Peter Jackson Returns to Tolkien (With Old and New Faces)
Peter Jackson likes to do things in threes. Of course, his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings" was pretty straight-forward: three books, three movies (including the Oscar-winning conclusion "The Return of the King.") But what to do with Tolkien’s earlier novel, "The Hobbit," which acted as an introduction to the world of wizards, elves, dwarves, dragons and hobbits that make up the most influential fantasy of the 20th century?
At first Jackson thought two movies would suffice; but somewhere along the line, it was expanded to three, the first of which, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, comes to theaters this week.
Written in 1937, "The Hobbit" was considered more of a children’s book, a light appetizer to the darker, more novels that make up the "Ring" trilogy. Many pre-teens read it as part of their school reading assignments, and there was an animated film of "The Hobbit" made in 198X.
Not a children’s story
Jackson has designed his "Hobbit" films to lead right into the "Ring" trilogy. "To be quite honest I want to make a series of movies that run together so if any crazy lunatic wants to watch them all in a row, there will be a consistency of tone," Jackson explained.
"I don’t want to make a purely children’s story followed by ’The Lord of the Rings,’ so we are providing a balance. A lot of the comedy and the charm and the fairy tale quality of ’The Hobbit’ comes from the characters. You are dealing with Bilbo Baggins, who is a little more reluctant possibly to go on the adventure than Frodo was. You’re dealing with dwarves who have a personality and camaraderie all on their own, so there’s a lot of humor and a light touch to be gained from those characters but there’s still some serious things involved. Hopefully the ’Hobbit ’films will comfortably straddle both worlds."
The 7000-year old wizard
In ’The Hobbit, ’Gandalf (Ian McKellan) the wizard chooses Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to join a company of dwarves in a quest to defeat the dragon Smaug. Much like Gandalf chose Frodo (Elijah Wood) to be the safe keeper of The One Ring in ’Lord of the Rings,’ he likes to send Hobbits on perilous missions with large fellowships. McKellan reprises his role from the ’Lord of the Rings’ films.
"People shouldn’t expect to see a different sort of Gandalf," McKellan said. "As for being 60 years younger because the story takes place 60 years before, when you’re 7000 years old, 60 years doesn’t make much difference. When you go back and do this movie, it’s not just the people [in the cast.] It’s all the people behind the camera and they were the same. I think every head of department was as we’d left them on ’Lord of the Rings’ so it was back with old friends. In fact The new side of it was the actors, all the dwarves for example and this particular Bilbo. Everyone fit in very well."
A better 3D
The ’Ring’ films were technological marvels that pioneered visual effects, creature creation and performance capture arts. In the ’Hobbit’ films, Jackson is adding 3D, and a new filming and viewing format called 48 frames per second. For about 100 years, films have been recorded and shown with 24 images moving through the lens per second. Doubling the frame rate has been controversial, as an early footage screening at CinemaCon in Las Vegas this year was poorly received.
"48 frames a second is way better for 3D, I’ll tell you now now," Jackson said. "One of the things with 3D is it does accentuate that strobing. Because your’e getting it in two eyes, your’e getting two cameras that are filming. Once you go to 48 it’s much smoother, there’s no eye strain. I find you get used to it pretty quickly when you sit and watch. We’re used to strobing, we’re used to seeing a panning shot which is like a series of still frames that shudders its way along. You don’t get that at 48 frames. Yet it doesn’t impede our ability to color time, to put a creative grade on the movie. Everything is the same as it normally is. The fact that you don’t have so much motion blur makes also makes it feel quite sharp."
Kids will be thrilled
McKellan supports Jackson in his technical endeavors. "It’s astonishing to think that most people [going to see ’The Hobbit’] have never seen ’Lord of the Rings’ in the cinema. We’ve all got 8, 9, 10-year-olds who watch ’Lord of the Rings’ nonstop, but they watch it at home on a screen that size.
"What is going to happen to their heads when they take their parents in to see a 3D movie maybe for the first time, certainly this story and 48 frames per second. It’s going to be much, much, much bigger and more astonishing than we think because we’re used to it all. I think people who say : ’Oh, we don’t need 3D, we’re used to 2D.’ Bollocks. 3D is life. We’re in 3D now. The brilliance about Peter’s 3D is it doesn’t come out at you. You go into it. You enter the globe. You look around a corner. Your’e even deeper in until you find a way out. That’s the effect of 3D. Those little kids are going to be so thrilled."
Gollum makes an appearance in ’The Hobbit’ when Bilbo falls into his cave. You’ll recognize the face and Andy Serkis’ voice, but the way Serkis performed the character is new. In ’The Two Towers,’ Serkis wore a motion capture suit in a studio and his performance was animated into the movie. Not anymore.
"What is amazing now with performance capture now, we were able to shoot the ’Riddles in the Dark’ scene in entirety on a live set with Martin’s performance being captured and mine on digital camera," Serkis said. "Then Gollum’s performance (is shot) using performance capture cameras (that capture) it in exactly the same moment in time. What that does is there’s no disconnect. The fidelity to the moment, to the choices, to the beats that you create between the director and the actors therefore is absolutely nailed in one. That makes a significant difference to the believability and therefore the changes to augment and chance and change the iteration and change performance on the fly makes a huge difference."
A different experience
Ian Holm played Bilbo Baggins in "The Lord of the Rings," and he appears in "The Hobbit" briefly. However, when he flashes back to the adventure of "An Unexpected Journey," Freeman takes over.
"The experience of this is genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever done and unlike anything I’m likely to do again," Freeman said. "Just the breadth and scale and time, just being in a completely different part of the hemisphere [New Zealand] than I’m used to. It’s a whole different experience. It’s like a huge chunk of your life. So that alone makes it different than anything else. The budget makes it different. You’re constantly walking onto sets and sound stages where what you’re acting on would take up the entire budget of any other film I’ve done. So just the scale of its quite phenomenal. For me they’re incomparable."
A new way of filmmaking
As a Hobbit, traveling in the company of dwarves with a giant wizard in tow, Bilbo appears smaller than Freeman actually is. Various special effects achieve this, as they did with the various heights of the Fellowship in the first trilogy.
"Personally I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve gotten used to these ways of filming that I haven’t used before," Freeman said.
"The first time that we ever we shot a scene with Gandalf where Ian had to be in a completely different room I thought, ’This is ridiculous, this’ll never work. Who are these people? Why are they doing this to us?’ Then an hour later you go, ’Oh, that scene looks brilliant.’ You rehearse it and rehearse it and it becomes normal. Your whole frame of reference for how you normally work on a film shifts. What one minute is completely unworkable and ridiculous the next week is just going to work. It becomes very easy actually."
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens December 14, 2012.
Watch the trailer to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: