If 2011 marked a year in which the cinema looked back to the silent period for inspiration, with films like The Artist and Hugo exploring the relationship between the modern cinema and it’s roots, then the recurring theme of 2012 is one of form diversity. 2012 has been an interesting year for format aficionados. From 16mm (Moonrise Kingdom, Tabu) to 70mm (The Master), via celluloid and the all-encompassing and multiple-meaning Digital (itself adding the mainstream rollout of digital IMAX to a medium which already included True 3D and post-conversion to its repertoire), films of all shapes and sizes have featured on screens across the world. Even that most obscure of formats, Cinerama has had something of a renaissance, with the first new material shot on that particular format in almost fifty years making its bow. But alas, one thing has remained the same throughout each of those production diversions, and has remained the same since the advent of sound in the late-1920′s: frame-rate.
24 frames per second has been the industry standard and the one constant of the post-silent cinema. Trends have come and gone, and medium evolutions have taken hold, and yet the speed with which a reel of film passes through a camera and is projected on to a screen has remained the same. In the name of development, and in an attempt to push the medium forward in to the age of the digital a group of filmmakers are experimenting with HFR 3D (High Frame Rate 3D). While it remains to be seen whether or not HFR is a development too far, the results of director Peter Jackson’s experimentation here with The Hobbit is essentially positive, if not especially remarkable. The eventual look of HFR is one ground in the hyper-real, that may prove glaring for some. Choosing such fantastical fare to be the film to introduce as hyper-real a technique as HFR to the world to is nothing if not bold, and we welcome the attempts at innovation.
Such is the interest with which Jackson’s technical innovation has been greeted that it’s almost a shame that the discourse on technique has somewhat overshadowed the film itself, although to eschew discussion of the technique behind the film would be foolhardy, given just how intertwined the relationship between technique and subject matter is. Even approaching The Hobbit as something of a Tolkien apathetic one has to admit to being somewhat impressed. The New Zealand filmmaker channels the spirit of the great British comedy in what might just be his most downright fun film since 1996′s The Frighteners. While peril drives the journey at the heart of the story, which sees the titular Hobbit join a band of dwarves on a journey to reclaim their home, a warm wit and hearty central message override the po-faced seriousness of Jackson’s recent output, with a Jim Henson glow coming from the ragtag band of mythological creatures that greet the protagonists. Lucasfilm’s Willow is another film that comes to mind too, with that film’s brand of family-friendly fantasy fare the coda for the film at hand.
Wall to wall praise was levelled at the technical execution of the character of Gollum when he made his first appearance in the second film of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Two Towers in 2002, with the character again rebooted and redrawn using the computer tools of today in The Hobbit. There’s a real physicality to the character, who is again commandeered/portrayed by Andy Serkis. Martin Freeman also turns in a noteworthy performance as the younger Bilbo Baggins, while a broad supporting cast flesh out Tolkien’s Middle Earth ably. Speaking of “fleshing out”, much talk has been made of the nature in which Jackson has padded out his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The source material is relatively lean, yet Peter Jackson’s adaptation is being brought to life in a trilogy of films, each of which are expected to run to almost three hours (Part One is 11 minutes shy, with a promised extended cut thought to bring with it a further 20). Approaching the film on it’s own terms, and unfamiliar with the source novel (and even as a sceptic), it’s surprising to find that it does actually work rather well. Fears of treading water and killing time have to be put to one side, and while it’s an incredibly self-indulgent approach to adaptation, one can’t help but believe Jackson’s intentions to be sincere.
Now that celluloid has passed on the mantle of mainstream distribution to digital means that in theory there’s no reason for a filmmaker not to experiment with higher frame-rates, and while the results of Peter Jackson’s work on The Hobbit remain subjective in their success, the direction in which these experiments head in the future is at the very least intriguing.