(First published on Blogcritics.org)
Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life of Pi) is a world famous filmmaker and a modest gentleman. At the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) Future of Cinema Conference, part of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas in April, he premiered 11 minutes of scenes from his feature length work-in-progress, Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk.
Prior to the screening, Lee explained that since the room it was being shown in was not a screening room, and that the fans of the projectors (two Christie Mirage 4KLH projector heads, each utilizing 4 laser modules), in the back of the room could be heard, this was not an optimum environment. But, he thanked SMPTE and NAB for allowing him to share this and, despite the room, he hoped we would be able to appreciate his effort.
His effort was awesome, and I don’t use that word lightly. His new film tells the story of a returning soldier suffering from PTSD. It was created in High Dynamic Range, 4K, at 120 frames per second and in 3-D. In English that means that, compared to your big-screen HD TV, the film has more colors, four times the definition, four times the frame rate, and depth. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the most technologically advanced feature film ever made.
It is difficult to explain the phenomenal look of the film. It didn’t feel like watching a movie. It was as if a hole had opened in the wall and you were seeing reality. Not only was the definition and color amazing, the 3-D was some of the best I have ever seen. Usually in watching a 3-D movie, I am almost continually aware of the 3-D effect, to the point where it is distracting. In this case, however, the 3-D just felt natural and right.
Making the Future
After the screening, the film’s Production Systems Supervisor, Ben Gervais (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Hugo, Pacific Rim) and its Academy-Award-winning (for Life of Pi) editor, Tim Squyres (Unbroken, Sense and Sensibility, Syriana) joined Lee to discuss the creation of the film.
Lee spoke first. “I’m not a technical guy,” he said. “I’m a story teller. I grew up wanting to be a filmmaker. I trust movies more than life itself. Cracking into new media is the beginning of a new quest to get deeper into cinema and human emotion. There is nothing like being in a dark theater sharing the mystery of life that we don’t share otherwise.”
This was Lee’s second venture into 3-D. Life of Pi was the first.
Lee explained, “During Life of Pi, I started thinking of how I could add more depth to cinema. I wanted to do a boxing movie next, but it is always a compromise because you have to choose between showing the action or the subtle human emotion. Then a friend of mine showed me a test that James Cameron had done at 69 frames per second. I began to see the advantages of high frame rate and digital workflow. After a year, I’d made no progress on the boxing film, but then I was introduced to the book that Billy Lynn is based upon. I realized that this was the perfect story to be told in advanced digital media because it about how people experience something.”
Lee then introduced his co-creators. “Ben Gervais didn’t have a title when we started,” Lee recalled, “although he kept suggesting some. I just called him the workflow guy. Tim Squyres is not only an editor, but a scientist, too.”
The three filmmakers discussed the challenges and potential of high-frame rate film.
Making a high-frame rate, 3-D movie provided daily challenges.
Squyres recalled, “When we did Life of Pi, early on a lot of people told me how you should edit in 3D. In 2D, when cutting, most editors are good at knowing how it will look on a screen. But, in 3-D they are not sure. So on this film in 120 frames per second, I wanted to edit in at least 60. It was quite a project coming up with the software and hardware that would work. We ended up using a 12 foot screen so we could have the high frame rate experience while editing.”
Gervais agreed. “We were experimenting all the time,” he said. “What helped tremendously is that we had everybody in one big room and collaborated. We built the whole production around catering to the technology we were using. We kept things fluid and that allowed us to pivot. We would get to a point and we’d go, ‘What do we do now?’ No one had ever been there before.”
Another advantage of having a shared workspace according to Gervais was in dealing with the amount of data involved. One second of this film produced forty times the amount of data as one shot at 24 fps. “You can’t push that much data through a machine fast enough,” he said. “Success with this is all about planning ahead and managing.”
Lee observed that on his earlier films, Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production were separate experiences. “Now it all seems blended together,” he said. “It feels like cooking. The real cooking is in the kitchen, not in the grocery store. Now the real filmmaking is in the editing. It feels chaotic, yet organic, but sometimes I regret that I started. It’s worth it, though, when you see people react in the theater.”
Despite the challenges involved with working in cutting-edge media, Lee was convinced it was beneficial.
Lee said, “The clarity of the image can affect the viewers’ state of mind. I saw some bad acting in 24 frames per second. When I saw the same footage in 120, it actually got better because there was more information. It’s a different experience. I’m not saying all movies will be better at 120 than 24. Each is its own thing, but you watch 120 with a different mindset.”
Squyres said that 120 fps with a 360 degree shutter also gave new opportunities for creativity to the editor. “With film you pretty much had what you had. Now, there are all kinds of different looks that you can create when you get all this data. You can flip the look around. When I went back to editing a 24 fps film, I felt all I was doing was mechanical cutting and pasting.”
During the audience Q&A, Lee was asked what affect, if any, did 120 fps have on actors.
Lee laughed. “You don’t wear make-up with 120, so, actors have to be on their best behavior the night before shooting.”
Lee said that his lead actor, newcomer Joe Alwyn who plays Billy Lynn, had an easier time than more veteran actors did. He explained, “They have to really feel it. They have to be more complex. I had to change my directing, too. Many of the habits we have gotten into in making movies we have to learn to do differently.”
Another audience member asked how many theaters are capable of showing the film in the advanced format Lee was creating.
Squyres answered, “Zero.”
Don’t lose hope about seeing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in all its HDR, 4K, 120 frames per second, 3-D immersivness. After all, at one time there were zero theaters capable of showing a talkie. The future is coming and it will be in a theater near you.