Ang Lee Pushes Technological Barriers in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

There’s a movie hitting theaters this fall that pushes the technical limits of the filmmaking process to new extremes. But the filmmaker isn’t using his tech in the service of an effects-laden blockbuster about aliens or superheroes or hobbits. He’s harnessing it for the intimate story of a young Iraq war vet and the memories that haunt him.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” directed by Ang Lee and based on the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, will premiere Oct. 14 at the New York Film Festival in its envelope-pushing native format, screening in 3D at 4K resolution and 120 frames per second for each eye. The Sony movie significantly raises the bar compared to the industry’s previous high-water mark — the 3D, 48 fps trilogy “The Hobbit”
— in a film intended for serious, adult theatergoers rather than popcorn-munching action-hounds.

“We are experimenting with a new visual language for emotional storytelling,” says Lee of the film, which intercuts between the soldier Billy Lynn’s memories of combat and the football-game halftime show at which his unit is honored. “I believe that new technologies provide new tools for filmmakers. They allow us to capture beautiful and realistic images and to create a more immersive experience.”
New formats might also be used to seduce consumers away from the many home entertainment options available and lure them back into cinemas. Few theaters around the U.S. will have the capacity to show “Billy Lynn” in its native format, but there are at least 10,000 screens around the globe that can handle 4K laser projection in 2D at 120 fps, or in 3D at 60 fps.

“Shooting at such a high frame rate allows for greater flexibility to create the multiple formats that will be shown in the film’s release all around the world,” notes Lee.

All this talk of frame rates might be off-putting for moviegoers who remember that the 3D, 48 fps spectacle of “The Hobbit” didn’t go over so well with audiences, who largely felt that the new format stripped the film of its texture in favor of the over-bright artificiality of a soap-opera set, shot on video.

Early word on “Billy Lynn,” however, seems promising. A native-format screening at the National Assn. of Broadcasters conference in April yielded a wave of positive buzz, with industry types who had seen the 11-minute snippet praising its clarity and emotional resonance. Kent Jones, the New York Film Festival director, has seen the entire film in the native format, and for him what lingers isn’t the immediacy of the combat sequences — although that’s memorable too, he says — but the ways in which the ultra-high resolution and frame rate convey subtleties in the acting.

“When I think of the film, I think first and foremost of the faces,” he says, nodding to a cast that includes Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin, with young British actor Joe Alwyn as the title character. The new format benefits, Jones adds, from focusing less on action and fantasy and more on the emotional impact of what’s been described as a VR-like sense of presence.

Lee’s experimentation with this format comes in the wake of his 2012 movie “Life of Pi,” which also explored the emotional potential of high-end 3D, and won him an Oscar (his second, after “Brokeback Mountain”). The untried aspects of “Long Halftime Walk” carry some risk — no one knows how the new format will be received, after all — but it’s mitigated by a budget of less than $40 million and a director who is a two-time Academy Award winner.

Whether the movie represents the future of filmmaking — or at least one of several future paths — remains to be seen, especially as the industry finds new ways to use the tech. There can be benefits, for instance, to shooting in 120 fps even when a film is intended to screen at lower frame rates, since the higher capture allows for the artificial adjustment of shutter angles in post-production, via frame blending.

All that, however, remains to be explored. New Yorkers can get the first taste of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” at NYFF, ahead of the national release set for Nov. 11.