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Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of a JRR Tolkien is innovative in the way it looks and sounds writes Matt Warman.Last night’s premiere of The Hobbit marked one of the most glittering occasions London’s Leicester Square has seen all year. The film was so eagerly anticipated in New Zealand that director Peter Jackson took over Wellington for its premiere, with 100,000 people lining the streets. In London, fans braved freezing temperatures for a glimpse of stars such as Sir Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and its royal guest, the Duke of Cambridge. Only the absence of the Duchess of Cambridge marred the occasion.
But it’s not just the excitement of Jackson’s follow-up to Lord of the Rings that has galvanised even infrequent cinema-goers. The film itself is a unique experience: cinema has never looked and sounded quite like it did at the Empire Leicester Square last night.
Three features combined to create the hyper-real effect: the gradual maturing of 3D into a technology that is less intrusive than it once was; Peter Jackson’s controversial decision to use the hyper-realistic 48 frames per second rate (or high frame rate; see below); and the unique chance to watch the film with a sound system called Dolby Atmos, which the sound business claims is the future of cinema, because it offers more realistic presentation of effects and music than ever before.
The cinema industry is being forced to introduce more and more sophisticated technology in order to woo an audience used to the ever-improving options offered by home cinema. Although the UK box office was worth £1.04 billion in 2011, more than a quarter of UK screens are still not digital, leaving domestic televisions often offering pictures that seem to most viewers to be considerably sharper than those experienced in cinemas. Although film prints can look stunning, they don’t in every cinema. No wonder the rate of digitisation has more than doubled in the past two years, when the DVD and video market is now worth more than £2 billion a year.
It is the trend for digital film that is driving those improvements in cinema, and sound is playing as big a part as images. Julian Pinn, the cinema marketing director of Dolby, says that although just a few films have been made using Atmos so far, it will soon be easy to find. “Sound is the medium by which directors often say they are able to make greater emotional impact on audiences,” he says, “and Atmos is one of the tools that makes people realise how different the cinematic experience is from the home.” The premiere will, however, be the only screening of The Hobbit to use the technology.
Where previous Dolby systems have been arrayed on walls like a single speaker, with Atmos a range of individual speakers enable sound to appear to come from much more precise locations. The result is immersive in a way that is apparently far more realistic.
The Cinema Exhibitors’ Association, the industry trade body, is keen to point out that despite advances in home technology, the shared experience of going to see a film is hard to replicate in the living room. One in five, it claims, goes out for dinner or a drink after a film, with the industry contributing therefore to the wider economy.
For TV buyers, next year promises to be the year of ultra-high definition images, with sets costing more than £22,000 now on sale in time for Christmas. But in cinemas, 4K films, as they are called, are already being released and the 3D looks convincing, while the sound can even come from the ceiling.
For now, at least, it seems that hobbits look better on the big screen than in the living room.