Seeing “The Hobbit” in 3D

I’m on vacation in Mexico right now, and yesterday evening my brother-in-law took my wife and me to see “The Hobbit,” in 3D, in quite the fancy movie theater, with reclining seats and footrests and to-the-seat service and such.

I don’t want to talk about the movie per se, short of mentioning that I liked it, a lot, but about the 3D. Or the “stereo,” I should say, as I mentioned previously. My overall impression was that it was done very well. Obviously, the movie was shot in stereo (otherwise I’d have refused to see it that way), and obviously a lot of planning went into that aspect of it. There was also no apparent eye fatigue, or any other typical side effect of bad stereo, and considering how damn long the movie was, and that I was consciously looking for conversion problems or artifacts, that means someone was doing something right. As a technical note to cinemas: there was a dirty spot on the screen, a bit off to the side (looked as if someone had thrown a soda at the screen a while ago), and that either degraded the screen polarization, or was otherwise slightly visible in the image, and was a bit distracting. So, keep your stereo screens immaculately clean! Another very slightly annoying thing was due to the subtitles (the entire movie was shown in English with Spanish subtitles, and then there were the added subtitles when characters spoke Elvish or the Dark Tongue), and even though I didn’t read the subtitles, I still automatically looked at them whenever they popped up, and that was distracting because they were sticking out from the screen quite a bit.

As an aside, before it started I thought about how they would pull off the forced perspective that was so effectively used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because the basic trick would be made completely obvious by the different apparent depths of the actors involved — after all, the effect relies exactly on the lack of depth perception in monoscopic movies that stereo is meant to address. Needless to say, they pulled it off perfectly, and I’m still wondering just how they did it.

But back to the use of stereo. I am very glad that stereo has apparently outgrown its gimmicky phase, or at least in high-end productions like this. In most parts, it was a completely natural part of the movie (there were a few instances of things gratuitously flying at the audience, but they were small, few, and far between), so that it just became a part of the cinematography. I’ve previously used the phrase “2D + depth” to highlight the fact that directors often use the depth dimension provided by stereo as an independent dimension that can be played with (and how that shouldn’t be done), and am glad to say that I didn’t notice any fakery like that here.

The three-dimensional interior or exterior spaces created by the stereo effect looked pretty much like they would have in reality, modulo the technical problem of having to create the stereo effect for a particular screen size and audience position. From where I was sitting, depth seemed slightly exaggerated; meaning we were sitting too far from the screen.

So, now that I’ve argued that stereo did not stand out but was instead a smoothly integrated part of the cinematography, did it add anything to the movie experience? I would say yes. The interior spaces, particularly the inside of a hobbit hole in the beginning of the movie, looked more like a real place than like a set. The camera swoops over wide-open spaces, which I guess have become somewhat of a signature move of Peter Jackson’s, also feel more like being there than looking at a picture. And there was one part, a dazzling camera flight through a cave, that made me go “whoa.” It didn’t quite feel like jumping off a ledge while in a virtual reality CAVE, but it felt much more visceral than similar scenes in 2D movies, say the mine cart chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was, from an action and filming point of view, actually much more rollercoaster-like than the Hobbit scene.

After decades of seeing 2D pictures and movies, we have conditioned ourselves to ignore the lack of depth, and I’ll get a second opinion while watching Avatar on Blu-Ray tonight, but there is a difference, and I bet the difference would be more pronounced if I hadn’t been exposed to 2D my entire life.

Here’s a thought that just occurred to me: being from Germany, I’ve seen overdubbed movies my entire life, before moving to California. Dubbing in Germany is an art form by itself, with its own “stars” and voices generally following their actors over their entire careers, meaning that dubbing quality is on an entirely different level as in the States (mostly because it’s done on a much larger scale, and everybody involved has so much more practice). Still, there are mismatches between the actors’ lip movements and their voices — but I never noticed them. Now, after having seen mostly non-dubbed movies for 14 years, I cannot take dubbed movies anymore. It’s just obviously fake.

Now here’s what occurred to me: is the reason that most people (or at least most people who voice an opinion) are so unimpressed by stereo simply because they’ve been fed the obviously fake 2D stuff their entire lives, and have trained themselves to accept it as “the real thing?” If somebody grew up on (properly done) stereo movies, or if someone were to stop watching 2D movies for a long enough time, would they not be able to go back, just as I cannot go back to dubbed movies?

5 thoughts on “Seeing “The Hobbit” in 3D

  1. Being an avid reader of this blog, while I was watching the Hobbit, I couldn’t help wonder if they actually used tilt shift lenses to align the 2 focus planes of the cameras? Do you think they did? if so, is it a standard practice?

    • I was wondering that myself. I didn’t mention it in the post because I don’t have any proof either way, but I was looking specifically for keystone aberration at the edges of the picture, and didn’t see any. So either they somehow corrected for it in post-production, or the distortion was there but too subtle to notice with all the motion going on, or they did in fact use proper lens-shift stereo cameras. Whatever they did, I say it worked.

    • To answer the second part of your question: I don’t know for sure either way, but based on the large number of people who report eye fatigue or headaches from watching stereo movies, and from the standard stereo advice to minimize eye separation and keep the action in the center of the screen (where there is no keystoning), I assume that the standard practice is to use toe-in stereo, with two normal cameras angled in.

    • I don’t know, but I didn’t notice anything special about that. Then again, I believe that the whole “48 fps is the end of cinema as we know it” uproar is complete nuttery anyway.

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