By Anthony Breznican
April 24, 2012 at 10:07 PM EDT
James Fisher
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Based on the deflated reaction to 10 minutes of footage shown today from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s state-of-the-art high-definition epic may or may not forever change the way we view movies, but it will definitely revolutionize the way we talk about that strange, hard-to-describe fluorescent look HD video can sometimes have.

There are two ways to look at the clips featured at the annual gathering of theater owners: As storytelling, the first half of Jackson’s two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is perfectly in sync with the tone and quality of his groundbreaking The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But as a platform for new cinematic technology, the clips received an underwhelming reaction at best. Read on for more details after the jump.

The clip began with a filmed intro from a jolly Jackson on the set of The Hobbit in New Zealand, in which he delivered a quick lesson on the history of frame rates that was surprisingly fascinating.

To put it simply: Right now, every second of footage you see in a movie is made up of 24 pictures. In the silent era, it was roughly 16 to 18 pictures (or frames) per second. With The Hobbit, Jackson is leaping to 48 frames per second, resulting in an ultra-crisp image.

Sound promising? That’s what everyone in the 4,100-seat theater was thinking.

Jackson was hoping to inspire the theater owners to upgrade their projection equipment as necessary to showcase the film at the accelerated rate, which he said should be an easy conversion with most digital projectors. “I’m really hoping with the support of the exhibitors, we can start the process of changing the entire industry to higher frame rates, which quite honestly provide a much more attractive experience, especially in 3-D.”

Jackson said the format was “much more gentle on the eyes, without the strobing or as much flicker, and much less eye strain.” However, he may be underestimating how much those so-called flaws have become part of the language of visual storytelling.

Shooting at 48 frames, he added, “gives you much more the illusion of real life.”

That may be the problem.

The clips Jackson went on to show looked much more like visiting the set of a film than seeing the textured cinematography of a finished movie. While most films aim for a soft, natural glow, this had a more stark and fluorescent lighting style.

Hopes were high, but reaction in the audience was mixed at best:

“Great Scott, THE HOBBIT in 48 frames-per-second is a thing to behold. Totally different experience. Not all will like the change,” tweeted Variety film editor Josh Dickey.

“Here’s what The Hobbit looked like to me: a hi-def version of the 1970s I, Claudius. It is drenched in a TV-like — specifically ’70s-era BBC — video look. People on Twitter have asked if it has that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy, and the answer is an emphatic YES,” wrote Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest.com, in a thorough drubbing of the format.

“Saw ten minutes of Hobbit in 48fps 3D. Very exciting, but I’m now very unsure about higher framerates. 48fps feature films will likely divide moviegoers — I expect to see stronger hate, more so than 3D,” tweeted Slashfilm.com’s Peter Sciretta. 

“Saw the 10 minutes of raw The Hobbit footage in 48FPS 3D. Intriguing, the footage looks amazing, but the 48FPS experience is an odd change,” tweeted Alex Billington of FirstShowing.com

“Saw 10 min of THE HOBBIT in 48fps. It’s def a drastic change from 24fps and many are not going to be on board with it,” tweeted Steven Weintraub of Collider.com

Jackson said he chose to show 10 minutes of footage “because it actually takes your eyes a little bit of time to get used to 48 frames.” And the preview came with the caveat that many scenes were lacking visual effects. “It’s not really showing you a sense of what those shots will look like in the finished film, but it’s allowing you to judge the projection quality,” Jackson said.

Whether that mitigates the negative fallout or not, perhaps Jackson and Warner Bros. should have waited until the scenes were fully completed before presenting the new technology.

Now for the good news…

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“I can honestly say I have told you the truth, but I may not have told you all of it,” an aging Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm, reprising his role from The Lord of the Rings) tells Frodo (Elijah Wood) about his history with The One Ring in the clip Jackson showed — and so far it applies to the description of Jackson’s presentation, too.

While the technical quality was irksome, the storytelling on display was as taut and intriguing as any fan of Tolkien or the previous movies could hope.

“Bilbo Baggins …” speaks the familiar, warm grumble of Ian McKellen’s gray-bearded Gandalf. “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

From there, we see Martin Freeman (from the British version of The Office and the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes reboot) as a younger, fussier version of Bilbo meeting Thorin and his band of dwarves and basically finds himself shanghaied on a treasure-seeking quest. There’s a comical scene where he encounters three massive goblins, and later he finds himself lost in a series of caves where he encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis, reprising his acclaimed role) — a relationship that will ultimately lead him to discover The Precious, a.k.a. The One Ring.

Jackson also showed footage of Gandalf meeting with the Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) as well as the white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) about a grave discovery he has made — a Morgul sword, made for the witch king of Angmar. “Buried with him, when Angmar fell,” Galadriel said. “And sealed deep within the rock, in a tomb so dark” it could never be opened again.

Well, so much for that plan.

We then see Gandalf visiting said tomb, a kind of vertical mineshaft with caged crypts that have been ripped open. This is the tomb of the witch kings, seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as the black, spectral wringwraiths. In this tomb, Gandalf meets the brown wizard, Radagast, played by Sylvester McCoy, who has three little birds who live under his hat — and occasionally drop poop down his beard. (This is where the HD really pays off, people!)

Radagast seems to have arrived there against his will. “Why am I here, Gandalf?” he asks in a whisper. “This is not a nice place to meet.”

“No,” Gandalf agrees, peering down into the abyss. “It is not.”

Radagast examines some etchings above one of the tombs. “These are dark spells, Gandalf — old, and full of hate. Who is buried here?”

“If he had a name it has long since been lost,” Gandalf replies. “He would have been known only as a servant of evil.”

From there, the footage ends with a sweeping score, epic fantasy landscapes, and the promise of a cliffhanger leading into the second film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, due Dec. 13, 2013.

The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, comes out later this year on Dec. 14.

Follow @breznican

Read More:

‘The Hobbit’ First Look: 3 Pics!

The Hobbit’ trailer: Gandalf! Galadriel! Goosebumps!

‘The Hobbit’ shooting at 48 frames per second. So what’s the big deal?

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