Explorers go where there is no map.
There’s no safe path, no way to know what’s over the next hill. They figure out their route as they go, and blaze a trail in hopes that someday, others will follow.
So it is for director Ang Lee with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
His new movie, about Iraq War heroes whisked back Stateside for a victory tour, is slated for release on Veterans Day weekend (Nov. 11). The picture blends different flavors of high-tech — 3D, 4K and high frame rates — to push filmmaking beyond anything the public has ever seen, even beyond the capacity of the world’s movie theaters. It marks Lee, who turned “Life of Pi” into a surprise global smash (and earned a directing Oscar for it) as one of the boldest explorers in cinema today.
You might expect such a visionary to speak with steely resolve, perhaps with a little bluster. That’s not Lee. He’s soft-spoken, philosophical, and modest enough that when he talks about the progress of “Billy Lynn,” he admits “I’m struggling.”
“The technology’s really different,” he says. “We’re the first ones to do this. But how do you do the art, using this technology? That is more difficult.”
“It is humbling,” he adds. “I can tell you I’m beginning to know that I don’t know. And that’s an important step.”
Lee will get a crucial first gauge on his progress Saturday in Las Vegas, where the first public screening of “Billy Lynn” footage in its full native format will be held. Some 11 minutes of film will be shown to attendees at the Future of Cinema Conference, part of the National Assn. of Broadcasters tradeshow in Las Vegas.
The conference, presented by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) draws entertainment technologists from around the world. Even in that crowd, few will have seen anything like it. “I don’t know how they’ll react,” admits Lee. “I’m very excited. I’m nervous, because I don’t know way which way it will go.”
It’s hard to imagine a more receptive venue for this unveiling than the SMPTE conference, which was once called the “3D Summit” and is full of people who’ve dreamt of seeing films in such a format.
Lee has reached a rarefied place among filmmakers. Though he wants a good reception, he is able to look beyond the screening, past grosses and Oscars, and envision nothing less than than a new way of making and viewing movies. “Our head is still in the film world,” he says. “Not to put down film in the past, because it’s brilliant, I love it. But if we do digital, we ought to do something different, it shouldn’t be imitating something else.” And, “Billy Lynn,” is Lee’s “something different,” his experiment with shaking off old thinking and embracing the full potential digital tools.
It’s an arduous path he has chosen, one that began with “Life of Pi” and one Lee chose to pursue when he could easily have turned back. In fact, it was his dissatisfaction with the state of digital 3D on “Life of Pi” that prodded him to press ahead.
Sony Pictures is backing him on “Billy Lynn,” and they knew what a challenge they were taking on. The studio felt that Lee’s record as a visionary and the returns on “Pi” made him a good bet.
It’s not hard to imagine their reasoning. There are similarities between “Billy Lynn” and “Pi,” but contrasts as well. Like “Pi,” “Billy Lynn” is based on a popular novel, and Lee has proven masterful at visualizing the internal action of literary fiction. The subject matter of “Billy Lynn,” though, is the Iraq War and returning veterans. That subject has been far from reliable at the box office. For every “American Sniper” there’s a little-seen “In The Valley of Elah” or “Home of the Brave.”
“Billy Lynn’s” budget, said to be $44 to $48 million after production incentives, is far less than “Pi.” That puts it in the mid-budget danger zone for studio dramas, and it lacks the fantastical elements of “Pi.”
Lee himself isn’t an entirely sure bet either. He made “Life of Pi,” which was an art film at heart but performed like a tentpole, but he also made the controversial “Hulk,” which proved a dud, and the low-budget NC-17 “Lust, Caution,” which grossed just $4.6 million in the U.S., though it did well enough abroad to reach $62.5 million worldwide.
A novel format can goose even a bad film; 3D made the cheesy “Bwana Devil” a big hit back in 1952. Sony could hype “Billy Lynn” as “Like nothing you’ve seen before!” but is more likely to sell it as a patriotic, emotional, American story, going for the “American Sniper” audience. Still, Lee is relying on his new format to tell that story as powerfully as possible.
The “Billy Lynn” format doesn’t even have an official name yet, though its working title at Sony is “Immersive Digital” — a moniker that’s as good as any, even if it’s unlikely to rank with Cinerama, Sensurround or Smell-O-Vision in the annals of marketing hooks.
Lee aims to show audiences the most immersive war footage ever put on a movie screen. Yet even if it does just that, it’s possible the public won’t like it. Ben Gervais, production systems supervisor on “Billy Lynn,” says “Test subjects that have seen some footage have commented that 40 minutes after seeing battle footage, they’re still shaking.” That speaks to the power of the footage, but will the public line up to be so shaken?
“In some ways I’m quite naïve,” says Lee. “I just get excited about what I see. But sometimes there have been implications for the whole industry. So I feel vulnerable sometimes that way.
“But my intention is to show people: ‘Did you see that? Did you see what I just saw?’ That’s my whole motivation.”
Immersive Digital isn’t a single invention. Rather, it’s a combination of technologies, two of which are already established before the public and one that is only now being let out of labs.
Already familiar are 3D, for which millions don glasses every year; and 4K, which quadruples the pixels on the screen. Both are common, but they’re not usually combined. All digital cinema projectors can show 3D, but most can’t screen 4K, even in two dimensions. Very few can show 3D with 4K on both eyes.
It’s the third piece that pushes the tech of “Billy Lynn” from extreme to experimental. Lee shot the film at 120 frames per second, five times the normal cinema rate of 24 frames per second. If 3D with 4K is rare, the combination of the two with a high frame rate is beyond the capacity of even the most advanced movie theater projectors.
One of the few people in the world who has spent a lot of time watching such a format is Douglas Trumbull, the director and special effects artist who has long advocated for something akin to Immersive Digital. Trumbull has shot and projected 3D footage at 120 frames. “Your brain really likes it,” Trumbull told Variety. “I cannot describe to you the sense of stimulation and excitement and visual vividness. It doesn’t look like television, it looks like a new movie medium with all the problems solved.”
Theoretically, such an extreme frame rate would deliver much smoother motion, an end to the strobing or “judder” when the camera pans, more comfortable 3D and unparalleled sharpness and realism. That’s still theoretical because hardly anyone has ever seen a film made that way. Even if it works perfectly, there’s almost no place in the world where viewers can see it.
The venue where the film will be shown at NAB is a temporary setup in a meeting room in the LVCC’s South Hall. The conference uses a very large room, capable of seating hundreds, but the screening room is far smaller, so there will be six showings over the course of the day.
The footage will be shown in the full Immersive Digital format, 3D/4K/120, on a small-ish screen, just 12 feet by 24 feet. It will be projected a two-projector setup trucked in just for the occasion, with electronics souped up to surpass current standards.
“This is the first [showing], I want to do it right,” Lee says. “I will feel guilty if I do something stupid and that hurts the progress of this new technology, which I believe in.” It’s not an idle concern. He has heard of the first showing of footage from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” at CinemaCon, where Peter Jackson unveiled the 48-frames-per-second version, which was not well-received. 48 frames improved 3D and clarity, but many complained it looked like television, not a film. By jumping to a frame rate far beyond 48, Lee hopes to have eliminated that “TV look.”
(Perhaps wary of such a CinemaCon letdown, Sony chose to unveil Immersive Digital to the technologists at NAB, not to exhibitors at CinemaCon. When they unveiled the “Billy Lynn” trailer there earlier this week, it was projected normally.)
“I’m not a technical person,” says Lee of Immersive Digital. “As long as it allows me to see what I want to see, I just cope with (the tech). But I found a new way of looking that’s closer to my eyes. That’s very exciting,” he says.
No less a 3D expert than James Cameron endorses Lee’s opinion that format should deliver closer to natural vision. Cameron goes so far as to call the 3D/4K/120 package “the new platinum standard.”
“You can’t beat that,” Cameron told Variety about the 3D/4K/120 format. “That overwhelms the human visual system. You can’t see any better than that, so there’s no point in going any higher than that.”
The shoot for “Billy Lynn” was so advanced that Lee and his team couldn’t even watch their own dailies in their “hero” format,” Gervais says “We watched our dailies at 60 frames per second, in 3D, in 2K, just because the technology burden is very high to be able to do this.”
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Lee is an unlikely tech pioneer. As he admits himself, he’s not a technologist. (“He can barely use his iPad,” says Gervais.) He had no particular interest in 3D or any of these advanced imaging systems until he dove into development on “Life of Pi.” He was looking for a way to crack the story, which he calls “kind of un-makeable,” as a film. “I just had this fancy thought: Maybe if I have another dimension? 3D maybe?”
He decided to try it before he even really understood it, and as he viewed 3D footage, he quickly reached the same conclusion as Cameron, Jackson and other 3D filmmakers: “24 frames? Not even close.” At 24 frames per second, the standard frame rate imposed at the dawn of talking pictures, the picture shows “judder” or strobing if the camera moves, or if anything moves quickly across the screen. 3D both exacerbates strobing and makes it intolerable.
“I couldn’t watch it,” says Lee of 24-frame 3D. He adjusted his style on “Pi,” but looked for a better solution for his next project. He studied higher frame rates, including a test reel produced by Cameron, and concluded they were the solution to judder. Then that wasn’t enough; he realized that he wanted clearer images, too. More pixels would add clarity, and the extra resolution of 4K became part of that answer. “New TVs are already 4K,” he says. “so why movies should be less? So that becomes I think the new package, for me, for now.”
Another way to add clarity: More frames per second. With more frames, there’s less motion blur, so movement looks sharper. He decided on a high frame rate for “Billy Lynn,” finally choosing to shoot at 120 because it’s a multiple of both 24 (the common frame rate for cinemas) and 30 (a common frame rate for TV). That makes mastering for both TV and film simpler than usual — one area where Immersive Digital even brings a potential savings.
Beyond that, Lee chose to keep his cameras’ shutter open continuously (using a “360-degree shutter” in the parlance of DPs) so the camera wouldn’t miss even a fraction of a second of motion. That too, should make motion clearer.
Lee has spent a lot of time pondering the effect of these changes, and along the way, he discovered what he thinks will be a powerful tool for future filmmakers.
“With different clarities, your mindset is different. That’s what I’m interested in. The way you watch it, your attitude, works somehow a little differently. It can make [your mind] more relaxed, or more alert. And that, I think, along with [3D] Z-axis changes, will be the new additional language for filmmakers.”
He also came to believe that his ideas about 3D — and those of Hollywood studios and filmmakers — are backwards.
“I’ve found the biggest difference between 2D and 3D is in the faces, not in action or spectacles. I think 2D is better for action, and 3D is better for drama. I’ve found 3D can be more intimate, he says. He is savvy enough, though, to add “I don’t know how successfully I can sell that.”
Immersive Digital changed the way Lee made the film. A lot of standard “movie tricks” proved obvious with the extra clarity. “I couldn’t use makeup, even,” he says. “I didn’t know how to do it. Lighting, staging, even writing. Very puzzling.” Much of the art of cinematography is designed to add a feeling of depth to a flat image. In Immersive Digital, such techniques looked artificial.
He admits that forced shooting to slow down. “Literally, a lot of the time we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Lee. “The crew, at least the key crew, had to admit that. We don’t really know. We’re not good enough for the job. This is something new. We just scratched our head and tried to figure something out.” That put Lee under pressure; on a set, time isn’t just money, it’s a fortune. “But we headed on with it,” he says.
Some of the decisions made along the way will give “Billy Lynn” an unusual look. It’s typical for war sequences to have slow-motion shots; that helps the audience follow the action. Lee decided to eschew slo-mo because that’s not how soldiers experience battle. Instead, he relies on the clarity of the images to allow viewers to follow the action.
Acting had to change, too. “I think you see performance differently,” Lee says. “At least to my eyes, I can see how [actors] feel. The acting needs to be more complicated, more like life, more subtle, more realistic.”
“You read emotion in their eyes, thoughts in their eyes, because you pick up more, you just sense them.” Viewers, he says, are now free to scan actors’ faces and pick up tiny cues, just as people do in daily conversation. He cites a “Billy Lynn” closeup that just didn’t seem right. It was on one of the film’s soldiers, who was supposed to be outside on a chilly Thanksgiving day.
“After three days I realized the actor is hot,” he says. “The performance doesn’t ring true to me. And he’s a very good young actor. And I realized the problem is, I know he’s hot.” In Immersive Digital, if an actor is supposed to play cold, he’d better actually be cold, or the camera will pick up the difference.
Lee’s curiosity led him to these explorations, but while he is an artist, he’s also a realist. As hard as it was to shoot the film, and as complex as post-production is likely to be, “What’s more difficult is to change the system,” he says. “The whole industry, from studio to vendors to distribution, to exhibition. To change the industry, that’s really hard.”
“Billy Lynn” can only prod the industry, not change it. Immersive Digital is far beyond anything movie theaters can handle with a single projector. There’s not even a development roadmap that leads to the format. Existing standards for digital cinema projection only go up to 48 frames per second. Proposed standards would go up to 120 frames, but only for 2D movies at 2K resolution. No proposed standards combine 4K with 3D, never mind showing them at more than 48 frames.
“There may be some high-end theaters they can outfit to show it at full resolution and full frame rate,” says Howard Lukk, director of engineering and standards for SMPTE, “just like they’re going to do for the show at NAB. But in the real world, they’re going to have to drop it down to at least 60 frames per second, and 2K instead of 4K, for wider theatrical release.
Don Shaw, senior director of product management for projector maker Christie, said it would require a “forklift upgrade” to make theaters capable of 3D/4K/120. “[You’d have to] take your existing projector, dump it in the garbage, and get a new one,” says Shaw. Theaters are unlikely to do such a thing en masse without some kind of subsidy for the cost, like the now-concluded Virtual Print Fee program. Such largesse from the majors seems about as likely as a snow day in Dubai, regardless of how much the public likes what they see of “Billy Lynn.”
For Sony, though, Immersive Digital isn’t really the story. They bet that an Ang Lee film would work in any modern release format, even if the director is toning down the acting, lighting, makeup and more to suit the extra clarity of Immersive Digital.
To date, the studio hasn’t announced its plans, and in fact probably won’t firm them up until Lee is farther along in post.
There are indications, however, that Sony will favor the higher frame rate over 3D and 4K, if necessary. Rory Bruer, Sony’s president of worldwide theatrical distribution, told Variety in a statement: “The exact format on show at NAB won’t be commercially available for years, but there is already a large footprint of theaters capable of projecting film at various ultra-high frame rates.” Bruer’s emphasis on frame rate is telling.
Another source with knowledge of Sony’s thinking says the studio is eyeing a platform release, including some venues showing 60 frames. It would be the highest frame rate ever seen in a major release.
When it goes wide, “Billy Lynn” will likely be released in a hodgepodge of formats dictated by the capabilities and limits of digital projectors.
Should “Billy Lynn” prove popular in the 60-frame format, it will represent a measure of vindication for Trumbull. Some 35 years ago Trumbull developed the 60-frames-per-second Showscan format, which he hoped to use for his film “Brainstorm.” Those who saw test footage still talk about it, but studios and exhibitors didn’t bite, and Trumbull left Hollywood after “Brainstorm.” In recent years he’s built a theater in the Berkshires to demonstrate a format even more advanced than Lee is using. (Lee visited him and viewed it; Trumbull says he is the only established director to do make the trek.)
“My guess is this screening in Vegas is going to be a bombshell,” Trumbull predicts, “and it’s not going to get any of the blowback ‘The Hobbit’ got at 48 frames. I think it’s going to be really exciting and really spectacular, and it could open the door to a new future for cinema.” Adds Trumbull, “My belief is we’re on the trail of making moviegoing so spectacular that we can bring audiences back into theaters, rather than them drifting away to their tablets and their smartphones.”
In one respect, Sony’s Bruer seems to be lining up with visionaries like Trumbull, Cameron and Lee. “The industry needs to keep experimenting to find exciting new ways to differentiate the theatrical experience,” he said. But at the same time, Sony knows there’s a limit to the novelty effect of a new format. “This ‘Immersive Digital’ will play a part, but ultimately it’s a compelling story that matters most, and no one is a more emotional storyteller than Ang Lee.”
That is Lee’s hope as well. The director wants the theatrical moviegoing experience to be like to be an event, as special as going to a church or temple. “You should not watch [a film] on your iPhone. I think that’s what a theater ought to be, and it’s not like that anymore. I think it’s about time we do some changes so going to a theater is a very exciting thing.”
Regardless of whether the industry is ready for the package he is putting together, though, Lee is pressing ahead. He wants to see for himself what he gets when he’s ready to show the entire film.
“Movies are the best thing I love in life, in [24 frames]. Now we’re capable of watching them more clearly. In this generation of filmmakers, how should we react to that? I’ve seen that. Once I’ve seen that I can’t pretend I have never seen that before.”
“It’s difficult to change people’s habits, the culture,” he admits. “But I’m a little too curious,” he says. “I’m not that young anymore, I don’t want to wait.”