Director Peter Jackson explores new world with 'Hobbit' high-frame format
Ian McKellen and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
Martin Freeman is the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
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NEW YORK -- Director Peter Jackson says he is fascinated by the divided reaction to him making "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in 48-frames-per-second 3-D, a format in which details are sharper than ever and motion blur is virtually eliminated. Some scenes, particularly on a bright screen, are jarring because of the heightened realism that is the trademark of 3D HFR (high frame rate).
Seemingly lost in the hubbub is that "The Hobbit" is available in more traditional formats. So what's all the fuss?
"It doesn't necessarily change how films are going to be made," Mr. Jackson told gathered media last week at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. "It's another choice that filmmakers have got, and for me, it gives that sense of reality and immersiveness that I love in cinema."
The creative team was calm in the face of a media onslaught stemming from the process, seeing the backlash as a natural byproduct of innovation and the fact that you just can't please everyone.
"You have to allow an adjustment, especially if you haven't thought about it and decided it would be really cool to see it this way," said Joe Letteri, the film's supervisor of visual effects, and an Aliquippa native. "Obviously, the people who are seeing it first off are seeing it in that [HFR] format. So they have to make that adjustment and they will have their own critique of it. That's part of the process."
As someone with motion sickness who has needed Dramamine to get through some films, I had to give this format a try. I found it mostly pleasing to the eye and with no ill effects, although a few moviegoers have reported feeling nauseated.
I asked Mr. Letteri to explain why I had no problems, and he added his own take on why it also may be a bit unnerving:
"The 48 frames eliminates motion blur within the frame. So when you're looking at things in [3-D] stereo, your eyes can look at things more naturally; your eyes are not trying to focus on a blurry image or trying to figure out what it is. That's one of the issues you have with motion sickness, where your eyes can't focus. It's as if you're riding in a car, you don't know what's coming next and your eye can't focus, and that gives you headaches.
"While [HFR] does reduce that kind of effect, it also changes the way the film looks. Because you are seeing so much more information, you perceive it in a more immediate sense."
Mr. Jackson likened the uproar to when CDs were introduced to the vinyl world, and people worried that the clearer sound would threaten what they loved about vinyl.
"I remember reading something saying the Beatles would never have their albums on CD because it was too clear, and all of the bum notes they played would be exposed, and they would never be happy with that," the director said. "There was all of this hysteria. It's just that as humans, we don't like change."
Actor Richard Armitage, who plays the Dwarf king-in-exile Thorin Oakenshield, called himself a "fuddy-duddy" when it comes to 3-D, yet he's excited for people to see the movie in whatever format they choose.
"Everyone is kind of on tenterhooks -- where's cinema going to go? If people like Peter Jackson and James Cameron are pushing high-frame reference, Chris Nolan is pushing IMAX, everyone's nervous about it and it will be a talking point," Mr. Armitage said. "From my perspective, I just want people to enjoy the story."
The Cinemark in Robinson, Cinemark Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills and AMC-Loews Waterfront are the local theaters listing Real 3D HFR showings of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." It also can be seen in IMAX 3-D at those theaters while it opens wider in other formats.
Casting the Hobbit
Sir Ian McKellen made Martin Freeman blush at the actors' panel in New York. Relaxed in a sweater and scarf, one of theater's great King Lears said that the fellow playing Bilbo Baggins had taught him a thing or two about acting.
"I won't embarrass you anymore," he stopped, "but I blogged about it."
Their mutual respect had been sealed off set as well, when Sir Ian baby-sat for Mr. Freeman's two children.
When he was casting the title role of "The Hobbit," director Jackson had decided on Mr. Freeman before he met him, having watched his work in the BBC version of "The Office" and the movie "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Sealing the deal became a quest in its own right.
"We just felt he had qualities that would be perfect for Bilbo, that essential kind of fussy, English slightly repressed quality," Mr. Jackson said. "He's a dramatic actor that has a very rare comedic skill. That was very important, because there was a lot more comedy in 'The Hobbit,' and it's comedy of a fish-out-of-water nature; it's Bilbo reacting in a very reluctant way to the adventures that he finds himself in. So we thought Martin would be great ... and we locked into him for the role."
Then came MGM's financial woes, and it was another 18 months before the green light came. In the meantime, Mr. Freeman had shot the first season of BBC's "Sherlock," in which he plays Dr. Watson. The second season was going to fall in the middle of "The Hobbit" shoot, and Mr. Freeman was unavailable.
"So we were in trouble, and I was really panicking. We all were," Mr. Jackson said. "We looked at other actors, but unless we got this casting right, we knew we were going to be in enormous trouble."
The director called the situation "nightmarish." With six weeks to go before the beginning of the shoot, he was watching "Sherlock" on an iPad at 4 a.m. -- "I downloaded it because I love the show," he said.
"When I woke up, I called Martin's agent in London and asked if we could accommodate Martin's schedule for 'Sherlock.' ... Fortunately the answer was 'Yes.' "
Mr. Freeman was on set for almost five months before the film closed down for two months, as the actor left New Zealand for England and the set of "Sherlock."
"The Hobbit" trilogy borrows more than just Mr. Freeman from the BBC series. Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, will portray the dragon Smaug and the mysterious Necromancer in the upcoming movies.
At a Q-and-A after a "Hobbit" screening on Dec. 4, Mr. Armitage told about a hundred people how he had worked on Thorin's swordplay and how he had purposefully "wrecked" his voice a la Richard Burton, with alcohol and cigarettes, because his natural voice has a lighter sound than required for a Dwarf king.
He told another version of how he prepared Thorin's guttural voice a day later. The conversation had turned to an online video of him giving a speech in the Maori language, part of a ceremony to bless "The Hobbit's" New Zealand soundstage.
It was a lovely moment, executed before the entire cast and crew and the Maori guests conducting the ceremony.
"I was more nervous about that than I was about filming," Mr. Armitage said. "I absolutely didn't want to do that. Philippa [Boyens, co-writer and producer] came to me and said 'Will you do it?', and I said 'Of course not. Martin's the Hobbit; Martin should do it.' "
He was told the speech had to be delivered by a warrior, so it was the actor who played Thorin who had to do it.
"I learned this piece, but I was terrified by it. But I actually ended up using that speech every day as part of my vocal warm up. It's funny, because I didn't realize I was doing it at the time, but I just watched what those warriors do and the way that they commit to their culture. And I thought, that's what the Dwarves are about. I used to say it every day, scream it every night, try and wreck my voice a bit."
That's how he transformed into Thorin Oakenshield -- that, plus a 3 a.m. makeup call, sword-fighting lessons and computer wizardry.
He was more than happy to disappear into the character.
"I'm not that bothered about being well known, as long as the work is well known. And I think in this case, the films will be watched and the character will be watched. So it's kind of cool for me that the character will be buried in prosthetics and he's 5-foot-2. So then it's kind of a surprise to go, 'Oh, look, that's the guy who played that.' My biggest goal is to get employed again, and employed in a role that challenges me. So I love being cast against type. I'd like to be offered another role where no one believes we're going to cast you, but you're going to be this character. Which is like, 'Yes, that's what I'm in it for.' "
First Published December 14, 2012 12:00 am