‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Takes Leap Into Cinematography Technology

John Toll Cinematographer.
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

When Ang Lee first approached Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (“Braveheart,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Sense8”) with his ideas for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Toll was somewhat skeptical. Lee felt the time was ripe for a quantum leap in filmmaking technology that would combine 4K resolution, 3D capture, and high frame rates. The undertaking would require innovation at every step, and stretch technology to the breaking point. Toll had little or no experience with 3D, but he respected Lee as a filmmaker, and the early tests piqued his interest.

“Movies haven’t changed for a long time, and I think we’re all dying for a change,” said Lee at NAB in 2016. “When I was a kid at the movies, I got excited and my blood pressure shot up. I want to be that person when I go to the theater now. With more information, it feels more human. You can get to the emotion. We can see performance during action. For filmmakers, it’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

The search for a new, more powerful way of presenting visual stories led Lee and Toll to a frame rate of 120 frames per second, five times the rate Lee and Claudio Miranda used on “Life of Pi,” and a number easily divisible into the rates required by the wide variety of eventual deliverables. Based on testing, Toll chose Sony F65 cameras, which features a sensor capable of 8K resolution, along with Master Prime lenses and Stereotec 3D rigs. Prior to wrapping the shoot, the filmmakers were only able to see actual 120 fps 4K 3D images on two occasions. Frame blending techniques were important during post-production, where massive amounts of data were wrangled. In many cases, there was no one to ask for advice, because the tools and techniques were essentially being invented on the fly.

“You can’t approach this technology lightly,” says Toll. “It’s demanding, which requires a director who’s very aware of the demands that it places on you — not only how to use it but how you plan everything around it. It’s incredibly demanding. It’s not like, ‘Let’s just pull it off the shelf and turn it on and use it.’ You really need to make adjustments and sacrifices for the technology.”

Contrast, framing, depth of field, movement, focus, 3D depth — every aspect of the photography was reconsidered. Editing, makeup, costume design, and even performance had to adapt to the clarity and depth of the imagery.

Toll says that throughout the endeavor, everyone involved had the sense that it was a grand experiment.

“It was always Ang’s faith in the idea that motivated everyone,” says Toll. “I don’t think anyone really knew where we were going to land. We were always working toward a goal, but we had no guarantee that it was actually going to be worth it. We had to believe that all the sweat and effort that went into shooting at 120 was going to pay off, and in retrospect it has. Ang actually knows how to use the technology to enhance the story, which is what it’s all about.”