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]."