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‘The Hobbit’ 3D tech divides our CNET reviewers

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ features a new 3D technology that some people have criticized for looking too much like TV.
New Line Cinema

Now that Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has opened in theaters around the world, the most controversial thing about it isn’t even that he somehow is making three 3-hour movies out of a 300-page children’s story. No, it’s the way the movie has been shot that has the most people talking.

The “Hobbit” trilogy has been captured using James Cameron’s 48-frames-per-second 3D technology (HFR 3D), which Jackson says leads to less eyestrain and a sharper picture.

Only a limited number of cinemas will be showing the movie in HFR — Jackson says it’s only 1,000 out of 25,000 theaters.

“On the first day of shooting ‘The Hobbit’ in 48 frames, there was not a single cinema in the world that could project the movie in that format,” Jackson said, according to CinemaBlend.

While we’re not going to go into how the technology works here, CNET editors David Katzmaier and Ty Pendlebury have just come out of a showing in HFR 3D and wanted to share their thoughts.

As a big-to-massive Tolkien fan who loves Peter Jackson’s original movies, I was nonetheless disappointed to hear he’d be stretching “The Hobbit” (a short book I reread last week in about three days) to fill what’s sure to be about 9 hours of screen time. I entered the theater with lowered expectations, both for the film itself and for the 48fps HFR treatment he chose to experiment with delivering.

I ended up liking the movie more than I thought I would, and disliking HFR just about as much as I do when I encounter its doppleganger, dejudder (aka smoothing, aka The Soap Opera Effect), on modern HDTVs. I found myself wanting to switch it off.

I can see why Jackson liked the effect though. The visual impact of HFR is immediately apparent and very distinct from what film normally looks like. Jackson employs a moving camera, from sweeping pans to helicopter-shot vistas to pushes through interiors to quick jerks during combat, as frequently and skillfully as any filmmaker. In the HFR “Hobbit,” all of that camera movement is seemingly on rails, and objects flow across the screen with pristine smoothness. It’s definitely more like reality than standard 24-frame film looks, but it’s also somehow more artificial at the same time.

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From the opening shots, where old Bilbo moves his memoir onto the desk and opens a basket, the smoothness is easily apparent in any scene with object or camera movement. I noticed that artificial look at one point early in the film, when Bilbo gets astride his first pony, and the background moves behind him in a scroll, as if it were printed on a piece of paper unrolling to simulate his riding forward. The numerous flying camera shots over the stunning New Zealand countryside seemed too smooth as well, to the point where I was distracted and lost the feeling of immersion. HFR might be the future of film, but in its first incarnation it seems like a step back. Maybe I’ll eventually get used to it, but at the moment I think I’d enjoy the film more in its standard-frame-rate incarnation.

“The Hobbit” is undeniably beautiful to look at, and not just because of the meticulously crafted world Jackson and WETA created. The 3D nearly is perfect — there are very few overt pop-outs and the depth seemed like an ideal representation of reality; not too deep and yet deep enough to remind me of its extra advantage over 2D. This is one of the first 3D films I’ve seen (“Hugo” is another) where the extra dimension drew me in and added to the experience and immersion, rather than detracting.

And the movie itself? Let’s just say it catered to people like me — big-to-massive Tolkien nerds. I reveled in the extra backstory (Radagast, the White Council), the historical battles brought to life (the Erebor prologue, the retaking of Moria) and the faithful adherence to the books, down to nearly every line of Tolkien’s original dialogue. I kind of wanted the Great Goblin (er, Orc) to open his mouth like a constrictor snake and threaten to bite Thorin’s head off, but I guess you can’t be too bound by the canon. I also had the versions of the songs from the original animated version playing in my head during the musical interludes. Yes, it was too long — the Stone Giant sequence, much of the chase in Goblin Town, and at least half of the Unexpected Party itself seemed too close to filler, but I enjoyed them in their own way, too.

In sum, I can’t wait to see it again in the theater, but next time I won’t go to the HFR version.

Ian McKellan checks out his Gandalf Lego minifig (sadly, not featured in the movie).
Warner Bros

Having tested 3D televisions since their inception and having attended my fair share of 3D movies, I can unequivocally say that this is the best 3D I have ever seen. In essence, it’s the best part about this movie. Jackson undoubtedly chose to shoot in the controversial 48fps format for the silky-smooth effect it has on the sweeping helicopter shots he loves so much.

This technology is an uneasy bedfellow with a majestic fantasy movie as it does lend an incongruous “documentary” feel to the story. However, it does indeed make the picture sharper, and most movement is fluid with only occasional breakup of fine detail. Even the “poking you in the face with spears” stuff works, and it’s because of the lack of cross-talk. (Cross-talk is where the image breaks up into two and is common when an object comes very close to the “front” of the screen.) I had to look very hard to see any evidence of this defect and thought I saw a faint trace in a waterfall in Rivendell, but that was it.

As far as the movie itself, Jackson takes Gandalf’s declaration that “All good stories deserve embellishment” as his personal creed. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see Neil Young play at Barclays Center in New York, but early on in the set he lost the crowd by playing a 20-minute feedback solo. The first hour of “The Hobbit” is Peter Jackson’s feedback solo. It features zero pacing, solemn songs, and sweeping shots of Hobbiton. The only person who “gets” extended solos is the soloist. It was like a canned technology demo that you might see in a Best Buy or other electronics outlet — where there’s not that much movement, and the scene looks very overbright and digital.

However, once the singing is done and things start to happen it’s actually quite fun. Despite a wonky beginning, the movie actually moves along quite well and is much more consistent than Jackson’s patchy “King Kong.”

If you have a chance, this is definitely worth seeing in the cinema in 48 frames at one of these locations.

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