Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Will 2012 be remembered in cinematic history as the year Peter Jackson introduced us to new technology with The Hobbit?

As movie awards season is upon us, we thought we'd take the opportunity to discuss a significant development in film in 2012.

Associate professor of English at the University of Toronto

With the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in December, technology took center stage.

And when it comes to the movies, that’s not always a good thing.

In addition to some negative reactions to the news that Tolkien’s single book would be adapted into three parts, many found fault with the film’s look. Jackson shot the film in a digital format (on Red’s “Epic” digital cinema camera), and in 3D, but he also chose to shoot at 48 frames per second—twice the standard rate of 24 fps—and the movie was projected at this frame rate in select theaters. Jackson insisted that this would provide a truer, more immersive 3D experience, but the response was mixed at best. While some praised the clarity and immersive quality, others thought it simply looked like television. Many fans noticed that some movements seemed “sped-up” and reported that the general effect was nauseating [i].

A number of film critics were more offended on an aesthetic level, suggesting that The Hobbit’s aesthetic was “akin to the visual grammar of a giant ‘Teletubbies’ episode.” [ii] As with earlier transitional moments—whether the shift to feature films, or the coming of sound, color or widescreen formats—the current debates about digital filmmaking and The Hobbit come down to questions of realism. Technological advances in cinema have generally advanced the cause of realism, but here the problem seemed to be a distracting surplus of the real. As Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers put it: “The movie looks so hyper-real that you see everything that's fake about it, from painted sets to prosthetic noses.” [iii]

In this sense, the criticisms of The Hobbit remind me of reactions to the close-up in the years leading to the advent of the feature film (from around 1908-1915). Back then, critics complained that close-ups made the actors’ makeup too visible and their faces frighteningly, even sickeningly, big. In both cases, the image is so real that it breaks the spell of the cinematic illusion.

For his part, Peter Jackson chalks it up to a generation gap. In response to criticism of The Hobbit, he noted that he hadn’t “heard a single negative thing from the young people,” and that “people under 20 think it’s fantastic” while “cinephiles and serious film critics who regard 24 fps as sacred … absolutely hate it.” [iv]

This he attributes to a reactionary fear of change. But perhaps Jackson should consider the possibility that audiences may be reacting to something legitimate, rather than merely resisting the inevitable march of progress. While the close-up eventually won the day, for example, it wasn’t merely that people got used to it. Film grammar changed, and the close-up became meaningful, embedded within character psychology and narrative. Another example of this give-and-take between film technology, style, and audience experience can be seen in the coming of sound. From our vantage point, it may seem silly that many “cinephiles” resisted the coming of sound back in the late 1920s. For them, however, the cinema was only just reaching its potential as an art form, and many saw sound as a step back—or a step away—from what was truly, uniquely cinematic.

The thing is, in those first few years of sound, you can see why true cinephiles had reason to fear. Those early sound films are not much to look at. With sound came limitations on the image, and the best directors of the day lamented the return to the bulky, stationery camera that the new technology required. In the early years of sound, the movies didn’t move – at least not as they had at the height of the silent era. Audiences got bored. And the sound itself was flawed. In short, complaints were not just about a resistance to change, but about the real shortcomings and disruptions in the moviegoing experience that come with new technologies.

We might also consider that with other major transitions, such as the coming of sound or color, the cinema was addressing a perceived lack in the screen image. From the earliest days of motion pictures, there was a desire to add sound and color to the image. Many early silents were tinted or hand-colored, and synchronized sound was imagined from the beginning (the Edison Co.’s first experiment with sync sound was conducted by William Dickson in 1895) even if it took decades to come to fruition. But the current experiments are a bit different—that is, no one’s clamoring for 48 frames per second. And it’s unclear just how much people want 3D, or what its real potential is. Renowned editor and sound designer Walter Murch suggests that 3D is a fool’s errand, one that allows the ideal of physical “immersion” to interfere with immersion in the filmic illusion. My students, who are in fact those “young people” that Jackson speaks of, generally complain that 3D isn’t worth the higher ticket price.

Regardless of whether we want to equate our current technological transition with those earlier watershed moments, it is clear that change happens in fits and starts: not all technologies work well right away; not all new technologies are keepers (3D TV, anyone?); and more importantly, as one element of cinema changes, all the other elements are affected. As a result, our viewing experience changes in important and noticeable ways. Audience reactions register those changes.

Jackson has every right—even the responsibility, given the enormous resources at his disposal—to experiment. But he should neither dismiss audience experience nor underestimate the role that nostalgia plays in preserving the cinema’s cultural power. No doubt there will be some Hobbit jokes at the Oscars—but watch for this year’s dose of nostalgia as well. The transition to digital cinema has led to a certain unease for the industry and audiences alike. This year, the Academy will undoubtedly find new ways to remind us of how the cinema’s future is tied to its past. In so doing, they will seek to maintain the cinema’s tenuous but definitive balance between technology and illusion, substance and shadow, realism and magic.


Alice Maurice is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto. She is author of The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema. Her articles have appeared in journals including Camera Obscura, Moving Image, and Cinema Journal.

"The Cinema and Its Shadow will make it impossible to teach and write about the narrative/technological history of cinema without paying attention to race. This is a wonderful book."
—Sabine Haenni, author of The Immigrant Scene: Ethnic Amusements in New York, 1880-1920



[i] This showed up on a number of fan sites and blogs. See, for example, Alex Moore’s post, “The Hobbit apparently not only looks crazy but may also make you barf,” at

[ii] Ann Hornaday, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Washington Post, December 14, 2012. Accessed online.

[iii] Peter Travers, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Rolling Stone, Dec. 13, 2012. Accessed online.

[iv] “The Hobbit: Peter Jackson Defends His New Technology,” The Telegraph, December 12, 2012.

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