October 20, 2016
NYFF 2016

Ang Lee on 'Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk': Shooting 120 FPS was Like 'Making Love to Movies'

Ang Lee discusses the reasons behind shooting his new film, Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, at 120 fps.

When Peter Jackson doubled the standard frame rate and released The Hobbit in 48 frames per second, he caught flak from the cinema community, which chided the film for having a "soap opera" look. Now, Ang Lee has done something even more audacious: he shot his latest film, Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, at 120 frames per second—not to mention in 3D and 4K resolution. 

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, about a young veteran returning from the Iraq War, recently premiered at NYFF 2016, where its advanced technology received a mixed reception. Audiences found the first-ever film shot in 120 fps jarring and hyperreal; the experience of unflinching reality pervaded its battle scenes, while the quieter scenes of home life were characterized by a profound mundanity. 

"It was like watching super, duper HD television on steroids," wrote Film School Rejects, "or sitting so close to a live theatrical performance you can’t help but notice the actors’ exaggerated makeup and gestures."

"The horrifying thing for filmmakers is that maybe you're not good enough for the medium. Maybe it's better than you are."

The day after the film's premiere—where the actors, including Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin, saw the film for the first time—Lee was noticeably frazzled by its uneven critical response. "This is the quest in the next stage of my filmmaking," Lee announced at a festival discussion. "I don't know what life means. I just look through the viewfinder...cinema is what I believe in."

After Life of Pi, in 2011, Lee hoped to "rise to the next level" of filmmaking, but he wasn't sure what that might entail. "I was in the process of understanding how we see things, how we experience a theatrical experience through a specific medium," Lee said. James Cameron had recently demoed the first footage shot at 60 fps, which captured Lee's imagination—though he had an inkling he could do it better. "I realized in [Cameron's] demo that the swords were just missing each other," said Lee. "With a higher frame rate, you see everything. You see the intention, the thoughts behind [the shot] or the action. Your strategy has to become a lot smarter. I noticed the performances were different."

"It took me a year after that to understand that there's something beyond 60 fps," Lee continued. Like the story of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, experimenting with the limits of technology was a coming-of-age experience for the director. "Here I am, at 60, coming of age into [this technology]," he said. "Between 60 and 120 fps, I was like, what do I want to do? Do I want to go into the unknown, or do I want to stay here and just try to improve on 60 fps? I decided I'd already become a grandfather and said, 'Oh fuck it.'"

"Each combination of frame rate and resolution has a different psychological mindset."

After testing multiple frame rate permutations, Lee landed on 120 fps. "Each combination of frame rate and resolution has a different psychological mindset, a consciousness," he said. "There's a lot of potential territory to explore. I was always told that you don't have to be responsible, but you have to be reasonable. Sometimes, I feel I don't even have to be reasonable. I just have to believe in something and magic will happen."

Credit: Sony Pictures

And believe in 120 fps he did. For Lee, Billy Lynn's action-packed and emotionally redolent story lent itself to the experience of hyperreality. "I wanted to explore how people perceive soldiers [versus] what they're really going through," he said. Though the higher frame rate would bring audiences closer to the human experience, cinema cannot ultimately divorce itself from subjectivity. "The eyes are just our lenses," Lee said. "We scan and get information, but how we see is in our mind's eye, our head, our heart."

After production began and Lee was able to review dailies, he realized that the increase in visual information at first appeared "harsher" onscreen. (This perhaps echoes the "jarring" sentiment early audiences described.) But, he found, once you adjust to the onslaught of information, you can fully experience its benefits. "Your eyes crave information," said Lee. "It's comforting when you get enough information, like in 120 fps. It's strenuous when there's not enough [like in 28 fps]. Digital cinema should be more inviting to audiences since it's easier to see." 

Of course, the technical obstacles of shooting at 120 fps became salient immediately. The high frame rate is produced by a shorter shutter speed, which, in turn, requires five times as much light as a shot in 24 fps.

Lee was undeterred. "With a higher frame rate, I realized it was harder to make a movie," he said. "But I welcomed the challenge." 

"I feel I become the movie I am making. I feel like Billy Lynn in that battlefield: it's me against everybody."

The higher the image quality, the larger the burden of performance that falls upon the actors. "120 fps is not documentary," said Lee. "The actors still have to perform. They have to work harder to earn your belief." He took this into account during the casting process, hiring only actors that he was certain possessed the necessary talent. "When I see top-notch talent, I just know it," he said. "My every cell is tuned into the character."

"Actors are like little buddhas," he continued. "You just remind them of something they already knew."

Credit: Sony Pictures

In this uncharted territory, the director and actors were forced to renegotiate their relationship to audience believability. "You're still watching a story," Lee said. "But because it's more real in terms of vision, the contract you have with the audience changes. The biggest change is attitude: it's more about experiencing rather than telling a story."

To enhance the experience, Lee also shot with two 3D cameras. "3D is psychological," he said of this decision. "It's personal. It's possible to engage in the pretend cinematic world. With 3D, you get this Z-axis, rather than just X and Y. You have your space and their space, and the whole thing opens up."

As for whether the technology achieved the grandiose vision he had for Billy Lynn, Lee was more reticent. "I don't have all the answers," he said. "I took a leap of faith. I think the movie's watchable. I was chasing the medium. The horrifying thing for filmmakers is that maybe you're not good enough for the medium. Maybe it's better than you are."

"You have a contract with the film," he elaborated. "You're married to it. You invest yourself in it. You make love to it. After certain movies, I feel I become the movie I am making. I feel like Billy Lynn in that battlefield: it's me against everybody. I get shot at and try to survive."

Regardless of its realization in Billy Lynn, Lee hopes viewers won't reject the technology itself, which he sees as inherently neutral. "Tools are tools," he said. "They're innocent. There's no medium that's better or worse than the other."

But at the end of the day, Lee does admit that there is one medium that is not created equal. "I'm a filmmaker," he said. "My virtual reality is better than real VR. Other than for previsualization, I don't really see [a need for VR]."


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Your Comment

8 Comments

Multiple FPS doesn't make a better film. I know he didn't say that but I'm just reminding people.

October 20, 2016 at 6:25PM, Edited October 20, 6:25PM

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Henry Barnill
Director of Photography
181

All films have multiple FPS

October 22, 2016 at 7:20AM

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If Peter Jackson proved anything it's that higher frame rates and play back don't work. The Hobit was such a flop. In fact I think it was abandoned by the 3rd film or at least playback of it.

Ang Lee isnt very technicial in cinematography anyway. He has an incredible vision but he relies heavy in his DPs to create the look. I once attended a small workshop with Peter Pau and the way it seemed was Ang Lee gave very little direction how to get the shot he just explained what he wanted and it was up to him the DP to make it happen.

So Lee is being a little silly here, silly rabbit.

October 20, 2016 at 6:45PM, Edited October 20, 6:45PM

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Can one make movie like Life of Pi without being technical?

Funny how we now use word hyperreal. When all tv programme is +120fps everything under that is retro look :)

October 21, 2016 at 2:44AM

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Don Nachos
Editor / Animator / Producer
15

"higher frame rates and play back don't work".... Faulty logic here - does going from 12fps to 24fps similarly prove that faster is in fact better?

48fps and 120fps are completely different experiences, and there are many other issues at play like appropriate shutter speed, using realtime blending techniques for action vs. slow sequences, and a great many other bag of tricks which are only beginning to be discovered.

Strangely, only a few people like Douglas Trumbull actually got/get this. Film works best when it suspends disbelief - when The Hobbit fell short of that, it failed, but not necessarily due to "faster" as much as 48fps specifically and how it was done. There are tests and experiments which show how 120fps can be more magical than 24fps, and I'm sure there will be several films in the coming years which demonstrate this (and many which fail, since it's new territory with pitfalls)

October 21, 2016 at 4:21AM, Edited October 21, 4:27AM

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The major difference is movies are not real. This subject was debated back in the early 90s when it was film vs video 24 v 30. It's a small diffence in frame rates but it was a large one as far as look. The conclusion was 24fps suspends disbelieve is what you absolutely want because we are watching actors and things that are fake

October 21, 2016 at 1:00PM

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For certain types of scenes it's true that the look of 24fps keeps the viewer more in the magic - however what Trumbull has proposed is to selectively apply blending techniques to 120fps in post. That way you get the best of both worlds, and it becomes a creative choice about what works best where.

I believe he'd agree that projecting faster without such techniques would only work some of the time and ultimately not be worth it since 24fps is a safe baseline, but there's a better way...

What's odd is he's been saying this for years, if not decades. That 120fps allows blending choices in post which give the director creative control over the look and feel. It's about time people are at least trying it out at a high level.

About whether or not one would ever want to blend it to look like anything other than 24fps, it seems like the answer is "yes" but it's kinda like shutter speed. The 180 degree guideline is a good starting place and to be safe there's nothing inherently wrong about sticking to that (e.g. sticking to 24fps look) - but there are certain types of scenes that work better and keep you more hooked when the shutter speed is changed away from that baseline (e.g. the beginning of Saving Private Ryan). We're going to start seeing emotional movies that use faster framerates effectively as part of the storytelling arsenal, I hope.

Another issue is probably getting the audience used to it... but I'm not a huge fan of that argument

October 23, 2016 at 3:40AM

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One thing I have yet to see of any of these directors pushing HFR is for them to talk about the fact that one of the real reasons for the push for higher frame rates is because most 3D systems alternate eyes each frame (sort of like alternating fields with old school interlaced TV...so when a film is shot/projected at 48FPS, you're still only getting 24fps *per eye*. I have yet to see Ang Lee's new film, of course, but I think it's finally reaching that threshold where it will work. I was fortunate enough to see Trumball's Scowscan format at Showbiz Pizza back in 6th grade in the 80's...it was 70mm (65mm camera negative) shot and projected at 60fps. I had no idea what I was watching, but even though it was 2D, it looked like I was watching a hologram...

I personally think 48fps is not enough...the motion blur of an 180° shutter at 24fps has some motion blur that really helps the it work without it not being fast enough to reach almost everyone's flicker fusion threshold...watching The Hobbit in HFR was exhausting because to me...it looked like watching a whole movie that loooked like the action scenes of Private Ryan or Gladiator...45° shutters...it looks kinetic, but it's also exhausting...my eyes were tired.

Another thing I find completely ironic of all these HFR directors...is they keep talking about how these higher frame rates are more realistic and immersive b/c it's closer to how your eyes see...but at the same time, they're making 3D movies which are the opposite of how your eyes see!

http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/why-3d-doesnt-work-and-never-wi...

October 21, 2016 at 6:34PM, Edited October 21, 6:37PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2053

I must admit, I feel cheated. I love Lee's movies, and was eager to see what he had dreamed up for us. All the talk is about the tech of it. At 120 fps I expected to leave the theater a smoking wreck. BUT - OK, here I go - I really didn't notice any difference between a well shot 24 fps movie and this one. In fact, I had assumed that the the flicker that is perceptible when a shot is panned would all but disappear. Unbelievably, it seemed more pronounced!

Now, I may have been duped. Let me ask: don't the theaters have to have special projectors to be able to reproduce 120fps? Could I have been watching an HD DVD-type version? Was it necessary to see it in 3D to "get it"? I did not - saw it in 2D. I wanted a comparison from a level playing field. I left confused, It just didn't make sense.

Beyond that, what is not being talked about much is the story. I think it's an astounding, and courageous statement on our modern culture. It goes forcefully to places in our zeitgeist that are not pretty; not popular; not politically correct. A deep bow to Mr Lee for that all-important part of film making.

November 27, 2016 at 8:25PM

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