As far as fantasy epics are concerned in film and television, it’s all about making the magic happen on screen; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey did just that. While The Hobbit trilogy is not as praised as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it did bring another book of J. R. R. Tolkien's to life.
Having been made almost ten years after The Lord of the Rings, the visual effects and CGI technology had increased exponentially to help make The Hobbit more realistic on screen. This technology combined with other elements of filmmaking to enhance the final product. Aside from the obvious CGI characters, animals, and landscapes, CGI also made it possible for Gandalf to “act” alongside the dwarves through the use of green screens and set design. Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) would be in one set with green screens while the company of actors who played the dwarves were in another set. Cameras would be on both sets and have the same movement and when put together, it would seem as if the action both sets were combined into one. The timing and coordination to pull this off is incredible (even if Ian McKellen got depressed that there wasn’t any other actors on his set), not to mention the amount of time put into it to make the two sets match and look real. The actors’ movement has to seem as if they're interacting, the camera movement has to be the same, the lighting has to match on both sets of actors, and the set design has to get the angles right for the different set sizes, wow.
One of the hardest aspects of integrating live footage with CGI is lighting as CGI models would not look realistic if they were not lit. Consider Radagast’s bunnies or the eagles, each piece of fur or feather has a specific texture that might shine in the sun and/or make a shadow. The visual effect artists have to make sure that the model is lit from the right angle as the real footage and then adjust it, and there are many things to adjust. For one, the color temperature and intensity of the light, and what happens if the light shines on a piece of metal? Another adjustment are shadows--CGI models don’t immediately cast a shadow on the landscape of real footage. The artists have to virtually model the landscape so that the CGI model can cast a shadow on the solid ground model. Just imagine what they have to go through to cast a fake shadow on something like grass on the real footage.
Lighting is often overlooked when watching a fantasy epic. It is one of the most important things in a movie, and especially necessary for a fantasy epic. The color and appearance of certain places has to have that magical feeling to it. Whether that’d be the bright and vibrant Shire to the misty and magical Rivendell to the dark and mysterious goblin caves, set design and lighting are key. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is designed to be colorful and bright. There is always something well-illuminated on screen, even when it should be dark. This gives it a more family-friendly tone, as it is a fun adventure.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was criticized for not being as serious as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This criticism is frankly misplaced as The Hobbit is a children’s book, so it obviously shouldn’t be as “dark” as The Lord of the Rings. While the story in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is not perfect, it is good and the film has the perfect tone for it. While it is a dark and dangerous journey, again, The Hobbit was directed towards children, so it makes sense that the movie reflects that light-hearted tone. That is why the color palate is bright and objects and characters are clearly illuminated even when the content calls for something darker. This is why An Unexpected Journey is better than The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies. These two films are too dark for the tone meant for children. They get too serious, focusing on the dark content instead of keeping the spirit of the trilogy light like a fantasy epic for children.
Where The Hobbit movie trilogy failed to mimic The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, is its story content. In The Lord of the Rings, a lot of content from the books (like Tom Bombadil) was cut from being in the movie in order to keep the story focused on the characters and plot. This kept elements and details from adding onto one another and making the whole thing confusing. All the content put into The Lord of the Rings movies was the necessary content that kept things simple, yet complex. However, for The Hobbit, the filmmakers decided to split the book (⅓ the size of The Lord of the Rings) into a movie trilogy. This meant that a lot of interesting, but unnecessary content had to be added to the movies. In An Unexpected Journey, Radagast and Azog were added, Rivendell and many other scenes were extended--point made. Despite this, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gave the world some breathtaking visuals. The scales of certain fights and sequences, such as the goblin caves and the stone giants, were off the charts. The background story of Thorin was incredible to watch and made his character stand out with Bilbo which gave more life to the movie trilogy.
While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gave the audience an unexpected journey into parts of Middle-Earth that wasn’t included in the The Hobbit book by itself, it was fantastic to watch. The story wasn’t perfect, but the visuals were darn close. The locations that The Hobbit took place in were amazing because of their actual location, set design, and/or CGI. Although The Hobbit movie trilogy is not on part with The Lord of the Rings, it will go down as another fantastic visual journey of Tolkien’s.