Ang Lee’s New Film – An Experiment Gone Too Far?

Understanding why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has fuelled vigorous debate over movies shot in ultra-realistic high frame rate format.

In the publicity run-up to his latest film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee has more than once urged journalists and reviewers to “keep an open mind”. Lee’s plea has nothing to do with his film’s content – the story of a disillusioned American war hero’s tenuous return home. Instead, his concern has to do with the controversial new technology he employed to shoot the film: high-resolution 3D at 120 frames per second.

What exactly is this tech?

The traditional movie frame rate is 24 frames per second, which is what gives movies their “cinematic” feel. Lee’s film is the first to be shot at 120 frames per second. The last major motion picture to experiment with this format was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy, which was shot at 48 frames per second.

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy, which was shot at 48 frames per second.
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy, which was shot at 48 frames per second.

According to a 2014 Wired article, University of London psychologist Tim Smith conducted an experiment by shooting the same video in different frame rate formats.

“At the standard 24 frames per second, the video looked… well, normal. ‘This is what you’ve experienced your entire life,’ said Smith. At 48 fps, the scene looked more like real life and somehow less cinematic. There was less motion blur. At 60 fps, this was truer. Tiny movements like leaves blowing in the breeze on trees outside the window were sharp enough to be strangely distracting. At 120 fps, even jitter in the camera rig became noticeable.”

So in short, 120 fps gives a viewer a highly realistic depiction of the action on-screen. Every little detail comes into piercing focus.

The traditional movie frame rate is 24 frames per second, which is what gives movies their “cinematic” feel. Lee’s film is the first to be shot at 120 frames per second.

How does the film community feel about this?

After a viewing of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Slate columnist Daniel Engber wrote, “From the film’s opening image—Billy Lynn in bed, looking like a 3-D printout of a human being with a hangover—I could feel the spring-loaded trapdoors of my mind snapping shut. The scene looked queer, uncinematic, like a theatre sketch acted out in virtual reality.”

After a viewing of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Slate columnist Daniel Engber wrote, “From the film’s opening image—Billy Lynn in bed, looking like a 3-D printout of a human being with a hangover—I could feel the spring-loaded trapdoors of my mind snapping shut.

He is not alone. Several film writers are antagonistic to this new format. Their contention is that by making a movie seem so real, it serves the exact opposite purpose of transporting the audience to another world. In effect, it makes the film seem less otherworldly and more like a soap opera. Some viewers have also complained that a higher frame rate in 3D causes the eye tremendous strain.

However, many filmmakers argue that this innovation is the future of cinema. In a Facebook post, Jackson made a strong argument for 48 fps tech after he used it in The Hobbit:

Film purists will criticize the lack of blur and strobing artifacts, but all of our crew – many of whom are film purists – are now converts. You get used to this new look very quickly and it becomes a much more lifelike and comfortable viewing experience. It’s similar to the moment when vinyl records were supplanted by digital CDs. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re heading towards movies being shot and projected at higher frame rates.”

What’s Lee’s final stand on the technology?

In an interview to The New York Times this week, Lee said regardless of how Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is received by critics and the general public, he is going to adopt an experimental approach to his future films. Revealing that he intended to use this technology for his next project, Thrilla in Manila, he added, “I think it’s a legitimately good format for artist expression.”

Right now, the popular opinion is against high-frame rate cinema but as legendary sci-fi author Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

It’s a time-honoured tradition that early adopters of any new tech always have to overcome existing conventions. Right now, the popular opinion is against high-frame rate cinema but as legendary sci-fi author Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” So the debate over frame rate is only getting started.

 

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