could take a lot of extra work. But in a film world populated by characters and creatures in different scales, having two cameras side by side changed everything Jackson and his team did. They could no longer use forced perspective shots as they had done on LOTR films. In 2D, if one character, say Gandalf, is closer to the camera, he appears bigger than the averaged sized person, perhaps a hobbit, placed further from the camera. But shooting 3D meant that those camera tricks wouldn’t work. And with 13 dwarves and the title character appearing in almost every shot, well, 3D gave Jackson’s team a lot of work to do.
Choosing a camera and a 3D format meant that Team Jackson had a lot of questions to answer about the practicality of achieving maximum camera control with the side-by-side double shooting image required. They needed to expect perfectly aligned cameras and display the images in 3D in real time to see the movie they were creating. They also wanted to go wireless and not have their camera rigs tethered to computer banks. 3ality innovated brand new tech to deliver both so that shooting in 3D (we have an exclusive interview with 3ality founder and CEO Steven Schklair coming soon).
FRAME RATE AND THEATER UPGRADES
If all of that weren’t enough, Jackson also completely changed the game with the number of frames that flash before your eyes per second in the cinema. Motion pictures are really just pictures that flash before our eyes and give the illusion of motion, just like in school when you drew cartoons in the corner of your textbooks and flipped the pages to make your own movie. The human eye requires about 15 frames per second (or pages in your text books) to see movement but in 1930 when talking became the new movie standard, the rate was set at a uniform 24 frames per second or 24 fps. It has remained there for all these decades, partly because more frames means more film and therefore costs more money to shoot.
So with the Red Epic, no film meant no restrictions on frame rate and Jackson doubled it at 48 fps. The problem? Virtually no commercial theater in the world at the time The Hobbit was “filmed” could project the film the way it was shot. Why make a movie in a way that nobody could see it? Because Jackson, with Warner Bros.’ blessing, was literally pushing boundaries. The result? Theaters around the globe have spent significant money to catch up with Jackson’s shooting technology. How do you find one near you? Well, for starters, TheOneRing.net has compiled a list (updated often) that details which theaters have 48 fps (always in 3D incidentally) which have Imax 3D and which have Dolby Atmos, the ultimate way to hear a movie and pretty difficult to find since the tech is so new.
But what does this mean for you when you go to the theater? High frame rate looks different. The most obvious thing it does is cut down on motion blur or the eye noticing the gaps between pictures. So what does it look like? The best place online to see what this is all about is right here, with adjustable rates to experience on your computer what you will see in the cinema.
The best comparison I have heard: it is like taking the windshield out of your car and looking directly out into the world.
THE AUDIO INNOVATIONS
Two weeks ago we talked about Dolby Atmos, but the new sound isn’t to be underestimated and is just as groundbreaking as the visuals.
* Speaking of audio, you can already stream the whole Hobbit soundtrack by Howard Shore. Personally, I am not listening to any of it. I am saving all that for the cinema experience because it is one of the few spoilers I can hope to experience in the theater.
* There is a brand, spanking new Japanese trailer with quick clips of new monsters, new details and cool Japanese narration and titles. Worth a look:
You can also listen to Neil Finn’s end credits song, which is taken directly from the text by J.R.R. Tolkien, a nice touch by the filmmakers.
If you want to know more about high frame rates, the Red camera folks have put together some nice explanations with video.
Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and film makers worldwide. Curtis represents the site at conventions and events around the U.S. including the San Diego Comic-Con. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week.