On murk and Mirkwood

Mirkwood, JRR Tolkien, original illustration from The Hobbit

Like many designers I've taken - a hopefully not too obsessive - interest in the curious debate concerning the unusually high frame rate applied to the new Hobbit film.

In case you hadn't heard, director Peter Jackson chose to record the movie at twice the standard frame rate: at 48 rather than 24 frames per second (fps). The increased speed renders an exceptionally sharp image much closer to the texture of high definition TV than the rather low resolution image that's been the norm since the 1920s.

With, I'm afraid, a certain lack of adventure, I purposely sought out a cinema showing the film at the traditional 24 fps, and just two dimensions rather than three.

The Trolls, JRR Tolkien, original illustration from The Hobbit

One of my reasons for doing so was that ever since reading the book as a child I have formed and retained a particular conception of the imaginative world of The Hobbit, which, curiously, has more or less survived Jackson's powerful visualisation of Middle Earth in his earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My mental landscape of The Hobbit is still defined by Tolkien's own illustrations, which interspersed the text of my old Unwin edition of the novel, and which I assume still feature in more recent prints. It's an interesting exercise to compare these modest drawings with the epic panoramas crafted for the new movie. Tolkien's sketches are close in style to the little prints found in classic early 20th and 19th century European children's literature: all fine lines, dense woods, shadowy figures and starry skies.

The world conjured by these is much closer to the dark forests of the Brothers Grimm or the Arthurian romances of Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley than to Jackson's vast canvases.

Merlin and Nimue, Aubrey Beardsley

That doesn't mean that I think the new film's interpretation doesn't work. Tolkien's writing certainly has an epic quality that soars beyond his capacities as an illustrator, a dimension that Jackson's sweeping cinematography in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit evokes rather wondrously.

But for me the real world of The Hobbit remains one of shadows and murk, of subterranean caves and pitch black woods. So I wanted to avoid the pin-sharp world of 48 fps and 3D specs, and see the film in the most unvarnished state possible. And, indeed, while I enjoyed Jackson's version, I think it would have rather more interesting, and truer to the ambience of the book, had everything been smaller, grainier and darker. Not perhaps quite as vintage as the following clip, perhaps, but it makes the point that you don't need high frame rates, 3D and many special effects to evoke an atmosphere of suitable menace:

Ship scene, Nosferatu, 1922

I have to admit the other reason I would have preferred a lo-fi approach has nothing to do with the relative merits of differing interpretations of Tolkien's Middle Earth. In the course of working as a designer for the past decade or so I've become rather addicted to an indistinct, grainy, desaturated, inky aesthetic.

Contemporary graphic design software like Photoshop and Illustrator makes it possible to almost any effect to an image. But, if I may brutally simplify matters, there are essentially two paths. It's possible to tidy up: to sharpen and clean an image, and render it crystal clear. Or to rough up: to mix an image up through the application of a multitude of dirtying, weathering filters.

Clearly the most appropriate option is usually dictated by the type of image being created. Often, clean lines, flat colours, sharpness, elegance and simplicity is necessary: for example, logos, infographics, photos, and user interface elements such as panels and form fields. But when something more evocative is called for, requiring an element of fantasy, like a magazine or book cover, or a web home page 'splash' image, it can be better to go the other way, to think in terms of breaking images apart, roughing them up a bit, and recombining them inventively.

Photoshop is my favourite design software because it offers so many ways to distress as well as repair images. Simple soul that I am I'm happy when I have a set of stock images, weathered textures, some pleasing spill, splatter and vintage paper scans, a few retro typefaces and a copy of Photoshop: the possibilities for complex, multi-layered composite imagery are legion.

Little Red Riding Hood, Arthur Rackham, Grimm's Fairy Tales

This style of illustration is rather out of fashion in web design circles at present. Since the emergence of the mobile web designers have - quite rightly - become extremely concerned about sending big, heavy image files down limited wireless connections. Image heavy websites are out, and crisp, clear typography-driven sites are in. I recall that a few years ago 'grunge', the blanket term often applied to rough, weathered collage images, was rather popular. Now nearly everything is clean and modernist: subtle palettes, sleek fonts, sculpted lines and simple, clear photography. Indeed designs are frequently type rather than image driven.

As I've blogged on several occasions of late, I like most elements of that trend. Better to use good typography for visual interest, wherever possible, than big pictures, for example. But it isn't clear to me why, when decorative images are required, that crisp, clear hi-res photography should necessarily be preferred to more complex, grainy collages.

I've adopted this new puritanism myself, more or less, tending on recent projects to use simple photography rather than complex multi-layered imagery. But, reflecting on The Hobbit debate, it occurs to me that the mobile web might actually provide an opportunity for rehabilitating elements of the grunge aesthetic, for the simple reason that it's actually easier to save a collage-style image at low resolution than a sharp clear photo. File compression has less of a bearing on the appearance of the latter type of image than the former. A little bit of pixelation or fuzziness here or there doesn't matter quite so much when you've spent a few hours deliberately distressing an image with old paper textures.

It's a rather modest New Year resolution I know, but I'm going to try re-introducing a bit of Tolkienesque otherworldliness, grit and gloom to my designs. Only when appropriate, of course.