It’s been nine years since the last Lord of the Rings installment hit theaters but this Friday, December 14th we can finally return to Middle Earth with the debut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The film, directed by Peter Jackson, is the first part of trilogy of films adapting the enduringly popular masterpiece The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The three films tell a continuous story set in Middle-earth sixty years before The Lord of the Rings which Jackson and his filmmaking team brought to the big screen in the blockbuster trilogy that culminated with the Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The adventure follows the journey of title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome Dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard, Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen Dwarves led by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the wild, through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, as well as a mysterious and sinister figure known only as the Necromancer.
Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings, X-Men) returns as Gandalf the Grey with Martin Freeman (Hot Fuzz, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) in the central role of Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage (Captain America: The First Avenger, Robin Hood) as Thorin Oakenshield. Also returning to the cast are Elijah Wood as Frodo and Andy Serkis as Gollum.
At the New York City press day for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was among the entertainment journalists lucky enough to speak with director Peter Jackson, producer Philippa Boyens, senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, along with stars Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Freeman, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis.
The film marks the debut of High Frame Rate 3D. For years 24 frames-per-second have been the standard frame rate for filmmakers because it is the slowest speed film can move through a projector without the human eye noticing each cell separately. This allowed filmmakers to save money on using more film than they needed to but for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Jackson chose to shoot the film in 48 frames-per-second. This has created some controversy but Jackson defended his decision stating, “I’m fascinated by reactions. I’m continuing to see that anyone under the age of twenty or so doesn’t really care and thinks it looks cool and doesn’t even really understand it. They often just say the 3D looks really cool. I think 3D at 24 frames is interesting but it’s the 48 that actually allows 3D. It’s less eyestrain and you have sharper pictures which creates more of a 3-dimensional world. It’s interesting how the frame rate actually changes the perception of the 3D as well as making it more comfortable to watch.”
Regarding the history of the decision to shoot in 48 frames-per-second, Jackson “I remember going to Disneyland and seeing the Star Tours ride that George Lucas did for Disneyland which is a high-frame-rate where you’re speeding in the spaceship and then I had a direct experience with it about three or four years ago. We directed a King Kong attraction for Universal Studios in California, which was a 60 frames-per-second 3D seven or eight minute film. I just thought ‘wow, this is so cool’. I wish we could do a feature film like this? Mechanical projectors in cinemas around the world were locked into 24 frames and it was just an infrastructure since the 1920’s that existed and was never going to change. But it’s the age of digital projectors that allow all this development to happen.”
Jackson felt it was the right time to utilize the technology. “The editor that I work with went to an NAB convention the year that we were in development on The Hobbit and he came back and said that if you’re interested in high frame rate I think the moment in time has arrived because the projector manufacturers can probably do it and the cameras are going to be able to do it. We decided to take the plunge. Warner Bros. was very supportive, they just wanted us to prove that the 24 frame version would look absolutely normal which it does. On the first day of photography we turned the dial on the camera to 48 and you could say there wasn’t a single cinema in the world that could project the movie in that format so it was a leap of faith. It’s not an attempt to change the film industry. It’s another choice. The projectors that can run at 48 frames can run at 24 frames. You can shoot a movie at 24 frames and have sequences at 48 or 60 frames within the body of the film. It doesn’t necessarily change the way films are going to be made, it’s just another choice that filmmakers have.”
When asked why he chose to make The Hobbit in three parts Jackson stated, “We were originally doing two films but then it’s really a question of what you leave out. It’s a misleading book; it’s written at a breathless pace. Pretty major events of the story are covered in only two or three pages. It’s almost like a children’s bedtime story. Once you start to develop the scenes and plus you want to do a little more character development and character conflict than what was in the original book. In the appendices of The Return of the King, which is a hundred pages of material that Tolkien developed that takes place around the time of The Hobbit. So we wanted to expand the story of The Hobbit a little more. Tolkien himself wrote that material to tie in The Lord of the Rings. All of those factors combined it gave us the material to do it.”
Ian Mckellen explained, “Anyone who thinks Peter Jackson would fall for market forces rather than artistic imperative doesn’t know the guy and hasn’t examined the body of his work. If we just had made one movie of The Hobbit, the fact is that all the fans, and I’m thinking of the eight, nine, ten-year-old boys and girls, they would watch it 1,000 times. Well, they’ve now got three films they can watch 1,000 times”
In The Hobbit McKellan plays Gandalf the Grey who isn’t as powerful as the Gandalf we see in the Lord of the Ring films. McKellen was asked who he liked to play more, Gandalf the Grey or Gandalf the White, he explained, “there’s a bit more range for the actor in Gandalf the Grey and that’s selfishly why I prefer doing him. Gandalf the White, who’s in the second of the Lord of the Rings movies, is on a mission and he has to save the world or help save the world, and so he’s cut his beard down to size, and he’s gone white in the process. But that’s the story of where the hero doesn’t make it back home. Bilbo gets back home because he’s on an adventure. It’s different. He doesn’t need Gandalf the White to look out for him. He needs the Grey, like he can have a smoke with him or a drink with him, and can tick him off, maybe.”
Elijah Wood talked about his brief scene in the film explaining that the filmmakers altered his appearance. “I was actually digitally de-aged in this film. They softened my face.” This technique was employed because a number of the actors play younger versions of themselves.
Andy Serkis who plays Gollum is back, but this time he’s in the assistant director’s chair as well as in the role of Gollum. Four weeks before going to work as Gollum, Jackson invited Serkis to join as the assistant director as well as reprise his role. “I was utterly thrilled. Pete’s known I wanted to direct for quite some time. It goes back even as far as Lord of the Rings. I’ve always absolutely adored Peter’s way of shooting and keeping the camera moving, and the way that he intensifies moments. And so he was an amazing mentor, amazing teacher and was very generous. At the same time as directing The Hobbit, he’s teaching me and that really speaks to what an incredibly, hugely enabling person he is.”
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens December 14, 2012.