The Colours of The Hobbit

Is The Hobbit trilogy’s colour palette akin to The Lord of the Rings?

Perhaps one of the most striking “differences” people noticed when seeing An Unexpected Journey for the first time, was the overall “brightness” and “colour” compared to that of The Lord of the Rings.

Admittedly, one can easily notice that The Hobbit looks brighter, more vibrant, saturated and “glossier” than the dark, gloomy and matted colour palette of the Rings Trilogy.Hobbit

By colour palette I mean the overall scheme of colours in the film – the dominating tones in every scene.

There are two things I see behind such a stark contrast:

1) This is a younger, less evil Middle-earth.

2) The story of The Hobbit is not the same as The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo confusedI’m not trying to turn this post into a place where I can moan about the crystal clear and vivid colours from The Hobbit.

On the contrary …

I think that they are simply stunning and gorgeous to look at. Every shot is lit up in a very particular way which makes this Trilogy feel like a “fable” – a little tale which soon dips into the darkness and seriousness that enshrouds the events of The Lord of the Rings.

I merely would like to point out some differences found in the shots from An Unexpected Journey – between the first teaser trailer (December 2011) and the actual finished film.

As I’ve just said, I love the colours from both the two Hobbit films so far, but I’ve realized that by comparing screencaps from both trailer and DVD, one could easily understand why so many people couldn’t pin-point exactly why the visuals felt so different and inconsistent to The Lord of the Rings.

Let’s start with a few examples …

colour comparison shot 1colour comparison shot 2

(Ignore the strong contrast differences, as one has to take into account the different dvd/computer players and sources the two sets of screencaps were taken from.)

Immediately noticeable are the glossy and “shiny” effects from the DVD – giving the overall shot a slightly surreal feel. The shot with Bilbo has even had the sky altered (a technique known as digital sky replacement), to avoid the overcast effect from the trailer. And yet, what we have in the teaser trailer presents a more “realistic” picture and the believability that nothing is as perfect as it should be.

colour comparison shot 4

However, the most significant difference is this shot of Gandalf looking at Bilbo. Yet again, we have that bright fuzzy tone to the DVD shot, as well as altered sky in the background.

And whilst the shot from the trailer looks more natural in terms of colours, the final result on screen seems to reflect a more greenish hue.

The same tones appear over and over again throughout most of the film – providing a consistency to the picture. And as I said, it is something which definitely doesn’t bother me and I’ve loved it the instant I saw it on screen.

But if you had to compare this shot of Gandalf with a similar one from The Fellowship of the Ring, one could easily agree that the shot from the teaser trailer appears to resemble it closer than the other.

Gandalf FOTR

Ignoring the similarity of the sky in the background, that “harshness” (not in a negative way) of the Rings shot, and lack of glossiness to it, is certainly present in The Hobbit trailer.

And to further demonstrate these differences, here are a couple of other shots to compare and contrast …

colour comparison shot 7colour comparison shot 6

colour comparison shot 5colour comparison shot 3

Again, ignore the contrasts, but did you notice the shining effect in the DVD version? Look at the space between Bilbo’s face and Sting, or at the candle in Bilbo’s study … Isn’t there an enhanced glow in there?

They are totally absent from the teaser trailer and make it look much more raw than what we saw in the finished product.

It is this very rawness that makes them more believable and in-tune with the “harsh” (that word again) colours from The Lord of the Rings.

There are certainly many shots throughout the Rings Trilogy that contain a similar glowing/shiny effect, but they are nonetheless quite distinct from those of The Hobbit.

It would be a very interesting experiment if someone had to apply some desaturation to The Hobbit, reducing some of the stronger colour tones, and see how they compare with the original trilogy.

I’ve set out to demonstrate this example below…

colour comparison shot 8

Here I’ve taken a screencap from the DVD (top image), applying some desaturation settings and fiddling a bit with the contrast and brightness – to make it look more alike to the shot from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Personally, I think the effect is quite fascinating.

Now imagine if we had to see this as an entire scene – played out before us … do you think it would be more like the Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings?

I stress again, this does not mean that I detest in some way the colours in The Hobbit. I’m actually in love with them! I just find it a bit sad that we could have had three films with a colour scheme so alike to the Rings trilogy, that all six films would have run seamlessly one after the other and continue to strengthen the already interesting continuity between the two Trilogies.

But it seems this is already taking place.

Have you noticed how The Desolation of Smaug was less vibrant? Sure, the strong colour style from An Unexpected Journey was still present – along with that glossy/glowing effect.

But I’ve also noticed a slight desaturation to the overall palette.

Here’s a selection from the official trailer …

Desolation of Smaug screencaps

And it’s not about the scenes being dark themselves, as you can easily spot the difference between these and the much brighter, glossier shots from An Unexpected Journey.

And I’m pretty sure that There and Back Again will be even more “harsh” or contrasting, leading us straight into the colour schemes of The Fellowship of the Ring.

(Screencaps taken from the awesome sites of Heirs of Durin and Screencapped.net)

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16 thoughts on “The Colours of The Hobbit

  1. Excellent job! Its quite plain to see the transition between the two movies and it will certainly continue to darken into the next film as you say. Its a great way to get into the FotR with very little cinematic gaps

  2. I never thought about the colours, but now as you point it out I can see it. A very interesting decision by the filmmakers, but a good one to get from a happier time to a time of impending doom.

    • Perhaps, one day, in some features from the Extended Editions we might just get an insight into the “evolution” of the colours of The Hobbit and the psychology behind it 😉

  3. To be honest, I thought the colours in The Hobbit: AUJ was simply too bright and vibrant, so much so that it brings a slightly unrealistic feel to it (however, I really did enjoy the movie). In LOTR, the colours were more “down to earth” and believable, and not extracted from a fantasy. But then again, I thought the colour scheme in AUJ really brought out the best from the Rivendell scene.

    • I know what you mean as I had similar thoughts when I first saw AUJ – but after multiple viewings it somehow sank in …

      As to the Rivendell sequences, I actually think that’s were the colours are slightly exaggerated! But nonetheless, there’s something exquisite about them 🙂

  4. Okay, I love this post. This is all about cinematography, one of my favourite subjects regarding cinema. So much has been said about the colours on AUJ, and yet there’s no clip on the EE about it. For the LofR trilogy I can remember seeing the editors and cinematographer discussing the colour palette of the films, they used a brand new technology to enhance the darker tone of the trilogy, you should look it up! Really like this post. Keep up the good work.

  5. I remember reading somewhere that when Guillermo del Toro was still in charge of the Hobbit he had planned out 8 different color schemes for the two films to progress through in relation to seasons and tone. I wonder how much of that Peter Jackson kept when he took over. Great post!

    • Interesting concept – thanks for that! And I also think that Peter Jackson is following a similar route. The colour palette between the first two films is already substantially different. I can’t wait to see the third film to confirm a little theory of mine 😉

  6. You did a great job with these comparisons! I just come back from watching The Battle of the five Armies for the second time. I still like the colours of the LOTR films better, but this time I got an idea, why they did it this way: the glossy, glowing qualities you mention resemble the watercolour paintings of Alan Lee; strong contrast is omitted in favour of lots of detail and a tendency to have bright spots shine in a slightly muted white.
    The comparison shots you offer very clearly show the emphasis on detail. For my taste, this is a distraction from the fantasy plot, but minding the connection to the paintings, I could enjoy the specific colours much more, it made much more sense to me.

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