Here's a movie that tried to push a lot of boundaries and received a lot of flack for it. It's rare that a film's cinematographic process should enter so strongly into the consciousness of its audience, but it became quite well known that "The Hobbit" was attempting to pave the way for 48 frame per second projection particularly for 3D movies. I was among the fans dedicated enough to catch two theatrical screenings of the movie: first in 24 frames per second and second in what they called high frame rate or "HFR." This new projection format was jarring to me for about the first three shots. When old Bilbo's hand first came onto screen I have to admit I was concerned. Had Peter Jackson completely lost touch with reality? Would he really put so much time and effort into some gimmick that ruins the beauty of movies? I ended up being relieved of these concerns when the film got into its first action scene and I could clearly see exactly what this team of filmmakers was going for. Having just seen the 2D version, I knew that the film's frequent sweeping camera moves were victims of the well documented strobing effect that had been a problem for 3D films. When there's too much movement on screen it becomes a problem for the brain to put the images together and instead of crisp, convincing action, you get a vague blur. Not anymore. Jackson and Lesnie had found the cure as far as I was concerned. The only thing I found disappointing was how I seemed to be in the vast minority when it came to high frame rate capture and projection. As far as I know, there's been no road that was newly paved by this film. No 3D movies since "The Hobbit" was released have opted for higher frame rates. With the final installment in the series coming out this winter it doesn't really seem like anything has changed, even though countless theaters have already been adopted to accommodate HFR thanks solely to this trilogy.
Taking the pioneering of HFR on its own, in my book Lesnie is already doing wonders for cinematography. When you pair that with the the other innovations they worked with plus the fact that the cinematography is amazing I can't actually understand why it wasn't more critically acclaimed. From the introduction to Erebor and our first glimpses of the dragon, they're already sucking us into the story. Lesnie presents to us a proud dwarf kingdom that was hinted at, but never quite done justice in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He beautifully lights the many aspects of their culture, even taking us underground into the mines without skipping a beat in portraying the grandeur of their craftsmanship. He even goes so far as to emphasize the light emanating from the Arkenstone on the face of the miner who chances upon it. There's really no detail too small on this massive picture. As Smaug begins to cause problems for them, the camera gets fast, sometimes hectic, but still tempered with smooth shots mixed in as well. It's easy to pick a style and work with it for every moment of every shot the way Barry Ackroyd approached "Captain Phillips" (2013), for example, with a constant handheld shaky camera. It's another thing entirely to find balance; to know when the camera needs to shake wildly with the motion of the dragon, embodying the fear of the innocent civilians, and when it has to slow down to emphasize a moment, character, or symbol. When Lesnie slows things down to show the lone girl and then a close up of her doll burnt on the floor it adds something that a sequence with only chaotic movement couldn't dream of.
Someone once remarked to me that the lighting was flat and ugly in the film, I watched it again to really look out for anything too flat and I found that the issue is mainly in the first act. When Bilbo is in the comfort of home the light is often frontal and revealing, it's not until he goes out of his comfort zone and experiences his first tests to his character that the lighting starts to come into its own. That's when we get more contrast, more modeling, and also we start to mix colors. For example in the face-off with the Pale Orc, we see the contrast of harsh moon light and the fiery acorns. When they leave Goblin Town and at the very end as they look out toward Erebor, we see a low rising sun giving them a hard back or side light, which works in stark contrast with anything we saw in The Shire during the daytime. Before it was all shadowless soft light, now there's an edge for Bilbo. It represents his evolution. There's something commendable about sacrificing aesthetic lighting for the sake of telling Bilbo's story in the best way possible. Good cinematography isn't all about making pretty pictures, the story comes over the beauty any day of the week.
To really drive home the point, Lesnie and company have to tackle a wide range of scenes in this film. They've got dialogue-driven exposition, they've got fights, chase sequences, sweeping establishing shots, emotional interpersonal scenes and the camera work adapts to each one seamlessly. That's not an easy task. The film gets off to a slow start, with probably too much time spent on exposition and that's probably among the chief causes of the film's bad reputation. It's unfortunate that the top-notch cinematography that went into this film should be slighted because the narrative hadn't quite kicked into gear yet.