CinemaCon 2012: THE HOBBIT Underwhelms At 48 Frames Per Second

Devin saw ten minutes of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY presented at 48fps. The content is good, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

I came to CinemaCon just to see the ten minutes of The Hobbit that Warner Bros showed today. I'm not exaggerating; I don't even have press creds, so I can't get into anything else. The good people at Warner Bros hooked me up with a ticket to the presentation, for which I am indebted to them... and which is making me feel bad for what I am about to write.

The reason it felt important to come to Vegas for this presentation was that The Hobbit was being shown at 48 frames per second. This is the new projection standard that the gearhead titans like James Cameron and Peter Jackson have been touting. The presentation today was to largely sell the CinemaCon audience - 90% made up of theater owners - on buying new equipment to show movies at this frame rate.

As the presentation started I gasped. The footage began with sweeping helicopter shots of mountains, and it was like I was floating over them myself. It looked stunning (this was also in 3D, by the way) and I truly felt like I was seeing something new, something that would redefine the theatrical experience.

And then the rest of the footage played.

I've been trying to figure out how to explain to you why this footage looked bad. First it's worth noting that the CinemaCon honchos bragged that their projection system in that theater was the most advcanced and best ever assembled by man. That's almost a direct quote. So the presentation would almost certainly never be better than what I saw today.

Second, I must say that it's possible there will be lots of post-production work done to offset some of the lighting issues. I also assume that the few 'complete' scenes we saw will continue to be edited before release.

With those caveats out of the way, here's what The Hobbit looked like to me: a hi-def version of the 1970s I, Claudius. It is drenched in a TV-like - specifically 70s era BBC - video look. People on Twitter have asked if it has that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy, and the answer is an emphatic YES.

The 48fps footage I saw looked terrible. It looked completely non-cinematic. The sets looked like sets. I've been on sets of movies on the scale of The Hobbit, and sets don't even look like sets when you're on them live... but these looked like sets.
The other comparison I kept coming to, as I was watching the footage, was that it all looked like behind the scenes video. The magical illusion of cinema is stripped away completely.

As I said above the landscape shots are breathtaking. 48fps is the future of nature documentaries. But if it's the future of narrative cinema I don't know if that future includes me.

It's unlikely you're going to see The Hobbit at 48fps (especially if all the grumbling I heard from theater owners is any indication. Walking out of the theater I didn't hear a single positive remark). You're wondering what I saw in the ten minutes of footage. Here, to the best of my ability, is a rundown of it all:

There was a lot of the helicopter shots you expect in a Lord of the Rings movie. Lots of shots of the dwarves trudging over mountains (again, this stuff looked spectacular). There was some of the business we saw in the trailer, with the introduction of the company of dwarves. There were also some quick shots - the company floating down a river in barrels, Gandalf running through a dungeon, being jumped on by a wild man of some sort, Legolas sliding in front of spider-webbed dwarves and knocking an arrow, warning he would kill them. There were also a handful of longer scenes that we saw.

We saw Bilbo's meeting with the three trolls. One positive aspect of the 48fps is that since everything looks so video, the digital creatures look more like they're on the set. The tone of the scene is very playfully threatening, with the trolls having dim reactions. The scene ends with the dwarves coming to Bilbo's rescue in a  big battle against the trolls.

We also saw Gandalf investigating the rising darkness. In one scene he is at a table with Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman, talking about ancient tombs that have been opened - ancient tombs with such strong binding spells no one should have been able to get in. Then there's a scene of Gandalf investigating the open tomb, where he runs into a very silly Radagast the Brown, who has some birds under his hat (we also saw a shot of his sled being pulled by bunnies). It turns out the opened tombs belong the nine Ring Wraiths.

The biggest scene was Bilbo meeting Gollum. Despite being told what we were seeing were unfinished effects, Gollum looked great (and again, the 48fps gave him more of a sense of being actually there). The scene was cut a little slackly; I imagine the final version will be tighter. But it was good.

The content seemed strong, it was the presentation that bummed me out. I'm honestly kind of depressed about how much I disliked the 48fps footage. In his taped intro, Peter Jackson said it would take a minute for us to get used to it, but I never did. It looked like shit the whole time.

What I don't understand about the gearhead filmmakers is why they're using these new technologies so early. This is like doing your first test flight of new jet engine with 200 passengers - why not perfect it, get it right, get past the disasters before you bring it to the public? I don't want The Hobbit to be a technologically experimental movie, but that's what it looks to be.