As of today, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk can be seen in two theaters in America in its full quality: 4K 3-D 120 frames per second (fps), a format for which we have yet to come up with an appropriately sexy name.
I say “we,” because as a member of the post-production team that put this film together, I have a particular insight into this project. I can confidently say that I have watched the film in its finished form more times than anyone else on the planet, including Mr. Lee.
Internally, we call the 4K 3-D 120 version the “whole shebang,” or “HSTLA,” which stands for “Holy S*** That Looks Amazing” (thank you, Daniel George). The format has already drawn criticisms from some of the reviewers who were present at the New York Film Festival premiere of the film, and who were quick to relate Ang’s nervous humility to an admission of guilt for presenting the film in a format that doesn’t work.
Ang’s nervousness wasn’t because he was ashamed of what he created, but an all-too-clear understanding of the lashing he was about to receive—one he fully expected once he decided to push the status quo and mess with preconceived ideas of what cinema is. And yet, he continued on anyway, and inspired us all through the many challenges of this process.
Many critics are saying that the format looks artificial or that it’s distracting. “The film didn’t need it,” they repeat. When Picasso painted a guitar in an unrecognizable way, did the guitar need to be represented that way? I think that that idea is an exceedingly unfair treatment of a work of art that deserves more than a cursory dismissal because it seems to fly in the face of tradition.
And that’s all 24 fps is: a comfortable tradition. How can we be so quick to dismiss the very spirit that invented cinema in the first place—the rule-breaking use of technology to bring a reflection of our world to life in a way that we have never experienced before?
All of this experimentation in format and frame rate was born from a direct response to the difficulties of 3-D projection. Ang and Technical Supervisor Ben Gervais identified the issues of traditional 3-D, and experimented with solving each one. In a nutshell, watching 3-D is more comfortable when it’s bright and sharp, than dull and blurry. This drove the push toward higher frame rate, resolution and brightness. I myself was present for the result, which was more of a paradigm shift than any of us expected.
We spent most of our time figuring out what the format did to the experience of the storytelling, and also how to actually manage the post-production of the film. I can tell you that with an equivalent to 40 films worth of visual information in one two-hour movie, not to mention the 10 lesser formats we have had to deliver (equal to roughly 60 normal films), this has been no small feat.
More important than the challenges we faced were the discoveries we made. For example, we had intended early on to mix the frame rates in the film, so that some scenes would be 24 fps and some 120, depending on the scene and what was in the frame. What we discovered is that frame rate has a profound effect on the relationship between audience and story. The frame rate is the container for the visual illusion, and changing it between scenes completely throws the viewer out of the story. It’s true that, as we are all so trained at watching movies at 24, experiencing a whole movie at 120 even without the frame rate changes is an alien experience.
So I say to the critics who think that the format is not ready: It’s not the format. It’s us who are not ready—both filmmakers and audience. You have quite literally never seen images like this before, and any comparison to smooth motion HDTVs or interlaced soap operas (and the so-called “soap opera effect” of motion interpolation) is merely a quick deferment to the only other examples people have of stories being presented at a higher frame rate. 120 4K 3D is not the same thing as 60 interlaced video. How could it be?
What we are creating is not “hyper-real.” It’s just that we’re so used to believing that this juddery, blurry version of reality is real, that when we look at something close to what our eyes actually see, it’s too much. We see all of the flaws that we could overlook before. Simple VFX stitch pans suddenly became more problematic without the motion blur to help hide the effect. Extras fake-clapping becomes a real problem. And imperfect performances become more painfully obvious.
Yet all of this is not a reason to discount what is on display in Billy Lynn. We are able to see and be transported into a moment with more ferocity, honesty and presence than ever before. It’s arguable that we don’t want that much reality in our movies, and that’s a fair point—just like you could say we don’t want that much blood, or visual effects or shaky camera work in our movies. To discount the achievement in its entirety, though, is like saying in the early ’80s that visual effects don’t work because they look fake. Our “whole shebang” doesn’t work because it’s too real? Perhaps, but are we not onto a new dimension of capturing reality, instead of merely trying to invent it with CGI?
To me this technological achievement is a return to the most important element of filmmaking: the human story. This format is a gift and a curse to the actor. As small as the acting needs to be for cinema, the requirements for this format are even smaller. Ang would feed the actors thoughts to hold, because the camera could see them. That’s not to say that the performances have to stay small, but they have to be that deep. This is a format that will reward actors for their talent, and really bring to life some of the “being there” feelings we get when we’re at the theater, watching a live performance.
The format will amplify whatever you feed it. The good becomes better and the bad becomes worse. It’s a narrative volume knob.
At its best, cinema is a way for us to come to know the world in a bigger way, to experience something new and possibly sublime, and perhaps even inspire empathy for someone else’s experience. As the requirements of this technology demand honesty from all aspects of film production, I believe that it will inspire more works of great integrity; a clear-eyed view of this world we live in, or perhaps an interesting dance between reality and fantasy.
The story of Billy Lynn is inseparable from its format, and all I’ll say from having seen the film in it’s various formats is that we don’t gain anything from being in 24 2-D. It’s comfortable and familiar, and the story is there and it works. It’s just that there is more to discover and experience with the higher formats. Just one viewing is not enough to adjust to the format. It is legitimately new, and doesn’t offer less than we are used to, but rather more. Once the initial distraction of unfamiliarity wears off (and it does, believe me), you will find that there is a lot here to discover and experience.
If nothing else, the experiment in visual art is worthy of being seen as intended. The movie could be showcased at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or MOMA. Instead, it’ll be at the AMC Lowes Lincoln Center in New York and the ArcLight Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. Go see for yourself. MM
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opened in select theaters November 11, 2016, courtesy of Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures. Derek Schweickart served as the digital intermediate conform supervisor on the film.