As a person in his 30s, I have never before been referred to as an "old fogey." Then again, I have also never before been in a give-and-take conversation with Peter Jackson about the merits of shooting a film using 48 frames-per-second technology.
Jackson is the Oscar-winning director of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," a movie that was very much filmed at 48 frames-per-second (which is twice that of every other movie that you've ever seen). Forty-eight fps is a cutting-edge format and delivers an exceptionally clear and realistic picture (critics have said it's too realistic). As Jackson states, it's also at least partially designed to excite the under-20 crowd in an effort to get them back into theaters. In this respect, yes, (sadly) I guess "old fogey" applies.
I last spoke to Jackson at San Diego Comic-Con right after he premiered footage from his then-two part, now-three part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, "The Hobbit." In San Diego, the footage was not presented in 48 fps because, as Jackson said to me in July, "I don't want people to write about 48 frames. Forty-eight frames can be written about in December." Well, it's December.
I met a delightful (even under the stress of a whirlwind media tour) Jackson at a Midtown Manhattan hotel to discuss the latest entry into his vision of Middle-earth. In our long discussion, we touched on topics ranging from why he decided to break the book up into three films to what Jackson thinks the late J.R.R. Tolkien would feel about Jackson's interpretation. (The Tolkien estate hasn't always been kind.) There's also the famous-infamous 48 frames-per-second debate -- a format that I am fascinated with, but also have extremely mixed feelings about as far as how it appears to a viewer. I mention this because Jackson seemed more than eager to have a discussion about the format, even with someone that he knew wasn't 100 percent on board.
In other words, an "old fogey."
I feel you're having a busy day.
Yeah, these are always busy days. It's not my favorite part of the process, I have to say. But, I won't hold it against you.
We can talk about "The Frighteners" instead, if you want to?
[Laughs] Yeah ... love to.
I feel like there's a similar narrative with this segment of "The Hobbit" and "Fellowship of the Ring" -- leaving the Shire then journeying somewhere else. Was it a challenge to differentiate those aspects?
Not really. A lot of the similarities are built into Tolkien's book, apart from prologues and things. The story starts in exactly the same Hobbit hole as "The Fellowship of the Ring" and this time it starts with Frodo's cousin, Bilbo, 60 years before "Lord of the Rings." And obviously Rivendell is a stop along the way, so it has that structure. But, the good thing about it and the thing that I enjoyed the most, really, is the different tone. It's a much more comical tone. Which, again, is built into "The Hobbit" being written much more for children and "The Lord of the Rings" having an apocalyptic kind of darkness to it.
A good example is when the Goblin King delivers the sarcastic line, "That'll do it," after being stabbed.
There's nothing like that in your original trilogy.
No, that actually wasn't even in the script. That was an improv line from Barry. Barry Humphries, who is playing the Goblin King, we were doing motion capture with him like the Gollum motion capture with Andy Serkis. We had Barry in the motion capture suit while he was performing the Goblin King and he just came up with that line spontaneously in one of the takes. And he only did it once. It wasn't something that we repeated, but it was so funny that it made us laugh so much that we included it in the movie.
As a viewer, you're not expecting that kind of humor.
Also, I was trying to balance it because I didn't want to lose the action. I didn't want to make it as scary because I think scariness is good, even for kids. There's nothing wrong with a scary movie as long as it's the safe scary movie. "Safe" in terms of being fantasy. But, I also thought that you are dealing with Gandalf hacking and slashing at this guy, so to have a funny line like that, it takes the edge off scariness a little bit.
When we spoke at Comic-Con, it was still two movies.
It was. We were in the middle of talking to the studio about it being three.
Did they balk at that at first? Was that a hard negotiation?
They were surprised. They weren't expecting it. Well, the only thing they said was that they didn't want either of the movies to suffer. They only wanted to do it if it was actually going to work for the film. And they didn't want it to suddenly feel like it was three movies that didn't have a purpose. And we've obviously been down the road before with "Lord of the Rings" -- that each movie is a continuation of the story. But you still have to have a shape and a structure to the film and that you're satisfied when you walk out of the cinema. So, we just had to prove that to them. And we had to prove it to ourselves even before we spoke to the studio. When we first came up with the idea, we worked it out on paper. We sort of did a new treatment and story breakdown because we were shifting things around; to go from two to three involved a restructure of the stories. You know, and we realized that the first film really can be Bilbo's journey and his relationship with Thorin. And that by the time the first film ends, he's a different Hobbit than the one that leaves. So, basing the first film more on Bilbo's emotional journey was really the way that we structured the first film. And it will be the same with the next two, they will have their on internal structures.
You had to leave a lot of things out of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy that I know you wanted in there. Does a third movie come from that frustration? That you don't want to leave out anything you feel that is important?
It came from ... yeah, yeah -- in a roundabout way. It wasn't quite as direct as that. But we realized when we were talking about the idea of expanding it to three movies -- which was just back this last July -- we knew there was a lot of great material. Especially the stuff that Tolkien had put in the appendices of "Return of the King." And it's material that we already talked about earlier that we couldn't fit into the scripts. And we thought, You know what? We could shoot some of this material and we could make this three movies. And it was a realization that we're never going to come back to Middle-earth again. I just don't think that there's any possibility that there will be any more Middle-earth films -- particularly in the eyes of the Tolkien estate, they don't want any more to happen. So, we thought that if we don't put our hand up now and suggest this, we're never going to get to shoot this material. We have one shot at it.
You've said that before, that the Tolkien estate would never let you do any other movies. Why?
I mean, I'm not attacking the Tolkien estate. It's just that the effect of J.R.R Tolkien -- he published "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" and he sold the film rights to both of those books in his lifetime. He sold them in the late '60s. So, he was at peace with the idea of the films being made. And he banked the check and, so, the deal was done. But, of course, what's happened since Tolkien's death in the early '70s, his son, Christopher, has published a lot of other material, subsequently. "The Silmarillion" was published after Tolkien's death and a lot of the others -- unfinished titles and various other stories of Middle-earth that Christopher made a career out of assembling his father's notes and sort of publishing them as new books. Now, all of the rights to those books reside with the Tolkien estate. They've never sold the film rights to those books. And they claim that they never want to. So, it's just an effect. It's not really an opinion whether they should or shouldn't, it's just the rights to any other Tolkien books don't exist.
Do you feel Tolkien himself would be happy with what you've done? You have to think about that.
[Pauses and smiles] I have thought about it. You know, I think there would be good and bad. I think some things he would be delighted about. I think he would love the epic scale. I think he would love the battle scenes because he wrote the battle scenes with a degree of relish and spectacle in his writing that I think he would be astounded at what the technology today could put on screen. I think he would be astounded by it. You know, whether or not he would agree with our editorial choices or agree with our casting even? I think he would like Ian McKellen -- I think he would be happy with Ian McKellen.
Well, who wouldn't be?
No. And in a way, McKellen, he represents Tolkien and his stories. Because when we were doing "Lord of the Rings" and Ian came on board for the first time, we were having conversations about Gandalf and the voice and the mannerisms and everything that you talk about with an actor at the beginning. We listened to audio recordings of Tolkien reading excerpts from "Lord of the Rings." We watched some BBC interviews with him -- there's a few interviews with Tolkien -- and Ian based his performance on an impersonation of Tolkien. He's literally basing Gandalf on Tolkien. He sounds the same, he uses the speech patterns and his mannerisms are born out of the same roughness from the footage of Tolkien. So, Tolkien would recognize himself in Ian's performance.
Again, when we spoke at Comic-Con, I mentioned that I was, selfishly, disappointed that the footage was not in 48 fps because I wanted to see it. Now I've seen it and I find it fascinating.
I have to admit, having now seen it, I never fully got used to it. How long does it take to get used to it?
I think that depends on each person. I mean, I'm well used to it now.
You've seen hundreds of hours of it.
Yeah. You know, I'm used to it to the point that yesterday I was in a lab in Los Angeles, before I came over here. It was first thing in the morning, I went to a lab to look at some reels that were being printed. And the first one I looked at was 48 frames and it looked fine. Great. The second one that they played me was the 24 frames and I didn't like it at all.
Really? So you're at the point now where you don't like watching 24 frames?
I just noticed the strobing. But, it is an acquired taste. And the one thing is that it's not the look of film. I mean, we all grow up with 24 frames. But it's neither a good thing or a bad thing -- it is different. And it's interesting the response, but I'm obviously fascinated by people's reactions to it. And, you know, there's going to be the cinephiles that are going to hate it, obviously. There are going to be people that are a bit like you, probably, one way or the other.
I'm fascinated by the technology aspect. But I'd like to see the movie again without it to compare.
But you talk to anyone under the age of 20, they don't give a shit. They don't care about 24 frames. They don't care about the look of cinema. Kids, I mean, most of the kids that I speak to -- anywhere from 8 years old and up through teenagers; because I've been talking to a lot of them who have seen "The Hobbit" -- all they say is that the 3D looks fantastic. They don't actually understand that some of that is the 48 frames. They don't get the difference. I guess they're not used to the difference between the two. But, the 48 doesn't hurt the 3D. Actually, the 48 makes it easier to watch and it's almost like at 24 frames, 3D didn't really quite reach its potential. Because of the strobing and the fact that each eye is getting a different strobe. But, you go to 48, and suddenly it feels like the two are made for each other. It almost feels like that completes that technical puzzle.
But you've mentioned, too, that it takes your eyes a few minutes to adjust to it, which is why you didn't show the footage in this format. I did notice that. I would say for the first 10 minutes it looked sped up. Then, after a few minutes, the speed seemed normal.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
If I watch it again, will it take time again to adjust?
Well, that's an interesting question. I don't think so because it doesn't for me. It's become normal for me -- you know, two years of watching dailies and watching it a lot.
When you first saw it, did it seem sped up?
Yes, it can do that. It can do that. You're quite right. It's a weird thing. It's a weird thing.
This is why it's fascinating to me, because I was conscious of my eyes adjusting, which they did.
Yeah, yeah! It's processing.
There are many scenes that look incredible. At times, I felt like I was actually in New Zealand. And Gollum is night and day from how he looked in "Lord of the Rings."
Yeah, it is. For different reasons. I mean, the 48 is one reason because it makes it feel more real. Because like in the other three, you're not feeling like you're looking at a filmed version of Gollum. You feel like you're looking at a real life version of Gollum. But, also, we made his muscle system -- the digital face of Gollum -- it looks the same externally. Inside, he's got many more muscles in his face and many more muscles around his eyes and around his mouth. So, everything that Andy does as an actor -- all those subtleties as an actor he does in the performance -- can now be very accurately translated to Gollum. So, it's a one-to-one. It's like perfect. There was always an interpretation process in the old performance capture days. But, the resolution of the performance capture now is so precise. It's fantastic.
On the flip side, some complaints have been the sets look so real, that it feels like a set. The one for me, for whatever reason, was when Bilbo was running down the hill at the Shire. I know that's not even a set, but I remember it took me out of it a bit.
That's weird. Because that's not even a set; it's a whole Hobbit town built on a farm. It's a real location. I mean, I don't think it looks like a set.
But can it look too real?
Yeah, I know what you mean. I think that's the difference. I don't think it's because things look artificial. I think people ... it's almost that it looks too real. But, then I ... you see, it's a philosophy thing because I think my favorite fantasy does look real. I mean, I'm not trying to make a surreal fantasy film. I'm not trying to make something that looks like a dream. I want people to feel like they're going to Middle-earth. As a filmmaker, my style is using a lot of wide angle lenses and to keep the camera moving. And all of that style is my natural, how I actually direct. But I think it helps people draw into the movie. It helps people become part of the story. The camera is almost like a character in the film. You're feeling the story through the camera movement. So, for me, 3D and 48 frames is a blessing. Because, for me, it's only a plus. All that I get from it is that I get to use these tools to enhance the experience. It's what I've always tried to do. I've always tried to make my fantasies look real.
I'd like to see more of it, to see if I do become used to it.
It will be fascinating who, if anybody -- I mean, I'm sure people will -- starts shooting in 48 frames.
James Cameron has talked about it, right?
Yeah, Jim is definitely going to do "Avatar" in a high frame rate -- for "Avatar 2" and "Avatar 3." But, you know, the interesting thing is that we've got the first 48 frame movie, but we're also going to have the second. Because even if it takes off and 20 people start shooting movies in 48 frames next year, no one is going to get their movie done before the second "Hobbit" movie comes out.
So, the second time we see this is also you.
[Laughs] The second "Hobbit" movie will be the second 48 frame movie. Look, I'm always happy to bet on myself. And I think it's kind of cool. And I think it's going to be, as I say, the reason to use it is to enhance the cinema experience. So, there's no reason to use it if it doesn't do that. If it literally doesn't make the cinema experience something magical and different ... and it is different.
When someone asks me what frame rate to see it in, I've been responding, "See it in 48 fps. Even if you don't like it, you've never seen anything like it before."
No. And, so, it's going to be, to me, the fact that the younger audience is embracing it -- and they are embracing it -- it's just a few old fogeys like us who aren't quite sure of it. It's the younger audience who kind of think it's cool. And that's the people we need to get them off their iPads and back in the cinema. And the technology exists, why should we as an industry say that we achieved perfection in 1927? Why should we sit back on our haunches and laurels and say, "We got it right in 1927"? What are we talking about? The next 100 years? The next 200 years? That's what films have to be? We shouldn't be doing that. We should be looking at the dwindling audiences and the fact that kids aren't as excited about going to the cinema as we are or used to be when we were young. And how do we make it feel more exciting for them? To back into that experience again.
Again, I do find the technology fascinating.
It is, isn't it? The next year will be interesting to see how the industry kind of responds to it.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.