To The Hobbit last night, in the relatively luxury of a Vue cinema, where I found (as I generally do there) comfortable seats, ample leg room, a decent rake with good sightlines, a nice big screen with accurate masking and an enthusiastic sound system. This all compares very favourably to, say, the modest wardrobe with a small screen in one wall which whispered The Master at me at the Panton Street Odeon.

That aside, the big question of course is can you make a film version of a 250 page book run as long as the film version of a 1200 page book without major compromises? Well, it won’t be possible to definitely answer that until late next year when part three of The Hobbit is released, but on the evidence of the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, my answer is… maybe.

While not a Tolkein scholar, I did think it worthwhile reading The Lord of the Rings before seeing the movie versions. I had enjoyed The Hobbit as a child (book and ZX-Spectrum text adventure game) but had never got through the first of the sequel’s six sections. Having read the literary version (except for all that doggerel poetry obviously) I actually thought that the movie versions short-changed two of the most successful elements of the books – the growing affection between Legolas and Gimli, overcoming their natural antipathy, a relationship which is in some ways deeper and more affecting than that between Frodo and Samwise; and the scouring of the Shire, without which the whole adventure has no context and few ramifications.

So if nine hours of screentime isn’t quite enough to encompass the whole of Rings, maybe, just maybe, it will suit the far more slender and simplistic Hobbit quite nicely. Certainly, after an opening 30-40 minutes which is a little on the sluggish side (two prologues?), Jackson never lets the pace slacken, throwing incident after incident at our merry band of dwarves. As they ricochet from trolls to orcs to goblins, the only potential problem is whether the film will ever stop and pause for breath. When it does, first in Rivendell and then, most successfully of all for the famous Riddles In The Dark sequence, it’s arguably at its most effective.

It helps that there’s a marvellous gang of character actors essaying the dwarves and managing to give each of them a distinct attitude and characterisation, while also providing them a unity as a pack. As well as Ian McKellan as Gandalf, we also have a host of Rings actors returning for an extended curtain call – reprises from Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett are all fine I suppose, but none adds much to the story. The introduction of Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy is more welcome, turning a brief mention in the book into a memorable character in the film (although McCoy needs to learn that his trick of going cross-eyed isn’t as amusing as her thinks).

Shouldering almost the entire burden of the film though, is Martin Freeman as fussy hero Bilbo Baggins. It’s a marvellous performance, drawing on all the actor’s strengths from his other famous roles in The Office and Sherlock but managing to find something new as well – a sort of unassuming steeliness which is absolutely fascinating to watch.

It’s not perfect. The humour is a little too broad at times, and the effects work is so effortless now – it’s so easy to transform a live actor into a CGI avatar seamlessly – that the temptation is to keep ramping the action up and up and up. I had my doubts as to whether anything made of flesh and bone could survive the ride on the stone giants, but that every dwarf could have escaped intact from the goblin’s hopelessly precarious underground city absolutely beggars belief.

It’s also worth mentioning that I watched the movie in the HFR 3D format. My thoughts on 3D are available elsewhere. Here it’s largely used fairly tastefully and it wasn’t a distraction. High Frame Rate is another matter entirely and this has caused a good deal of confusion, so let me try and clear things up…

When a movie is shot using a traditional film camera, film is advanced through the mechanism, brought to a stop so that one frame is behind the lens, then the shutter is opened to briefly expose that one frame, the shutter is closed and the film advanced another frame and so on. Clearly there are some physical limitations to how fast this can be achieved, since if you yank the film on too quickly and stop it too suddenly, you will start to shred the celluloid. The “shutter” by the way is usually a rotating disc with one missing section, generally 180 degrees.

When the movie is projected, a similar system is employed to show one steady image every 24th of a second. This is just about fast enough for persistence of vision to take over and for the succession of still images to be perceived as a moving picture, especially if each image is shown twice so that the rate of flicker goes up to 48Hz (48 times per second) which is standard.

Returning to the filming process, some of the time, when the shutter is open, the camera will be recording an object which is moving and this will result in a blurred frame. This blur is something we are used to seeing when watching a movie and generally we think nothing of it. In fact, we are more likely to notice it when it’s missing, as when footage is sped-up to give it more excitement or when stop-motion animation is combined with live action (think of those Ray Harryhausen skeletons fighting Jason and the Argonauts). Some directors will also create this strobing effect deliberately by using a camera shutter which is open for less time, 90 degrees, or with very fast film, even less. Think of the Normandy Landings sequence in Saving Private Ryan, shot with a 45 degree shutter.

Video is another matter entirely. Wanting a flicker rate of around 50Hz (which is also conveniently the usual mains electricity frequency, at least in the UK) but not having physical film which must be held still and then briefly exposed, standard video recording exposes a whole new frame fifty times a second, with the result that there is less motion blur – the images have a smoother and more fluid look. (This is a slight simplification which ignores interlacing, but we don’t really have to worry about that for the purposes of this explanation.)

Devotees of vintage television will remember that the standard model for filming both drama and comedy in the seventies and eighties was to shoot on location with 16mm film cameras, one set-up at a time. This allowed for better lighting, more dramatic angles and so on, but it was slower and more expensive and so tended to be kept to a minimum. This location footage would then be combined with studio footage, shot with three or four or five cameras all following the action as it unfolded like a play. This often meant blasting the studio sets with light to make sure that the actors could clearly be seen by all cameras and in all positions. This flat, over-lit, smooth video look became associated with cheapness. The bigger your budget, the more location filming you could afford and the more cinematic your show seemed. But switching between film and video created a jarring shift in image quality and texture which some viewers and some directors found offputting and so in the late eighties and early nineties, it became more and more common to take video cameras out on location too, to ensure that everything looked the same.

But the film “look” was still felt to be more prestigious, to have a more high-quality “feel” to it, so with digital post-processing it was possible to “filmise” video footage, artificially transforming footage shot on video tape to give it movie-like motion. At around the same time, researchers were discovering how to add extra computer-generated frames to make film footage look like video, in order to restore old episodes of – you guessed it – Doctor Who, which had been originally shot on video but now only existed as 16mm film recordings, back to how they would have looked on transmission.

So, when watching The Hobbit in 48fps, we are undeniably seeing more detail. Twice as many distinct images flash before our eyes watching the HFR version as opposed to the standard version. And there’s no lack of quality in these images, captured as they are with the very latest Red Epic cameras, shooting preposterously high resolution. So this way of shooting is far more like how our eyes perceive the world – there’s no celluloid in my skull and no shutter in my eye-socket, and so therefore no motion blur. But it’s also true that The Hobbit‘s smooth motion, lacking the motion blur associated with the prestige of film, tends to remind older viewers of video tape and younger viewers of video games. Indeed, during the first prologue I could have sworn the image was speeded-up, but of course I was just seeing the lack of motion blur.

This then is the crux of the matter. Is a preference for 24fps cultural, due entirely to decades of having been exposed to prestige material shot in this format, compared to less fancy material shot at higher frame rates? Or is there something about a lower frame rate which is intrinsically more appealing? My subjective response to The Hobbit at 48fps is that I didn’t hate it, but I did notice it and when I noticed it I found it distracting. But who’s to say that sixty years from now, 24fps footage won’t look like black-and-white does to us – or worse?

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