Peter Jackson and “Competitive Realism”

An old (and far more talented) friend of mine responded to the discussion Rob and I had about frame rate:

The choice to go from 24 fps to 48 fps was that some filmmakers really hated the strobing effect when the camera pans in 3-D versions of movies. Their solution was to up the frame rate—giving the filmmaker more information to play around with. Honestly, the 24 fps strobing never bothered me, cause if you are telling your story right, little nitpicks like the don’t enter the mind of your audience.

For reasons unclear even to me, I responded to his gentle correction with A Brief and Inadequate History of Special Effects:

I didn’t want to get too technical in the podcast, but I was hinting at that: 3-D created a problem that didn’t previously exist, and the solution is worse than the original problem. No more strobing, but now the effects are so obviously “special” that we may as well be watching the original Clash of the Titans. An incredible film, don’t get me wrong, it just required a superhuman suspension of disbelief. Which at the time was fine, because “special effects” like George Reeves flashing across the sky were meant to be “special,” outside of the ordinary, and didn’t need to look as if they were of this world or obeyed its laws of physics.

I tend to think George Lucas ruined this fantastical acceptance of the specialness of “special” effects when he married recognizably modernist styles with space stations and star ships—the Millennium Falcon could’ve been a Le Corbusier, the stormtroopers come from the mind of an Italian fascist, and half the scenery consisted of the same brutalist style that litters my campus. Point being, his realist aesthetic made “special” effects look quaint, the people who loved them rubes, and that’s where we’ve been ever since. Realism or naught! Realism or naught! (With a few exceptions, Del Toro notably among them.)

So I could understand why Jackson wanted The Hobbit to accede to the demands of the regnant style, but in doing so he utterly ruined his film. I mentioned in the podcast that the best scene in the film, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, looked like exactly what it was: Martin Freeman in front of a green screen talking to a man in ping-pong ball covered suit. (I know that’s not how they do it anymore but you know what I mean.) It looked like Jackson had decided to avoid the uncanny valley by introducing its monstrous child to an actual human being and hoping the audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I’m not going to say it made me want to cry, but I’m not going to deny I teared up a bit at the sheer waste of it all.

Like you, I’m more interested in the story, so if the technological advances can be integrated into it—like the conference tables in Avatar—I’m fine with that because it complements the narrative. But I don’t even think we need 3-D. It took us millions of years to develop the particular sort of stereoscopic vision we have, and our brains react to an “occupied periphery” the same way now as they did before: by flooding our bodies with hormones that make us nervous, tense, excited, afraid, etc. Since our eyes still point forward, you don’t need anything more fancy than an IMAX to occupy our peripheries, and I’m fine with that.

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