Last week, Dolby invited me to the world premier of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but I was under embargo until this week, which is why I couldn't post anything about it until now. The screening was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA—the home of the Academy Awards ceremony. In fact, it's not a movie theater, which, I believe, might have led to some of the problems I experienced.
Seats were assigned, and mine was on the main floor, way over on the left side of the room. Fortunately, I was able to snag an unused seat closer to the center just before the movie started. I was still too close to the screen, looking slightly upward, but it was much better than my assigned seat.
The presentation was in high frame-rate (HFR) Dolby 3D at 48 frames per second (fps) for each eye. The projection system used four Christie CP4230 4K projectors in a quad configuration—two projectors for one eye firing directly toward the screen and two more at a right angle firing at mirrors that reflected the light toward the screen for the other eye. This setup is designed to get the projectors' lenses as close together as possible for better alignment, but it might have been the cause of some problems I saw with the 3D, which I'll get to in a moment. Also, even with four digital-cinema projectors, I'm told the measured peak white level from the 60x32-foot screen through the 3D glasses was only 7 foot-lamberts—better than most 3D presentations, to be sure, but only half as much as the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) spec for commercial movies.
As many of you probably know, Dolby 3D does not use polarization like RealD or Imax to isolate the image for each eye through glasses. Instead, the wavelengths of red, green, and blue are slightly different for the left and right eyes, and the glasses allow only the correct wavelengths to reach each eye. This is not my favorite 3D technology because of the reflections between the 3D glasses and my prescription glasses, which are much more obvious and distracting to me than RealD or Imax polarized glasses. Also, the colors seem a bit more muted to me than RealD and Imax. However, Dolby 3D does not require a polarization-preserving screen, so in that respect, it's better for theaters that show both 3D and 2D in the same auditorium.
All three Hobbit movies were shot in native 3D, using two Red cameras on a stereoscopic mount, so I was surprised to see some problems in the 3D here. For example, some shots weren't really 3D at all—they used a very short depth of field with blurry backgrounds. (I moved the glasses out of the way to check this.) Even worse, some objects—especially the subtitles, end credits, and things in the mid distance behind the screen plane—appeared as a fuzzy double image. This seemed to be crosstalk with the subtitles and credits, which were only slightly out of the screen plane, but the double image of objects in the mid distance should have been much more widely spaced if it was crosstalk. Finally, there are lots of gimmicky 3D shots—things like swords jutting out from the screen—which is not a problem with the presentation, only with the artistic choices made by director Peter Jackson.
Things were much better in terms of HFR. I saw the first Hobbit movie in HFR, and some scenes clearly looked like they had been shot for a PBS TV special, while other scenes did not. In the second movie, I did not see any of this inconsistency. Many people complain that HFR looks more like video than a movie, and that may be true, but I have no objection to it—if it's consistent. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the greater clarity and detail in all motion, whether it was moving objects, camera movements, or both.
As you might expect in the Dolby Theatre, the soundtrack was mixed and played in Dolby Atmos, with the overhead speakers on trusses suspended above the audience. This was very effective—for example, the dragon snaking around the great hall, falling rain, and battle scenes engulfed the audience wonderfully. However, the dialog intelligibility was quite poor, especially when music was mixed with the dialog in the front channels. This could have been due to the room's acoustics, which are not optimized for movies.
I was anticipating very high sound pressure levels, but they was surprisingly reasonable. The average level over 2 hours and 41 minutes was only 82.5 dBA with a maximum 1-second level of 97.9. The level remained over 87.3 dBA 10 percent of the time, 80.3 dBA 33 percent of the time, and 75.8 dBA 50 percent of the time, with an OSHA dosage of 6.68%.
I won't give any spoilers here. Suffice to say that, like the first movie, I think this one is too long, and I see no good reason to stretch one book across three movies—except, of course, that it triples the revenue.
As for the problems I experienced, I suspect moviegoers might not encounter them. For one thing, few if any commercial theaters will use four projectors, which might not have been perfectly aligned—though some of the 3D was perfectly sharp, so I doubt that was the cause of the strange crosstalk-like effect. Also, the DCP (digital-cinema package, the digital file with the video and audio data) we saw was not the one that the public will see. The day after the premier, I ran into someone who works at Technicolor, who said they were working 24/7 to get the DCP ready for release; the DCP we saw was created in New Zealand for the event, so it might have had some problems.
BTW, my friend at Technicolor said that in the process of finalizing the DCP, some people watch the HFR version up to 100 times, after which they can't tolerate 24 fps any more!
In any event, if you're planning to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I recommend HFR and Dolby Atmos if possible. However, if you already know you don't enjoy HFR, do try to see it in a Dolby Atmos theater—I'm sure you won't be disappointed in that!