A world of difference

The Hobbit poster

I haven’t seen The Hobbit, so calm down! I’m not going to review it or spoil it in anyway, because I can’t. In fact I haven’t even read the book, though I have managed to accumulate a little general knowledge about the plot. Instead I want to share a couple quick sound-bytes from professional film critics who have seen the movie:

Critics opinions

Again, calm down! They’re not talking about the film itself. It may very well be a good cinematic experience, Michael Phillips may not hate it, and it probably looks a million dollars from beginning to end.  No, what these three critics (who’s opinions I highly value) are in fact talking about is the film’s frame rate. Bear with me, this is where the film-student in me rears his ugly know-it-all head.

See, films have always been shot and projected at 24 frames per second. Actually, if we’re going to get nerdy about it, it’s typically 23.976 frames per second. The reason for this is that film was invented as a very basic photographic concept; you take several snapshots(or frames) in a row, constituting a film reel, and when the reel is projected back to you at a high speed…your mind experiences the illusion of movement. Actually, there’s a simpler way of explaining this:

That's extaordinary

Now, as any independent filmmaker will tell you, film stock isn’t cheap. Therefore it makes sense to limit the amount of necessary frames per second to the bare minimum. What is the bare minimum? Let’s all say it together: 24 frames per second! Any less than that and the film starts to look choppy, like someone turned on a strobe light. The amount of time between the frames creates a certain flicker effect that’s smooth and soothing to look at, but still fast enough to trick you into thinking that you’re watching something real. This is why a lot of stop-motion animation looks awkward and jarring, because the animators can typically only afford to animate 12 or 18 frames a second. It saves them a lot of money and time. With live action, however, the audience demands a much more realistic experience…

…and for a century that realistic experience has been there – unaltered. But, alas, Peter Jackson has decided that the future of moviemaking is to shoot and project everything like The Hobbit – not at 24 fps…but 48! Here is an amazingly scientific diagram that shows you what that does:

24 fps

48 fps

So as you can see, you’re getting twice as much information into your giant cinema-sized eye. Ok, I should probably have said that it’s ‘not to scale’, but the point is that the screen appears brighter. That’s good news for everyone who hates the dark murkiness of 3D, but bad news for anyone who knows about all the other side effects of high frame rates. Like, for example, it makes everything look like television. I don’t mean television like The Sopranos or Breaking  Bad, I mean television like Deal or No Deal and Oprah. It’s been described as “devoid of warmth” and looking like “behind the scenes footage”. If that’s the experience Peter Jackson wants us to have in Middle Earth, then mission accomplished.

See, Jackson expects this frame-rate increase to make everything seem more real to us, but he fails to understand that more realistic doesn’t necessarily mean better. Of course we want convincing acting and believable effects, but there is a soft comforting texture to 24 fps that reminds us that we’re sitting in the safety of a movie. It’s quite analogous to roller-coasters. Thrilling? Yes. Actually dangerous, no? If you genuinely believed that you might die on a roller coaster then you’d never get on it. I want my safe roller-coaster and my original frame rate, thank you very much. I’m not sure I made that point as eloquently as I could have, so I’m going to run away and change the subject.

I’m not a massive fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, with the exception of The Fellowship of the Ring which I thought was pretty spectacular at the time, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like fantasy films. In fact, with The Hobbit out now in cinemas, it made me think of one of my favourite fantasy films that has a very similar plot. It’s…

The NeverEnding Story

…and I’m not comparing the two just because The Hobbit is three hours long. Ba Dum Tss!!!

“A troubled boy dives into a wondrous fantasy world through the pages of a mysterious book.”

– IMDB

I’m comparing it to The Hobbit because this movie also features a character who’s pulled from his normal life and sent out on an epic quest that may determine the fate of his world. In fact, it features two of them.

Bastian

No one should ever call their child Bastian, it sounds too much like “bastard”. That being said, it’s the name of our main protagonist.

Bastian is a boy who appears to have no friends and no interest in outside activities. He lives in his own imagination and coddles himself in the world of fictitious literature in order to escape the harsh reality of his mothers death, as well as to hide from the bullies down the street.

Anyone who has ever been a “different” child will be able to recognise themselves in Bastian. Most kids go out and play in the sun instead of sitting in their room and frolicking about in their own minds. His father is naturally worried, but that doesn’t stop him from stealing and spreading the pages of a new book with the title “The NeverEnding Story”. Alone in a secluded attic, with a violent storm brewing outside, he ferries us all into the land of Fantasia, and joins the saga of…

Atreyu

…the young Greenskin warrior who hunts the purple buffalo-

-wait a minute, what? Atreyu? “Bless you!” Why are all the names in this story so weird? I know it’s a fantasy, but does his name have to sound like a sneeze? Anyways-

-the young Greenskin warrior who hunts the purple buffalo, summoned to the Ivory tower and given a quest. He has to save his world, Fantasia, from being destroyed by a mysterious force called The Nothing. Concurrently, the empress is dying of a mysterious illness to which Atreyu must find a cure. Oh, did I also mention that Atreyu is a little boy about 12 years old? It’s a lot of responsobility to place on such young shoulders – but, given that it’s contradictorily a fantasy fable about the importance of confronting actuality, it makes perfect sense.

This, I think, is where Michael Ende’s The NeverEnding Story and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy play carbon-copy chords. They’re all about small individuals taking on challenges of epic proportions. I don’t mean small characters in just the physical sense, but the juxtaposition inherent within the notion of child-like individuals standing up to mountainous adult obstacles is clearly a favourite staple of fantasy fiction.

Of course these aren’t the only two characters in the movie; there’s also Falkor, Gmork, Cairon, Night Hob, Engywook, Urgl, Rock Biter-

Rock Biter

Ey?! He’s a big rock who bites other rocks. Sure, call him “Rock Biter”, see if I care. It’s nice to know that we have such creative luminaries at the controls of this vehicle. Baptise the everyday child with a straight forward title like ‘Bastian”, but save the imaginative monikers like “Rock Biter” for the cannibalistic mineral-man.

Alright, enough with the hate. I don’t hate this film, I love it! There’s a very noticable northern-European feeling to it, clearly imposed by the fact that it’s actually an English-language German-made movie. For a kids film, it’s amazingly mature, sad, and frightening. There’s no sense of “you can’t kill the dog” anywhere to be found, or in this case “you can’t kill the horse”. Every character can die, and several of your favourite ones do. The Giorgio Moroder and Klaus Doldinger musical score is, at times, creepy as sin, and yet at others it’s uplifting and empowering. The themes also center around the importance of imagination, something children often lose as they become adults.

The trailers for The NeverEnding Story have all dated horribly. There’s no advertisement for this movie that will present it to you as anything other than a cheesy trippy 80’s blue-screen overdose. That’s why I’ve posted this clip to hopefully give you a sense of what it’s like.

Yes there are pre-cgi puppets, yes the audio is terribly re-recorded, and maybe you find the acting a bit overdone – but it’s a funny little scene that simultaneously displays the desperation and hopelessness manifesting in Atreyu. This bit of the film always reminded me a little of Frodo’s interactions with Gollum. Like Gollum, Morla talks about herself in very bizarre third-person terms and is a difficult creature to reason with.

Of course that’s not the most exciting point in the movie, but it was always one of my favourite parts.

If you haven’t seen it before, do yourself a favour right now and track down a copy of The NeverEnding Story. Despite the title, it’s actually only 90 minutes long – but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick and easy adventure. Along the way you’ll experience great excitement, peaking thrills, and wallowing sadness. No one can give you any advise, except this:

“You must go alone, you must leave all your weapons behind. It will be very dangerous. I do not know if there is any chance of success, but if you fail…the empress will surely die and our whole world will be utterly destroyed. You must begin now, and you must hurry Atreyu. The Nothing grows stronger every day…”

– Rant Over!

*update

As I was writing the final section of this post…I went to see The Hobbit. It was alright, but way too long.

– Rant Actually Over!

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