For some Hollywood hotshots, film is not just about telling stories. It’s about using the medium to drive new technology, and vice versa. Film is already a pretty labour-intensive business, but for the “gear-head” directors obsessed with all the latest technological trends, embedding those advancements into movie vocabulary takes an especially persistent brand of leadership.
New technology is disruptive in any sector, but in film, those disruptions are there for all to see – and dealing with the online fallout from those who believe that their experience has suffered at the hands of a new exhibition method requires determination and calm. In the past few days, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has been obliged to exude those qualities in generous doses, following the reaction to a 10-minute preview of his upcoming, two-part adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The screening took place at CinemaCon, a Las Vegas shindig at which filmmakers show snippets of works in progress to cinema-chain bosses, and try to convince them to invest in any new toys that they may need to show the finished movies to audiences. The event has grown in importance in recent years, thanks to the increased diversity of cinema formats. In addition to standard film projected at a rate of 24 frames per second, we have seen the rise of digital projection, largely applied to computer-animated films; a 3D renaissance, spearheaded by Avatar (2009); and a surge in popularity of IMAX, triggered by The Dark Knight (2008), which contained shots tailored specifically to the format’s immense canvas.
To that list, we can now add digital footage shot at 48 frames per second – twice the frame rate of the other formats – in which Peter Jackson is immortalising Martin Freeman’s take on Bilbo Baggins. The point of the higher rate, which will need to be shown on an entirely new projection system, is to reduce motion blur, sharpen the image and generally bombard the audience with 100% more visual information than they have hitherto experienced. All of which sounds terribly exciting – until you weigh up the CinemaCon reactions that have hit the blogosphere. Some viewers complained that the sharpness of the image made the preview feel cold and remote. Others said that the result resembles a 1970s, video-shot BBC drama like I, Claudius, not big-budget Hollywood fare. Perhaps the worst comments indicated that the copious visual detail merely heightens the artificiality of props and makeup. Not what you’d want to hear about the project you’d just spent the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP on.
For the online geek community, the message spread like the Beacons of Gondor: “The Hobbit looks rubbish.”
Defending his pioneering approach, Jackson blended qualified sympathy with technical explanation and future-focused, business savvy. “It does take you a while to get used to – 10 minutes is sort of marginal,” he said. “Another factor is it’s different to look at a bunch of clips – and some were fast-cutting, montage-style clips – [to] watching a character and story unfold.”
He added: “Advocating that we have to stick with what we know, I think is a slightly narrow-minded way of looking at things when, as an industry, we are facing declining audiences. We have to find ways to make it more vibrant, more immersive – something that will encourage people to come back to the theatres for that experience.”
There’s a lot riding on this. Format wars have shaped the film industry before (see VHS v Betamax and Blu-ray v HD-DVD), and they will do so again. But thanks to the inconsistent King Kong (2005) and the creatively misjudged The Lovely Bones (2009), Peter Jackson has not directed a universally acclaimed film since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
Could it be that technology will prove to be Jackson’s version of the One Ring – consuming the soul of his career at 48 mouthfuls per second?