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How Ang Lee and His Hyper-Real High Frame Rate Could Change Cinema

How Ang Lee and His Hyper-Real High Frame Rate Could Change Cinema

High frame rate (HFR) may have finally come of age, thanks to Ang Lee’s spectacular hyper-real, immersive achievement with his Iraq War PTSD drama, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which intercuts a returning soldier being honored during halftime of a Dallas football game with wartime flashbacks of his squadron.

There was plenty of buzz at NAB in Vegas on Saturday, where Lee previewed 11 minutes of “Billy Lynn” in groundbreaking 4K, 3D, 120 fps. And last week exhibitors at CinemaCon were also intrigued about the prospect of Lee’s new innovation, despite the fact that there is currently no single digital cinema projector capable of screening this format (Christie supplied two 4K Mirage laser projectors for the NAB presentation).

While there’s has always been a Catch 22 between innovation and exhibition, there are plenty of players to make this happen, between Christie, Dolby and Barco. It all depends on how ambitious Sony wants to get in exploiting the wow factor for a roadshow Oscar presentation this fall.

Timing is everything, though, and while Peter Jackson was the first to take the HFR plunge with his “Hobbit” trilogy (at 48 fps), he was criticized for the dreaded video look. Now Lee has come along at a more opportunistic time with “Billy Lynn,” based on Ben Fountain’s novel and starring Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, and Steve Martin. It appears to be the perfect blend of style and substance in which HFR brings us closer to Billy’s confusing state of mind with greater intimacy and intensity.

But it wasn’t easy: Cinematographer John Toll shot with two massive and cumbersome Sony F65 4K cameras at 120 fps in native 3D, allowing a great deal of flexibility to create multiple formats from the same source material; it was like going to film school again for the production design and lighting teams and they built a special screening room to show dailies. All the old rules were thrown out with such hyper-real clarity.

Despite the nagging video stigma, this might turn out to be the dawning of an exciting new “Hypercinema,” according to pioneer Doug Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner”). Indeed, we’ve come full circle to Trumbull’s revolutionary Showscan large format process (60 fps 70mm) from the mid-’80s, which had the clarity of peering through a window.

“What we experienced with Ang Lee’s demo at NAB was a powerfully written, directed, photographed, and edited slice of his movie,” Trumbull observed. “It promises to be an outstanding movie, yet Ang boldly and courageously demanded that it be shot in 3D 4K 120 in order to explore the future of cinema —a move that could prove to be a vital turning point for the survival of movies in theaters.

“The NAB demo used a newly developed Christie 4K 3D 120 fps per eye dual projector laser illuminated system, the likes of which do not exist in any cinemas— yet. The amazing opportunity that Ang Lee has presented is the challenge to our industry to figure out how to get this profound new experience to millions of viewers in thousands of cinemas around the world. When I left this incredible experience at NAB, I was trembling and terrified, as though I was actually in that experience. We saw the future, and I am enormously grateful that Ang Lee made this happen for us all.”

Trumbull has also been exploring the future of cinema for the last three years with his own MAGI process, which he showed to Lee and Sony before they embarked on “Billy Lynn.”MAGI enables 4K, 3D, 120 fps with a single Christie Mirage laser projector. Plus, he’s already tested a 2K DCP version that can work in tens of thousands of installed Series II projectors with the right media blocks. He stressed, however, that it doesn’t solve the endemic problems related to 3D dimness and screens that are too small.

With MAGI, Trumbull adds to the sense of immersion by altering cinemas to much wider field of view screens — a change that can be done to any cinema at any size (including his specially-designed 60-seat MAGI Pod theater). “It is not about size, but about field of view width. The more, the better,” he emphasized.

Meanwhile, James Cameron is poised to take HFR even further with the continuation of his “Avatar” saga (four films to be shot simultaneously). Although his original intention was to use 60 fps, the advent of 4K, 3D, 120 fps allows him even greater latitude in creating a more dynamic return to Pandora (some of which will be underwater).

This innovation couldn’t come at a better time for theatrical exhibitors, who are more motivated than ever to lure customers with must-see cinema after the unwelcome introduction of Sean Parker’s The Screening Room streaming service plan.

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