Books offer quality, well-told stories. Music is a treat for your ears. Movies are, first and foremost, a visual medium. This continues a series focusing on that element of filmmaking: the art of cinematography. The following is a collection of my favorite shots from The Desolation of Smaug.
The Lord of the Rings, taken as a whole, stands as my second or third favorite movie of all time. That being the case, I was looking forward to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit like Pippin looked forward to his next good meal. We are now two-thirds of the way through Bilbo’s journey and The Hobbit is well on its way to... falling way short of the bar set by The Lord of the Rings.
That conclusion is slightly misleading though. I read all four books (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, and The Hobbit) for the first time while waiting for the release of 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
I’m entirely ashamed to admit the fact that I struggled my way through most of The Lord of the Rings. I found the text too descriptive for my liking; progress seemed like a chore. The Hobbit, on the other hand, was thoroughly enjoyable and a relatively easy read (which one might expect, considering it is in fact children’s literature). To his credit, I believe Peter Jackson’s adaptations remain faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s intended audiences.
The Hobbit is decidedly more tuned toward younger audiences, featuring more cartoony characters (Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown would be right at home in a Saturday Night Live sketch), more vibrant colors and CG work, and a lead character who emphasizes physical comedy to a greater degree than any one character did in The Lord of the Rings.
So, in some roundabout way, the reasons I favor Tolkien’s Hobbit over his Lord of the Rings are the very same reasons I have for not enjoying An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug as much as I do the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, this is wholly justifiable - film and books are two completely different forms of media.
While I may not love the Hobbit flicks as much as I had hoped I would, there is enough visual inventiveness sprinkled throughout to keep me coming back again and again.
This first highlight excels on multiple fronts. Most simply, the perspective of looking straight down on the vertically-oriented dragon establishes an intriguing base for the shot. Conveniently, this shares (and directly expands upon) the view held by our hero dwarf. Looking at further minute details, the edges of Smaug are defined by the distant background (see: Aerial Perspective) and a silhouette is made of the dwarf by the glow generated by Smaug prepping his built-in flamethrower.
Alfonso Cuarón and Neill Blomkamp are two of my favorite directors. This is in part due to the fact that neither filmmaker shies away from committing to the camera’s presence in a scene. When Sandra Bullock’s character steps in a puddle in Cuarón’s Gravity, the ensuing splash leaves traces of water on the camera lens. In The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson takes this trick further than most, bouncing a just-removed Orc head off the face of the camera.
Several years ago, I heard that Peter Jackson apparently didn’t like magic in fantasy films. [This Empire article - '100 Things You Didn't Know About Lord of the Rings' - is as close to a source as I could find. It is thing #12.] His feelings on the matter must have changed, as it seems to me that his Hobbit films feature more frequent use of that genre staple. Jackson’s change of heart pleases me; characters exercising their magic skills are visual highlights in movies like The Hobbit and Harry Potter.
Part of what I like about the shot on the left is simply that it takes me back to The Lord of the Rings, which must have featured a look at someone fixing their gaze on the One Ring every three or four minutes. It is curious though... taken out of context, we see only the character’s hands, yet it is almost plain as could be that the character holding the ring is Bilbo. That speaks to the expressiveness and distinct nature of the quick movements given to Bilbo by Martin Freeman... a trait that Freeman brings to a lot of the characters he portrays... but that’s neither here nor there.
If there is one thing that Peter Jackson and The Hobbit cinematographer Andrew Lesnie excel at, it’s their superb use of slightly extended shots that swing from one subject to another. I struggled to capture an example of one such moment in the clip on the right. As seen in the film, the camera sweeps through the forest, changing its focus from a lunging spider to Legolas, who we catch up to and follow down a trailing spider web until the elf crushes the second spider beneath his feet. It is a style of visualizing action that I appreciate much more than the quick cuts and blurry movements made infamous by Paul Greengrass.
Not much to say about this one. There was a call for filler, and a dragon breathing fire is more excusable than just about anything else.
Finally, we have another abbreviated look at a shot that was longer in the film than I could capture here. I’m still not a fan of the excessively cartoony depiction of the barrel escape scene (although it conforms to the overall style of the film), but I can’t deny how cool this shot was. Jackson and Lesnie could have had the camera tracking that barrel while panning above the river and called it a day with a shot that was merely exciting enough... but they took it one step farther by planting the camera firmly in the environment, riding haphazardly along the whitewater rapids. All of the moving pieces in the shot add up to an exhilarating highlight.
With all of that out of the way, I can only express disappointment. When I put together similar photosets a year ago for An Unexpected Journey, I found almost twice as many shots that I could say I really liked. Will this form of regression on the visual front continue with part three, [The Hobbit: There and Back Again](movie:512312)? I wonder. Anxiously.