In April, Peter Jackson premiered footage of his highly anticipated return to Middle-earth, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. What Jackson thought would spark conversation about the plot and characters, instead created a ferocious debate over the use of 48fps (frames per second) technology, which is twice the standard frame rate that has been used to make movies since the 1930s. When Jackson premiered a lengthy segment of "The Hobbit" at Comic Con on Saturday night, it was not presented in 48 frames per second, but the normal 24. (The footage was also in 2D instead of 3D.) Ahead, Jackson says his disappointment with the reaction at CinemaCon is a big reason why.
I met the Oscar-winning director at his hotel room just outside Hall H at Comic Con in San Diego. Jackson seemed in good spirits after the positive reception to "The Hobbit" reel just a few hours before. Here, the Oscar-winning director explains why the tone of his version of "The Hobbit" is much different than its source material, the difficulties of making what amounts to a cinematic prequel, and what he'd like to change about any of his "Lord of the Rings" films.
This has been such a saga, getting this movie made. Has it sunk in yet that this is actually happening?
Well, look, I'm pleased that I've made it now after a 12-year break. I mean, when I did the "Lord of the Rings" movies, all three of them, each year, everybody would be asking me, "So are you going to move on to 'The Hobbit'? Is 'The Hobbit' going to be next?" And it wasn't actually possible at that time, anyway, because of the rights situation with MGM and Warner Brothers. But I'm glad I didn't do it then. I didn't really want to do it then, and I've gone off and done other things. And so, the return to Middle-earth has been much more of a pleasure. It's been much more of a ‑‑ it feels less like a duty and more like a reunion.
Were the ages of the cast a concern? Because they're supposed to be younger, but they're actually older?
[Laughs] Well, we don't have too many cast members that return. And fortunately, the actors that we have like Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellan have not really aged much at all. It's quite incredible.
I'm under the impression that Christoper Lee is not as mobile.
He still looks pretty similar. Well, he's 90 years old, and he was 80 or 78 when we shot him the first time around. So certainly, 90 years old, but he's still in great spirits. I mean, Chris Lee was a joy to work with. Look, I think you'll find that the age doesn't really affect it at all. And Gollum is a character, we subtly made him look slightly younger, a little bit younger, because also, the ring keeps a certain youthfulness. And, of course, by the time he gets to "Lord of the Rings," he's had the ring for 60 years, and it has started to affect him -- affect his physical appearance.
I'm hesitant to call this a prequel, because of the books, but, movie-wise, it kind of is a prequel. Does that make it difficult to set stakes? Because we all saw Bilbo in "The Lord of the Rings," so we know he's fine.
It's an interesting question. I mean, I don't think so. Because, really, it's the same philosophy as going to a James Bond movie. I mean, you still get thrilled and excited even though the idea that James Bond is possibly going to get killed in those car crashes is unlikely. So I kind of think that there's a certain suspension of disbelief that audiences go to these films with. I mean, every adventure movie puts their key protagonists in mortal danger, and yet somehow, in the back of your mind, you know they're never really going to die. So I don't think that's much of an issue. I mean, the good thing is that they are two different stories. And the joy of it is that there's -- you know, in terms of the prequel nature of it -- there's definitely things that are established in "The Hobbit" which lead to much greater events in "The Lord of the Rings." But, at the same time, you've got a quest of the dwarves trying to reclaim their homeland of Erebor, which doesn't really have anything to do with "Rings." I mean, that's a story unto itself which is at the heart of our films. And so, we've got the best of both worlds, really. We've got a self-contained story plus we've got the nice connections that people will recognize.
The tone of the books -- "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" -- are very different. But when I'm watching the footage, it feels very much like the tone of the "Lord of the Rings" movies that you did. Was there any thought to adopting the tone of the book?
Well, it was one of the reasons why I was actually a bit hesitant about the project, because I had to rationalize it in my mind. I didn't really want to make a children's story -- not a children's movie in a Disney kind of way. Which is really, in a way, you could say that the book has a bit of that feel. What answers that for us was that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" in 1936 -- and 16 or 17 years later, he publishes "The Lord of the Rings." Much, much more serious. And he, himself, said about revising "The Hobbit" -- he was at some stage thinking about publishing an expanded version of "The Hobbit" where he ties in the events of "The Hobbit" with what he ultimately did with "Rings."
So in "The Hobbit," Gandalf disappears for periods of time, and it's never really explained in "The Hobbit" where he goes or what he does. Tolkien wants to get him out of the story, so he put the dwarves in more danger. And yet, by the time he did "The Lord of the Rings" and he devised Sauron, who doesn't appear in "The Hobbit," as his ultimate villain, he then wrote notes about Gandalf disappearing from "The Hobbit" because he gets word that Sauron may have returned and the guys at the necromancer are at this place called Dol Guldur. So he was writing all these notes about what was happening in "The Hobbit" that wasn't actually in the novel.
Now, they were ultimately published, 125 pages of those notes were published in the back of "Return of the King," and they're called the appendices of "Return of the King." And in the later editions, not the original edition, but in the '70s and '80s, they added them to "Return of the King," just as a piece of the back of the book. And so, we had the rights to actually adapt those appendices, as well. So we were able to expand "The Hobbit" and to flesh it out and bring a lot of that material into the narrative of "The Hobbit." And that tonally shifted it. So you get the charm and the whimsy and the fairytale quality through the dwarves and the characters of the dwarves and the characters of Bilbo and Gandalf. But, you also get kind of the dark part of the world and the seriousness with which Gandalf is having to try to figure things out, be a detective and work out what's happening. So by using the appendices, I think the tone sort of balanced up a little bit with "The Lord of the Rings."
Were you disappointed at the internet reaction to the 48 frames per second footage?
Yeah, I mean, disappointed, I guess, is one way. I wasn't surprised in the sense that my experience with 48 frames ‑‑ and I've seen hours and hours and hours of it, obviously ‑‑ is that it's something that becomes a real joy to watch, but it takes you a while.
Why is that?
Yeah, I mean, it's like watching a movie where the flicker and the strobing and the motion blur what we've been used to seeing all of our lives -- I mean, all our lives in the cinema -- suddenly that just disappears. It goes. And you've got this incredibly vivid, realistic looking image. And you've got sharpness because there's no motion blur, so everything is much sharper. And plus we're shooting with cameras that are 5K cameras, so they're super sharp.
So this is basically something that you're really excited about, and then when it screened and everybody sounded negative, you were disappointed?
Yeah, but literally, you sit there and you think, Wow, this is different. The first few minutes, you think, Wow, this is really different. It's cool, but it's different. And at the end of two hours, or two and a half hours, you think, That was cool. It was a great way to watch the movie. Now, what I learned from the CinemaCon experience is don't run a seven or eight or ten minute reel where the total focus is going to be on the 48 frames. I mean, that was a disappointing thing at CinemaCon. Forty-eight frames, I'm not worried about, because when this movie comes out and people see it at 48 frames, they're actually going to get the experience that I've had for the last 18 months. I'm a film guy, I've grown up all my life going to the movies, and I think 48 frames is great. So I've got to believe I'm not stupid. I have to believe it.
I've got to say, selfishly, I was really hoping to see it here.
I know. But Hall H, a big convention center, that's not the way to judge it. It's an important thing to judge, because the industry may or may not want to adopt high frame rates, and I think it has to be taken very seriously. And I think the only logical thing to do is to let people see a feature-length narrative film at 48 frames. I've got no doubt whatsoever that people are going to enjoy it. But the disappointing thing with CinemaCon is that no one talked about the footage. The first time we ever screened "The Hobbit," all the stories were the 48 frames stories. And then the negative guys, the guys that say this doesn't look like film -- the guys who are in love with the technology of 1927 -- are sort of sitting there saying, "But it doesn't look like cinema. This is not what we're used to seeing in the films." And those stories rush around the world and no one talked about the footage. So, I'm not going to go to Comic-Con with 12 minutes of footage and have the same reaction. I don't want people to write about 48 frames. Forty-eight frames can be written about in December. When people can actually watch a full length narrative film, everyone can go to town on 48 frames, because that's the form that you've got to see it in. And if you hate it, you hate it. And if you like it, you like it. I think most people will [like it].
Is there a limit? Can you go up to 96?
No, I don't think there's any limit. I think modern projectors can probably go up to about 120 frames a second. It ceases to become anything. The difference between 24 and 48 is profound. Some people are talking about 60 frames a second -- and the difference between 48 and 60 is very minor. I mean, I can barely tell the difference, because we did tests of these frame rates.
Looking back on the three "Lord of the Rings" movies, are you completely satisfied with them? Is there anything you look at now and wish you could change?
[Laughs] Look, I mean, I saw them again about three years ago. When we were first setting out on "The Hobbit," I watched them. And I hadn't seen them since we released them because I never really watch my films back again after they come out. Yeah, I mean, I'm proud of them. There's a lot of sequences in those movies that I'm incredibly proud of. Sure, I mean, some of the storytelling, some of the greater structural things might have been able to be cleaned up. But there are sections, you know, there are 10 or 15 minute sections of those movies that I'm incredibly proud of. I'm never a good judge of my own films. I mean, I still look at movies that I've made and I look at the scene and I'm thinking of the rain that happened that day or the camera crane that broke down and the things that happen. I kind of can't quite divorce it from the actual experience of making the film.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact him directly on Twitter.