In May of 1924, before an audience of the Heretics Society at Cambridge, Virginia Woolf argued that early in the 20th century – somewhere around 1910 – “human character changed.” And with this change “all human relations shifted.” As a result, Woolf continued, her generation of writers had to invent a new “code of manners which writers and readers [could] accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship.” In other words, they needed to reinvent the social contract between the writer and the reader. For, as Woolf notes,
A convention in writing is not much different from a convention in manners. Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other. The hostess bethinks her of the weather, for generations of hostesses have established the fact that this is a subject of universal interest in which we all believe. She begins by saying that we are having a wretched May, and, having thus got into touch with her unknown guest, proceeds to matters of greater interest. So it is in literature. The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut.
When codes of manners of one generation are overcome or become inadequate, new ones are invented.
On Friday, December 14th 2012 – when Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit started playing in Canada and the US – the human character went through no metamorphosis. It, as a matter of fact, stayed very much the same. However, the movie’s 48 frame per second shoot and projection rate (48 fps) – combined with its 3D projection – is something of a game (or, code of manners) changer, but only in a sense that it brings into super-sharp focus what certain movies have been trying to do for a long time: embed the audience fully into their constructed worlds and realities.
The first step in this process is, of course, the use of CGI and motion-capture technology to give characters – such as Gollum – the same ontological status as that of the living actors. Putting the issue of whether this technology is completely successful right now aside, the goal here is clearly to allow the audience to see characters such as Gollum and Bilbo Baggins as existing in the same world; and not just because they are literally presented as occupying this same world, but because we perceive them to be made of same stuff: flesh and bones. The Hobbit does this relatively successfully by using CGI and motion-capture (and the wonderful performance of Andy Serkis) only on certain characters, whose outward appearance is sufficiently removed from human likeness. The dwarves (whose features are human enough that some of them are played without much facial prosthetic reconstruction) were created through application of prosthetics and makeup, in order to avoid the dreaded uncanny valley which usually spoils the illusion a movie is trying to create. In this way, the three categories of creatures – humanlike, puppetlike, and cartoonlike – are presented as inhabiting the same ontological plane by being shown to be made of the same material. In other words, our eyes read them as flesh and bone creatures of various kinds.
The next step is the application of this same process to the world of The Hobbit: Middle-Earth. The goal here is to apply the same principle, discussed above in relation to character-creation, to the three distinct elements that make up this world: the geography of New Zealand, computer generated settings, and movie set constructs. The process of creation of this aspect of the film is different, but its purpose is the same: to convince the audience that the different elements of the setting all make up a single ontological plane or reality: Middle-Earth.
The 48 fps and 3D projection are, then, designed to confirm and even amplify the ‘realness’ of this unitary world through what Peter Jackson has called “a more immersive, realistic feel.” There are two distinct but coextensive aspects to this. The digital 48 fps projection removes the recognizable movie-veneer created by traditional modes of projection: celluloid prints and 24 fps (James Cameron’s Avatar and P.T. Anderson’s The Master have in the last few years brought this issue to movie-goers’ attention). The goal here is, one imagines, to persuade the audience’s eyes that what they are seeing is – really – not a movie at all, but an alternate reality. Then, the 3D projection continues this work by doing what 3D does: creating depth by mapping three-dimensional points to a two dimensional plane in an effort to contribute to the goal of persuading the audience’s eyes that they are not only seeing – but are actually a part of – an alternate reality.
In other words, not only are the Hobbits, the Dwarves, Gollum, and the Wizards all part of a single ontological reality, but digital 48 fps 3D projection aims to persuade your eyes that you are also a part of that reality. Fantasies such as The Hobbit and Avatar, paradoxically, have an advantage in this game of persuasion as their fantastic elements lack the burden of having to replicate or mirror any known, everyday reality. As such, they, again paradoxically, can use heightened realism of 48 fps 3D projection in a way that – in a movie set in ‘the real world’ – would only detract from a particular brand of movie-realism. Of course, the problem here and now is that the brain – which often processes things by integrating them into a field of previously constructed knowledge – gets in the way; at least at first. This is why some people complain that watching The Hobbit was a kind of “’Monday Night Football’ viewing experience.” We are forced to make sense of the new way of seeing by paralleling it with something we’ve seen before – TV shows, documentaries, etc.
I suppose we’ll have to wait and see whether this 48 fps experiment works. For now, let’s at least try to let our eyes do their job of guiding us toward this potentially new social contract.