Returning to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit
Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is like returning to Middle-earth only with greater clarity. That's because Weta Digital has come a long way technologically in the decade since The Lord of the Rings and because of the controversial higher frame rate of 48 fps, which is like peering through a window. It heightens everything, even though it might be jarring at first and not aesthetically pleasing to everyone.
Yet director Peter Jackson defends the higher frame rate (which added to the time and cost of the rendering but which he personally covered) as integral to the 3-D experience. I find it a much more gentle experience because the 3-D at 24 frames is forcing your brain to process all this blur and strobing and I find that a lot more assaultive. Forty-eight to me is a lot smoother and more genuine. It's not just the movement but the clarity, which is why filmmakers chose to shoot in 65 mm or continue to shoot sequences in IMAX. Fortunately, the Red Epics were designed alongside The Hobbit so they gave us everything we needed."
But Jackson embraced the fact that this was not Lord of the Rings and wanted to be faithful to the way the story originated, which was written by Tolkien as a children's story, so the movie's looser and lighter in tone. "But at the same time, I wanted it to feel like we were the same filmmakers returning to Middle-earth again," he adds. "I didn't want to change my directing style. The advantage of doing the prequel the other way around was echoing Lord of the Rings. You see the genesis of threads, which I like because that'll make the unity all the more resonant when viewing the two trilogies sequentially on Blu-ray."
Meanwhile, Jackson says the gift of where visual effects are today is that anything you can imagine can be put on screen. Miniatures were used a lot on Lord of the Rings yet are missing totally from The Hobbit. "There's a romantic notion about building a model, lighting it and shooting it," Jackson notes. "But the beauty of the miniatures being digital is that I could literally keep developing the sequences and design camera shots once I saw the digital miniature finished. I can look and see exactly what it was, explore it with cameras and design the shots to fly past things and through things that would've been impossible to do with real miniatures. It's another piece of freedom."
According to four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri, Weta's senior visual effects supervisor, "Things that we used to look at 10 years ago as being impossible we're almost in the next generation of really understanding what it is that we're trying to put up on the screen. Now forced perspective has to be dynamic, where the stereo camera is moving on a crane rig so we need to slave two motion control systems together: one to encode the motion and one to repeat the motion at a different scale. So you have two stages operating simultaneously, one with Ian McKellen on a green screen stage as Gandalf; and one with the dwarves on a dress stage for their scale; seeing the composite live in the cameras so that the camera operators and Peter now having a sense of what's going on and figuring out how to get the actors to work together.
"Logistically as well as technically, it gets quite complicated, especially for the actors, who have to keep all this in their heads and imagine the 3-D space in front of them where all these missing actors are going to be placed and making sure they don't walk through them," Letteri explains.