Dolby Atmos, 3D, ETX, not HFR, rescue Hobbit

Dolby Atmos, 3D, ETX, not HFR, rescue Hobbit

“Hobbit” Dolby Atmos T-shirt (backside branding below) and “Hobbit”-branded RealD 3D glasses given away at two different AMC theaters in L.A. area on opening weekend.

The new Dolby Atmos immersive theater sound system is the perfect complement to 3D, demonstrated convincingly with the New Line Cinema and MGM production of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

In fact, “Hobbit,” viewed in a theater with Atmos, 3D, and the expanded screen size of the new AMC theaters‘ proprietary ETX experience, including the first-ever “High-Frame-Rate” of 48 frames-per-second (compared to normal 24 fps), delivers the most immersive cinematic experience ever.

Those technical elements also contributed mightily to the record-setting $85 million December opening weekend in North America, and $223 million worldwide for the Warner Bros release. The cost of a ticket with premium prices to see the movie with all these formats at the AMC Ontario Mills 30 in California is $16.50, and $18.75 at the AMC Century City 15. About half of all tickets sold were for 3D showings. The IMAX HFR 3D version (no Dolby Atmos) costs $19.75 at some L.A. area theaters, with 326 North America IMAX theaters alone contributing more than $10.1 mil to the $85 mil. domestic weekend, and $15.1 mil. in 452 theaters worldwide — the all-time best performance in December, according to IMAX.

(Good luck finding a theater featuring all of your preferred configurations these days. Only select theaters offer Dolby Atmos; likewise HFR 3D, and even fewer offering both. AMC is your best shot with some of its ETX theaters. If that isn’t challenging enough, the give-aways are different at various theaters too – for instance, AMC Ontario Mills was giving away Dolby-branded “Hobbit” T-shirts, while AMC Century City provided collectible green “Hobbit”-branded 3D glasses by RealD.)

Director Peter Jackson’s 3D is gratefully distinct and impactful, clearly noticeable throughout, and especially dynamic in shots showing a lush mountainside city; in the Fraggle Rock-like lair of the goblin king featuring a multi-level labyrinth of suspended walkways; on mountain cliffs where characters are frequently dangling perilously; and in flight with giant hawks carrying our ragtag group of diminutive adventurers to safety. Jackson even throws in a couple marginally effective gimmicky, brief shots of a bird, and later a butterfly, fluttering to the center of the screen and pushing out slightly into the audience.

<Story continues below following two “Hobbit” making-of videos, the first featuring two-minutes about Dolby Atmos at 7:15 – 9:15 of the 11-minute video; and the second including 30-seconds of good animated demonstration of the theater configuration of Atmos near the beginning at :45 – 1:15 of the 14-min video…>

SoundWorks Collection – The Sound of The Hobbit from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.


3D is always most effective on giant IMAX screens, and now the same is true on AMC’s own oversized ETX screens, which encompass most of your field of vision and thus accentuate the sense of immersion.

Enhancing that even further and completing the effect of being totally enveloped in the environment is Dolby Atmos — essentially surround sound on steroids — with speakers not only on the sides and in the rear but also above your head. Very specific sounds are assigned to each speaker so that the sounds of heavy rain can be heard above you and on all sides. Jungle noises and the sounds of nature, such as tweeting birds can also be heard all around. But most distinctive is the dialogue and voices of actors that are designated to speakers relative to the camera angle. In a close-up of an actor sitting at a table in a room full of talking people, we can hear the others talking softly from the side of the theater, so realistic that you will find yourself looking to your right and left to see if the talking is coming from others in the audience. In other scenes where only one actor is talking, his voice moves from right to center to left as the camera angle shifts from him to others in the scene. In the opening stage-setting scene in which Ian Holm and Elijah Wood make cameo appearances as an older Bilbo Baggins and Frodo, respectively, Bilbo walks away from Frodo to another room while continuing to talk. The camera stays on Frodo while we hear Bilbo’s voice move to the left wall of the theater – representing the other room in the house — until he rejoins Frodo and his voice again comes from the front center speakers.

As for the High Film Rate, as opposed to the oft-repeated reports of viewers getting nauseous due to the heightened image clarity (didn’t we hear the same thing initially about HiDef and 3D?), there was inexplicably no discernible difference in definition between the HFR projection at the Ontario Mills or Century City theaters compared with a standard 2D version in the auditorium next door. What was noticeable in the HFR projection, however, was a heightened awareness of the digital technology and the lack of a sense of traditional cinematic visual texture. The result is an image that resembles something you might expect to see from a home video camcorder shot by someone visiting the studio set. It’s not clear whether this is something inherent to HFR (if so, it will be even more prominent if James Cameron proceeds with plans to consider shooting “Avatar 2” and “3” at 60 fps, as reported) or if this was a creative choice by Jackson to make the film feel more like a documentary (unlikely, since the non-HFR version feels more like a traditional cinematic experience).

As for the movie itself, “Hobbit” starts off slow but picks up and is engaging enough to hold your attention for the last two hours. The story and characters, especially star Martin Freeman as Bilbo, are not particularly charismatic, and much of the action and situations stretch beyond reason and credibility, even within the expanded boundaries for a fantasy film. No doubt hardcore fans of Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Hobbit” will be more appreciative and forgiving, but to others “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will feel bloated and not a totally unexpected indulgence by Jackson. Remember, this is the director who felt the nine-hour “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was not long enough so he added about an hour to each film for the home versions.

But the fascination and effectiveness of the new Dolby Atmos, 3D and ETX make “The Hobbit” an unexpectedly satisfying adventure for most anyone.

— By Scott Hettrick