I Rewatched 'The Hobbit' to Figure Out Why Movies Have Gotten So Ugly
The first film of the Hobbit trilogy was slammed for looking awful at the time of its release. So why do so many movies look just like it all these years later?
Screencaps via Warner Bros.
Welcome to One More Time, the column where writers revisit and review the movies they walked out of in theaters.
Long ago, before MoviePass (temporarily?) rendered the entire movie-going experience as frivolous as opening up Netflix, walking out during the middle of a film was a rarely employed act of protest.
Over the decades of my movie buff life, only four films have ever earned such an ignoble dismissal. Of those, just one film’s crimes were forgivable enough for me to consider giving it a second chance.
I went into my first attempt at watching 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with mixed feelings. I’d enjoyed the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and practically wore out the tape of my childhood VHS copy of the 1977 animated Hobbit TV movie. On the other hand, the flagrantly craven decision to split one of Tolkien’s shortest books into three three-hour films had me worried. Was I about to behold something with artistic merit, or was I being coaxed into a pricey, multi-year commitment?
During the initial viewing, I was relieved to find that, while the script was awkward, silly, and disjointed, the performances were at least serviceable. When are Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen anything less than a treat? I was weathering the slapstick and story padding just fine.
The thing that drove me out of my screening was the film’s use of high frame rate (HFR)—48 frames per second video that doubles the typical 24 fps of most films in an attempt at capturing hyper-lifelike shots. But, rather than transport me to a believable Middle Earth, this cinematographic choice left me feeling as if I was watching the local news. Worse still, I’d doubled down on my bad decision and opted for 3D on top of the HFR, so some of the more roller-coaster-y action sequences left me feeling a little motion sick.
The frame rate issues were only exacerbated in scenes featuring-motion captured non-humanoid monsters. Every troll, goblin, and orc in the film looked like a 3D-printed figurine covered in cooking oil. I tapped out around the two-hour mark when the goblin king of the uncanny valley entered the film, swinging his malignant tumor of a chin into my personal space, courtesy of 3D movie magic. Knowing there was still an hour of movie left to trudge through made the decision to bail a pretty easy one.
I soon learned that I was not alone in hating the HFR choice. Countless critics and viewers excoriated director Peter Jackson at the time of the film’s release for choosing a format that left the audience members who weren’t getting nauseous from the visuals thinking they looked “fake,” even for a bunch of fantastical creatures running around Middle Earth.
How did this even happen? Setting aside, for a moment, the existence of fuzzy Hollywood accounting and its effects on this particular trilogy’s bottom line, we know the Hobbit films were shot and produced as a package deal to the tune of over $750 million. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey alone had an official production budget of $180 million. And one can only assume that, at the very least, a couple million of that budget went into VFX. That the effects could still, somehow, look like ass, after all that money and time committed, almost borders on impressive.
But maybe it was the perfect storm of 3D and HFR that had made it look so terrible to me at the time. I decided to give The Hobbit another chance. Going in, I was optimistic that the HD version I was about to stream—in two dimensions and a more palatable frame rate—would wash away the sins of the past.
Unfortunately, though the film was no longer assaulting my eyes, the myriad visual problems with it still jumped off the screen. The sweeping shots of New Zealand countryside, indistinguishable from those I’d seen in LotR, felt like a magician repeating tricks. The CGI was atrocious, blotting every monster with an oily shimmer and turning the human actors into pallid cartoon corpses when it needed to carry them through an action sequence. Much of the movie had also succumbed to the orange and blue scourge that’s been ruining cinema for the better part of two decades.
After what felt like years, I made it past my previous record and was rewarded with the “what have I got in my pocket” scene where Andy Serkis takes his Gollum performance to dizzying new heights of extra-ness, howling and mugging through each line. Beyond that, though, the hour I’d previously missed was a boring VFX orgy of action sequences indistinguishable from the film’s other fights and set pieces.
Finally, at long last, my journey ended with poor Bilbo Baggins coming to terms with the fact that his journey had only just begun. I empathized with the poor hobbit but not nearly enough to see him through another six hours. Nothing The Desolation of Smaug had to offer me could possibly top the hilarious behind-the-scenes video of Benedict Cumberbatch mo-capping it, anyway.
What most struck me during my rewatch of the 2012 film is that, despite the initial press and public backlash about its visuals, its shitty look has become almost the modern standard for CGI, rather than an embarrassing footnote on the road to better things. A quick google pointed me in the direction of a possible culprit.
Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based digital effects company founded in part by Peter Jackson in 1993, became an overnight industry titan thanks to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings three-picture deal. Beyond netting an Oscar for each film of the trilogy—chiefly for groundbreaking motion-capture technology first showcased in The Fellowship of the Ring’s Gollum scenes—this attention brought scores of new clients to the Weta offices. The little studio had to expand fast to field all the new work.
Weta Digital has since transformed into a massive yet secretive studio that has changed the Hollywood landscape and had a role in every other blockbuster of the past decade, including some Avengers, Fast and Furious, and Planet of the Apes flicks. It also did the first Avatar and are on board for all four slated sequels, so the company's impact on cinema is guaranteed to be felt until at least 2025.
Somewhere along the way, however, Weta seems to have lost its way and began to turn in the plastic, ugly models that I hate and see in every film with CGI, Weta’s or not. Only when working with their golden boy Andy Serkis, like in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which carried the torch from those original Gollum scenes, do they seem to escape these stylistic pitfalls.
I’m going to need to see some signs of progress soon because The Hobbit looked bad enough that there’s no way I’m strapping in for four more Avatars without some serious reassurances.
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