“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (directed by Oscar winner Peter Jackson) follows title character Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman), who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage). Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever: Gollum (played by Andy Serkis).
Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum’s “precious” — a simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know. At Comic-Con International 2012 in San Diego, there was a press conference for the movie that featured Jackson, Freeman, Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf), Armitage and Serkis. Here is what they said.
What was your reaction to being at Comic-Con in Hall H?
Freeman: Well, I’ve never been to Comic-Con before and it was lovely to have that. So in a way it’s fulfilling my expectations of what I heard about Comic-Con, and exceeding them as well. I was struck by just how emotional people were talking about the film, talking about anticipating the film. With each question came a preamble about what the previous films have meant in people’s lives. So all clichés aside, it’s a really nice thing to be part of something that actually touches people, genuinely touches people. It’s quite a lovely thing.
Peter, is it true you want to shoot more footage and possibly even a third “Hobbit” movie?
Jackson: It’s all very premature. We have got incredible source material with the appendices. “The Hobbit: is obviously the novel, but we also have the rights to use this 125 pages of additional notes that Tolkien expanded the world of “The Hobbit” that’s published at the end of “Return of the King.” We’ve used some of that so far, just in the last few weeks as we’ve been prepping out the shooting and thinking about the shape of the story.
Eventually, [screenwriters/producers] Philippa [Boyens] and Fran [Walsh] and I have been talking to the studio about other things that we haven’t been able to shoot and seeing if we could possibly persuade them to do a few more weeks of shooting. It’ll be more than a few weeks actually, a bit of shooting, additional shooting next year. What form that will end up taking, the discussions are pretty early so there isn’t anything to report. But certainly there’s other parts of the story that we’d like to tell that we haven’t had a chance to tell yet. So we’re just trying to have those conversations with the studio at the moment.”
Do you match the tone of “The Hobbit” novel or the tone of your previous movies?
Jackson: That’s a very good question and I think the answer lies somewhere in between. Again, it’s a similar answer, actually, because we’ve basically used more source material than just “The Hobbit.” For instance, in “The Hobbit” where Gandalf mysteriously disappears for chapters on end, it’s never really explained in any detail where he’s gone. Much later Tolkien fleshed those moments out. In these appendices he did talk about what happened, and it was altogether a lot more darker and more serious than what is written in “The Hobbit.”
To be quite honest, I want to make a series of movies that run together so if any crazy lunatic wants to watch them all in a row, there will be a consistency of tone. I don’t want to make a purely children’s story followed by “The Lord of the Rings,” so we are providing a balance. A lot of the comedy and the charm and the fairy tale quality of “The Hobbit” comes from the characters.
You are dealing with Bilbo Baggins, who is a little more reluctant possibly to go on the adventure than Frodo was. You’re dealing with dwarves who have a personality and camaraderie all on their own. So, there’s a lot of humor and a light touch to be gained from those characters, but there’s still some serious things involved. Hopefully, “The Hobbit” films will comfortably straddle both worlds.
Why didn’t you show “The Hobbit” clips at 48 frames per second at Comic-Con?
Jackson: Well, 48 frames a second I think has the potential of being quite an important moment for the film industry because we have to provide a theatrical experience to bring audiences back to the cinemas. We’re in an age where there is dwindling attendance, particularly amongst younger people.
I think we have to look to the technology that we have to try to figure out ways to make this cinematic experience more spectacular, more immersive. But Hall H is not the place to do it. Nor is 10 minutes of footage.
I’ve seen a lot of 48 frames over the last year and a half and it’s fantastic. It’s an incredible thing, but I didn’t want to repeat the CinemaCon experience where people see this reel and all they write about is 48 frames per second. Why? That doesn’t do us any good. It doesn’t do 48 frames a second any good.
To accurately judge that you really need to sit down and watch the entire film. That opportunity is going to be there in December. I wanted the focus to just be on the footage, the characters, the performance – not the technical stuff.”
Martin, how does starring in a Tolkien adaptation compare to Douglas Adams?
Freeman: More green screen. There’s even more green screen this time than with Adams. They are very different apart from the fact that they have a fantastical element to them and I’m playing adaptations, they are completely different. I mean literally different worlds. The experience of this is genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever done and unlike anything I’m likely to do again, just the breadth and scale and time, just being in a completely different part of the hemisphere than I’m used to.
It’s a whole different experience. It’s like a huge chunk of your life. So that alone makes it different than anything else. The budget makes it different. You’re constantly walking onto sets and sound stages where what you’re acting on would take up the entire budget of any other film I’ve done. So just the scale of it’s quite phenomenal. For me, they’re incomparable.
As far as taking a character from a book, is either author easier when it comes to inhabiting their characters?
Freeman: That’s a good question. Not that I’ve noticed particularly, no. With Arthur Dent as well, he serves I suppose a similar kind of function to Bilbo in that he’s the nearest thing to an audience member in the film. He’s kind of the audience’s way in. To a certain extent you could argue they are archetypes in the hands of a much lesser actor. You laugh. They’re cyphers in a way, I suppose you could say.
They’re sort of reluctant heroes who end up being heroes kind of by accident. They are archetypal stay at home people, I suppose. But also a lot of the times it’s not just about whether the author makes it easier. There’s an adaptive process, and then you’re working with directors as well.
So it’s the entire experience that determines whether you’re going to have an easy time of it or not. It’s not just Tolkien versus Douglas Adams, both of whom are brilliant writers. It’s who’s directing the film, who’s adapting it. It’s everything.
For Richard and Martin, how was it coming onto this franchise and dealing with point of view shots making you appear shorter?
Armitage: I was quite envious when I came in. The guys that worked on the trilogy had that privacy to work without too much attention when they did that first film. But at the same time, I think the attention that was on “The Hobbit” made everyone raise the bar and work in a different way. Of course the facilities at Stonestreet are phenomenal, so everything just had an energy to it that I’ve never experienced.
Freeman: For me, it became really noticeable when we went to, in film two, if I’m allowed to say, in Laketown.
Jackson: Spoiler alert.
Freeman: In the book, Laketown is human beings and that’s when we became more aware that Christ, we’re really small, because we spend so much time with each other. We’re very aware that Gandalf is bigger so we’re used to looking two feet above Ian’s eyes. But among all of us we’re just the heights we are, so it doesn’t really occur to you very often. Kieran Shaw, my scale double, hasn’t been used that much really.”
Jackson: Not as much as on “The Rings.” Not that much.
Freeman: It’s felt fairly painless and it hasn’t felt too contrived. Personally, I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve gotten used to these ways of filming that I haven’t used before. The first time that we ever shot a scene with Gandalf where Ian had to be in a completely different room I thought, “This is ridiculous. This’ll never work. Who are these people? Why are they doing this to us?”
Then an hour later you go, “Oh, that scene looks brilliant.” You rehearse it and rehearse it and it becomes normal. Your whole frame of reference for how you normally work on a film shifts. What one minute is completely unworkable and ridiculous, the next week is just going to work. It becomes very easy, actually.
What has become easier technologically?
Jackson: The technology, I guess the technology that advanced the most in the last 10 or 12 years was really the fact that we did a lot of miniature shooting on “Lord of the Rings,” so Minas Tirith, Helms Deep, the dark tower of Barad-dur, all the big architectural structures of Middle Earth were really miniature, some of them quite large. But you’re limited to what you can do with a miniature because you’ve literally got to have a big camera that has to sweep past it, so you can’t get too close to it and detail doesn’t hold up too well if you do.
This time, there are no miniatures, it’s all CG. So everything that we need to build from a miniature point of view we build as a CG miniature which allows my camerawork, I can now sweep over rooftops, through doorways. You can do things you could have never dreamt of doing when you had the miniatures. For me that’s actually one of the most profound differences.
I mean, Gollum has more muscles in his face than he did 12 years ago. Hopefully Andy has made those muscles work in a brilliant kind of way. We deliberately made Gollum look very similar to how he did, obviously, because we wanted consistency throughout the films. WETA Digital, who do the work, they’d subsequently been working on “Avatar” and built a very sophisticated motion capture facial system which Gollum certainly inherited some of the technological advances of that.
Serkis: The on-set motion capture. When we shot “Lord of the Rings,” we shot on 35mm and I would act with Elijah [Wood] and Sean Astin. The performances were filmed, then I would have to go back to the motion capture stages — it was called motion capture then because it was just the motion — and choreograph certain things, choreography Gollum back into the empty plates. Whereas now, and the facial performance was derived from a filmed 35mm performance which was then rotoscoped in fact or animated directly to match that performance.
What is amazing now with performance capture now, and it’s now performance capture not motion capture, because you can get the entire performance all in one hit. So we were able to shoot the Riddles in the Dark scene in entirety on a live set with Martin’s performance being captured and mine on digital camera. Then Gollum’s performance using performance capture cameras capturing it in exactly the same moment in time. What that does is there’s no disconnect.
The fidelity to the moment, to the choices, to the beats that you create between the director and the actors therefore is absolutely nailed in one. That makes a significant difference to the believability and therefore the changes to augment and a chance to change the iteration and change performance on the fly makes a huge difference.
What will the full 48 fps experience be?
Jackson: The 3-D, everyone’s used to seeing 3-D. We have filmed in 3-D, we’re not doing a post conversion which I think is a much more immediate and realistic look at the 3D and it’s been surprisingly easy too. The cameras and the rigs that were available to us, even though they were prototypes when we first began, the 3ality rigs and the rigged cameras, they performed really, really well and very easily. Easy to use, fast, doesn’t slow us down at all. 48 fps takes away the artifacts that we’re used to seeing in cinema and I think that’s what people are going to have to get used to. I find you get used to it pretty quickly when you sit and watch.
We’re used to strobing, we’re used to seeing a panning shot, which is like a series of still frames that shudders its way along. You don’t get that at 48 frames. Yet it doesn’t impede our ability to color time, to put a creative grade on the movie. Everything is the same as it normally is. The fact that you don’t have so much motion blur also makes it feel quite sharp.
You get something, to me, that is much more akin to shooting on 65 mil as David Lean shot all his films on and Kubrick shot “2001.” They used a large 65 mil rig because they wanted a particular crispness and clarity to their image, even though they shot at 24 frames. They had a very fine detail, so you get that with the 4K cameras that we’re using and the 48 frames.
It was actually weird because back in 1998 when we started working on “Lord of the Rings” I seriously for a while tried to convince the studio to shoot in 65mm. I really thought that “The Lord of the Rings” should’ve been shot in that format, but at the time the cameras were huge, cumbersome. They were difficult. The negative would have to be sent away to America to be processed so we couldn’t even see any of the rushes. We’d have to ship them to American and back again. So the whole thing wasn’t actually possible. This is I finally get to shoot my 65mm quality film.
McKellen: It’s astonishing to think that most people in the presentation just now have never seen “Lord of the Rings in the cinema. We’ve all got 8-, 9-, 10-year olds who watch “Lord of the Rings” nonstop but they watch it at home on a screen that size. What is going to happen to their heads when they take their parents in to see a 3-D movie maybe for the first time, certainly this story and 48 fps? It’s going to be much, much, much bigger and more astonishing than we think because we’re used to it all.
Jackson: Hopefully take them to more movies. Keep them away from their iPads.
McKellen: I think people who say, “Oh, we don’t need 3-D, we’re used to 2-D.” Bollocks. 3-D is life. We’re in 3-D now. The brilliance about Peter’s 3-D is it doesn’t come out at you.
You go into it. You enter the globe. You look around a corner. You’re even deeper in until you find a way out. That’s the effect of 3-D. Those little kids are going to be so thrilled.
Jackson: Forty-eight frames a second is way better for 3-D I’ll tell you now. One of the things with 3-D is it does accentuate that strobing, because you’re getting it in two eyes, you’re getting two cameras that are filming. Once you go to 48, it’s much smoother; there’s no eye strain.
The things we have to get now are laser projectors which are on the horizon, probably next year, when the light levels of 3-D will be radically increased two or three times the light levels that exist now. At that point, cinema exhibition will be at a place where it’ll be great. It’ll be fantastic.”
Andy, you also worked as a second unit director. What exactly did you do?
Serkis: I’ve been wanting to direct film for quite some time and during the “Lord of the Rings,” I was directing short films. And then using performance capture, I’ve gone into directing video games and so forth. So Peter’s always been aware that that’s an area I wanted to move towards.
It really was a very last minute thing. I only thought I was going to be coming down to New Zealand for two weeks to reprise the role of Gollum. Literally a month before, I got the most amazing call and the most amazing opportunity which was Pete asking me to come down and be his second unit director. I think it’s probably true to say it’s unlike any other second unit directing in the sense that the scale, scope and variety required for the 2nd unit director is pretty huge.
You’re shooting from fighting sequences, everything from a traditional matte shot or matte insert, but then to drama with all the principal cast in some scenes. Just a huge, huge variety on a day-to-day level. Working with an enormous crew, using 3-D for the first time, shooting on 48 frames a second for the first time; it was just a massive learning curve.
The idea really at the center of it, I guess, is because the size of the cast and because the scenes we’d be sharing cast, I think Peter can correct me if I’m wrong but he wanted someone that he could rely on to take care of performance as much as the technical side. We worked very closely.
Peter briefed me every day and was able to watch what I was doing, and we would lay out a plan and a way of shooting and then Pete would give me notes, always better. It was very good I think to be able to provide a sounding board for Peter. I went into it without any grand designs of I’m going to be shooting my version. I went in absolutely expecting to be Pete’s eyes and ears. Hopefully I satisfied that.
Ian, how did it feel to get to revisit Gandalf?
McKellen: I think Peter and I were just so thrilled that Gandalf the White wasn’t in “The Hobbit” because we preferred Gandalf the Grey. He was a man on a mission and so he had to get on, but Gandalf the Grey has time to enjoy himself, has a smoke and a drink and a chat, a few little tricks.
So it was a great relief, but it was coming back. People shouldn’t expect to see a different sort of Gandalf. As for being 60 years younger because the story takes place six years before, when you’re 7,000 years old, 60 years doesn’t make much difference.
When you go back and do this movie, it’s not just the people here. It’s all the people behind the camera and they were the same. I think every head of department was as we’d left them on “Lord of the Rings,” so it was back with old friends. In fact the new side of it was the actors, all the dwarves for example and this particular Bilbo. Everyone fit in very well.
Sir Ian, was there one scene in “The Hobbit” you’ve been waiting all these years to get to do?
McKellen: I don’t think there has been, but it was very nice to go to Hobbiton and ask him to come on the journey with us.