How The Hobbit's Special Effects Made Sir Ian McKellen Cry

It's no secret that Peter Jackson, WETA and New Line Cinema are all trying to justify the special effects and frame rate of The Hobbit before its release in a few weeks. It's now emerging that Sir Ian McKellen, the seemingly-unflappable Gandalf The Grey, was reduced to tears by the effects on the shoot of the film.

McKellen, a classically-trained thespian, told Contact Music that he broke down during the filming of a scene between his character and the dwarves. The wizard and the dwarves needed to be shot separately so that the magic of cinema could be applied to make their size appear different in the frame. That meant during one of the scenes, McKellen was left standing amongst pictures of the actors playing the dwarves, delivering dialogue to them as a light flashed on so that he'd know where to look.

Eventually, McKellen broke down:

Pretending you're with 13 other people when you're on your own, it stretches your technical ability to the absolute limits. I cried, actually. I cried. Then I said out loud, 'This is not why I became an actor'. Unfortunately the microphone was on and the whole studio heard.

Poor guy. His performances as Gandalf are stellar, and they're sure to be as good in this latest romp around Middle-Earth.

Meanwhile, director extraordinaire Peter Jackson has taken to his official Facebook page with his own Q&A about High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D. What is HFR 3D you ask? Basically it's a reference to the way Peter Jackson decided to shoot The Hobbit. You see, Jackson shot the film at 48 frames per second rather than the traditional 28. He says he's done it to "smooth out the 3D" and make it easier on the eyes. It reportedly takes out the flicker and the motion blur and will hopefully lead to less headspin in the cinema.

We won't know that until we see it, but between now and the world premiere, Jackson and New Line are doing everything possible to prepare audiences for what they're about to see. Here's an interesting snippet from Jackson's pseudo-Q&A:

Silent movies were shot at somewhere between 16 and 18 frames per second (fps) with hand-cranked cameras. In 1927, when sound came along, the industry needed to agree on a motor-driven, constant camera speed. 35mm film stock is very expensive, so it needs to be as slow as possible. However, the early optical soundtrack required a minimum speed to achieve fidelity of the sound. 24 fps was decided on, and became the industry standard for over 80 years, with cinemas all around the world installing mechanical projectors only capable of projecting at 24 fps. 24 fps was a commercial decision — the cheapest speed to provide basic quality — but it produces movement artifacts, like strobing, flicker and motion blur.

Now, in the digital age, there’s no reason whatsoever to stick to 24 fps. We didn’t get it perfect in 1927. Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 fps. Therefore, shooting at 48 fps gives you much more of an illusion of real life. The reduced motion blur on each frame increases sharpness and gives the movie the look of having been shot in 65mm or IMAX. One of the biggest advantages is the fact that your eye is seeing twice the number of images each second, giving the movie a wonderful immersive quality. It makes the 3D experience much more gentle and hugely reduces eyestrain. Much of what makes 3D viewing uncomfortable for some people is the fact that each eye is processing a lot of strobing, blur and flicker. This all but disappears in HFR 3D.

Let's hope that when The Hobbit finally graces cinemas it'll all be as beautiful as we've been promised. [Blastr, Peter Jackson]

Image: New Line Cinema


Comments

    "You see, Jackson shot the film at 48 frames per second rather than the traditional 28." - that should read "... 24."

    "Pretending you’re with 13 other people when you’re on your own, it stretches your technical ability to the absolute limits. I cried, actually. I cried. Then I said out loud, ‘This is not why I became an actor’. Unfortunately the microphone was on and the whole studio heard"

    Indeed. It'd be like living in a bad dream for an actor with that training.. acting with cardboard cutouts..

      The effects in LOTR made me cry (metaphorically) a little, too - all that money and effort expended and the best they could do with the Hobbits was to have obvious children running about in long shots.
      Every switch from long shot to close-up made me cringe with the glaring inadequacy of the handling of the supposed scale difference.
      Perhaps they'd have been better off with a CGI Gandalf with McKellen's face stitched on?

      I don't know what he was expecting?

      Well, that's one way to look at it.

      A more positive way to look at would be 'Hey, here's a chance to stretch my craft and put it in a place outside of it's comfort zone.'

        If he became an actor (which is debateable in itself, there's a massive difference between 'hollywood actor' and 'thespian') to interact with other actors, to bounce of them and create something magical, then removing the actors doesn't change the comfort zone... it's a completely different endeavour. How can you create a chemistry between two people with only one person?
        This isn't analogous with say a surgeon using robots to perform life saving surgery where that's the whole point to begin with. It's more akin with, let's say, a TV talk show host recording all their interview questions, sending them to someone, them recording all their answers, then on air flicking between pause and play for each question. The point isn't just to 'get answers to these questions,' it's to create something entertaining or at least interesting to observe, a conversation, complete with body language, interruptions, pauses and all the stuff we take in on both a subconcious and conscious level.

        tl;dr, I reject your premise that monologue and dialogue are the same craft, they share the element of speech but their core process and purpose are different, even moreso from the actor's point of veiw.

      It's a common problem, experienced by every actor who's ever shared screen time with Keanu Reeves.

    Oh boo hoo. Man up... you're an actor, so act and stop being a woes! Your life is easy. Funny that they don't complain about the pay being too much.

      Some of them do!

      I happen to agree with Sir Ian. Sure, he's an actor and can man up to it professionally. But imagine, if he were able to act in a more natural way, we would be treated to an even better experience as viewers. So I think we are losing with this kind of thing.

      Having said all that, I'm sorry, but those are not dwarves. If they were, they wouldn't show themselves in public for the shame of their "facial hair." Whatever happened to reading a book before making a movie of it?

      Your ignorance is astounding, acting life easy? tell that to Heath ledger.
      Pay being to much? do you complain when a musician album is successful ( i mean all they do is push keys/strings? ) do you complain when an artists painting sells ( all they do is brush canvas?). Considering an actor may only work on one feature film a year (if they are lucky) which roughly equates to 6-12 weeks depending on production, also factoring in ADR time, would mean majority of the year is spent looking for work id say the extra pay is needed and true actors who bring a character to life is a rare gift. I'd like to see you stand in front of thousands and perform a lead role.

      If he didnt have intense emotions he probably wouldn't be the high calibre actor he is, so he had a little brain snap, it happens, he hasn't gone on interviews carrying on about it, he just had a little moment while doing his job and moved on. Anyone that puts 100% of themselves into something can relate to what he went through.

        I think acting to empty robotic cutouts would be incredibly hollow (traumatic, even) when compared to acting with the real, and very talented, people - especially on set of the Hobbit than any other movie, because of that wonderful connection & comraderie between the cast and their emotional investment into the film (as clearly seen in the behind-the-scenes and on-set footage).
        I think directors Peter and Andy would be trying to bring in as many of the actors into the same studio / scene as they can - even if they don't have to be in front of the camera. Doing so may help to bring more of that emotional connection, moral support, and mutual admiration that brings out their best - far more effectively than advanced technical accoutrements like the higher fps, 3D capture, and IMAX cameras.
        As another example, consider what Seth McFarlane did when he was shooting Ted; he couldn't be in front of the camera as Ted, but he was still close by in the motion capture rig, saying his lines, and directing the shoot. He made sure that he was close to the scene and the real actors as possible so that they could all really get involved & invested, and give a fun, convincing, and even touching performance about a guy and a walking, talking teddy bear.

      He is most certainly not "an actor" he is a thespian. Anyone who has seen a traditional stage show will realize that these people are not mere actors. there are no second takes.

    Oh big deal, Twilight was nothing more than a cast of cardboard cutouts!

    But in all seriousness though, I can see how it'd be upsetting, especially if you're one of those "old school" sorts who expect to speak to someone else while filming a scene, but the title of this article made me wonder if he had broken down because the special effects were so awesome ("It's beautiful! *sob*"). He might have, but who knows?

    I think Sir Ian McKellen, would more likely be lamenting the fact that the traditional ways of filmmaking, are pretty much gone.

    It's nice that he's filming it to make it easier for us in 3D. I'll still watch it in normalD though, I wear glasses which makes the 3D ones over the top uncomfortable (and staring at a cinema screen is not something I enjoy doing when wearing contacts).

    "Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 fps..." so to make it the most realistic movement as possible, why not do 56fps instead of 48, which presumably still has SOME detectable flicker if it is 7fps slower than what science says we can see?

      haha i thought that too, and surely everyone would be different so it wouldnt be exactly 55 for everyone, why not make it 100.

      A number of reasons:
      - Doubling the frame rate doubles many of the costs, particularly in post-production. 60 fps or 72 fps, though superior, would be significantly more expensive.
      - 48 fps divides nicely down to 24 fps (60 fps doesn't), making it much easier to release HFR and standard versions for older cinemas.
      - Jackson says they shot with a 270 degree shutter angle, which gives a level of motion blur that's a nice compromise for both 24 fps and 48 fps. Not as clean as a 180 degree angle would be, but it gives "a lovely silky look". This would be harder to manage with higher frame rates.

      Best thing about HFR? You don't have to shoot every scene that way. 24 fps has a different feel (a subtle unreality we have learned to associate with cinema), and you can still use that for individual scenes as desired, while retaining the clarity and immersion of HFR where it gives the most impact (such as action scenes, 3D, scenic pans etc). It's just another filmic tool, like colour, softness, grain, lighting etc.

    I can't decide whether I'm more eager to experience a full-production feature film in high frame rates myself, or to watch the reaction of the public to HFR - and particularly certain skeptical big-name cinematographers.

    I believe that (unlike 3D) HFR will be as big a revolution as colour was, and for exactly the same reasons. Can't wait until the wider industry accepts it, and we can all start seeing movies that aren't a strobing mess of motion blur.

    Have to feel a bit bad for Sir Ian. It's understandable that he's become frustrated at the needs of VFX superseding performance, especially if it's for the majority of the movie rather than just a few key scenes. It sounds like he feels he isn't delivering as good a performance as he could be otherwise.

    While I love shiny VFX as much as the next person, it's easy to see how it can have a negative effect on acting - remember the Star Wars prequels? A lot of renowned actors struggling to deal with a director who prioritised special effects, acting against a green screen and green-lycra-suited counterpart. They gave it their best efforts but the disconnect still bled through.

    In some ways, older film-making techniques still win out - because some distant part of us might know Yoda's just a puppet, but better acting from the interactions on set make us BELIEVE.

    I can't wait!

    People who've said "man up" are right I'm afraid. This is just an example of Ian being a bit of a prima donna. Acting to imaginary people of objects is a basic part of the craft, even the lowliest students start with that sort of thing.
    Fair enough he was probably having a very hard day at work, we all get those, but it's no comment on the state of acting with modern sfx techniques, this is just an "interesting story" told by an old luvy actor to add colour to whatever interview appearance it was part of.

      "man up" it's not manly to cry? So if you possess a Y chromosome you are only allowed to experience anger and happiness, never sadness or fear? Hmmm sounds like a very draconian view of gender.

      Oh no someone is lamenting something they love declining! They're a crybaby! Pretty much what blah said. He didn't rage quit the production. He was saddened by something he doesn't like, and as far as we know then proceeded to continue with his work, seems to me that's the very essence of 'manning up,' archaic a concept as it is. What is there to 'man up' against if you simply fail to feel anything?

      PS: Acting to objects is part of practicing the craft, not performing it, certainly not for a thespian, by your logic aren't rehearsals between actors completely redundant then? Or are you really trying to imply scenes written as monologues are identical to scenes written as an interaction between people? Why exactly do you think students do start out with that sort of thing but masters in well funded productions rehearse with others?. And why do you think the the experienced actors tend to give better performances than less experienced actors? Hint: Not many will tell you it's because they spent more time acting at dolls than interacting with others.

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