Movies are magic. We watch 24 still frames projected on screen every second, and due to an optical illusion we perceive them as a continuous moving image. In reality, a good portion of what we are watching is the black between frames and the motion blur of images, both of which give movies their distinct, almost poetic way of capturing reality. It’s become so ingrained into our perception of movie watching, that when the film industry switched to digital cinematography, the biggest technical hurdle to making it “cinematic” was figuring how to capture 24 whole frames every second.
Ang Lee’s new film “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which was unveiled last Friday at the New York Film Festival, marks a radical departure from this 90-year tradition of 24 frames per second. Shot at 120 frames per second in 4k resolution, using two separate 3D cameras precisely mounted to capture action like a pair of eyes, “Billy Lynn” is a fundamental shift from the poetic imagery of cinema to an immersive hyper-reality.
“When you see it, it’s jarring. It doesn’t look like the way we’ve been socialized to experience cinema,” said “Billy Lynn” production designer Mark Friedberg in a recent interview with IndieWire.
If the critics at the Friday night screenings are any indication, it’s going to be a hard sell to get audiences past just how jarring 120FPS feels. Uproxx’s Mike Ryan summed up the critical reaction, writing: “I never felt like I was watching a movie.”
Friedberg, who is known for his collaborations with more “analog” directors like Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, says that at first he too questioned the hyper-real look, but he quickly converted.
“After watching it for a while, it felt, at least to me, like that feeling now when you watch a non high-def TV and you wonder, ‘how did I ever watch this? How was this acceptable?'” said Friedberg. “After a few days, I started to realize that in a way we [have] been looking through a pair of 59 cent glasses all these years.”
While the conversation regarding “Billy Lynn” will likely revolve around this incredibly unique viewing experience, an equally big part of this story —especially if this new format takes hold in Hollywood — is how shooting at a high frame rate (HFR) fundamentally alters filmmaking itself.
“It’s a truth serum for everything we put in front of the camera,” said Friedberg. “It was really an across-the-board rethinking of how we do our jobs.”
More of a Buffet Than a Stew
A production designer helps tell a character’s story in a way most film goers don’t conscientiously process. From props to color to the physical space itself, there’s a tremendous amount of detail that is put into sets and locations through which the audience viscerally comes to understand something about a character. For example when Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a soldier returning home from the war in Iraq, first enters his childhood bedroom, Friedberg wanted to build a history of Billy’s room that gives us a sense of what his life was like before the war.
“In the case of building up a history in a character’s physical space, it has to be done, using this technology, much more carefully and realistically,” said Friedberg. “In traditional filmmaking [we are often] just creating a soft space around the actor’s head in the middle of the frame. In this technology, it’s not like that. It’s more like being in the space. You’re more immersed in the scene. That wall behind [the character’s] head is almost like character itself — the drip of paint, the nub of the brush is all apparent in a completely different way. It’s much less of a stew and much more of a buffet. You can see the elements that make it, whereas at 24 frames that stuff all blends together.”
This means that all the standard art departments tricks for something as simple as making a wall look worn would appear fake under the microscope of 120FPS, 4k stereo 3-D.
While we are talking on the phone, Friedberg instructs me to look at the wall of my apartment.
“There have probably been thirty paint jobs on that wall,” explained Friedberg. “People have banged into it, someone may have even scribbled something then painted over it. Some parts might have been damaged and then repaired. All that builds up a history.”
Normally, Friedberg says he’d approximate the look of that wall with a couple of layers, but while prepping for “Billy Lynn,” Friedberg was surprised that detail like the grain of paint and the divots of a wall were so present. He would need to add levels of layering, literally building history and realism into everything they put in front of the camera.
Even his ability to hide something from the camera with a black piece tape, a common set dressing trick, now just appeared on screen like a black piece of tape. It was because of this he admits he ended up favoring real locations whenever possible, for fear that building sets could potentially appear fake.
A Thirsty Camera
Production designers and cinematographers are often interdependent upon one another and by necessity have a close working relationship, but on “Billy Lynn” Friedberg said his collaboration with DP John Toll was taken to a whole other level.
“We were like an old married couple, attached at the hip,” joked Friedberg.
The new format required more light, five times in fact. Shooting 120 vs. 24 frames per second means there is less time (shorter shutter speed) for each frame to be exposed. The “Billy Lynn” team had also decided to increase the film’s depth of field, to make sure the 3D images would be sharp, which required even more light.
For the scenes shot on the football field, in which the light is motivated by the visible stadium lighting, or the war scenes shot in blaring desert sun, getting the extra light was not a problem. For everything else, Friedberg would have to work with Toll to figure out how the locations and sets could accommodate his bigger lighting set ups.
“We were literally designing the light into the set,” said Friedberg. “It’s practical lights [lighting sources visible on screen] that you see, we just had to make sure that it doesn’t look like a movie light and that it belongs in that space architecturally.”
For industrial commercial spaces, like the restaurants, stadium hallways, tunnels and locker rooms, Friedberg said it was a lot easier to build and motivate the light on screen. The key was to just to make everything on the set a little oversized.
For scenes set in homes, bathrooms and more intimate spaces it was a real challenge.
“There was a lot of architecture I needed to build to hide lights or I literally had to build lights so that they could be in the scene,” said Friedberg. “The irony is that as we strived to bring a realistic look, we would often have to bring in more equipment and add more layers of artifice.”
Prep, Visual Effects & “The Hobbit”
Toll and Friedberg were able to successfully navigate the demands of “Billy Lynn” because the entire crew was working two months before production, shooting tests. To watch what the 120FPS, 4k, 3D stereo footage looked like, the production had to build an entire new pipeline.
“There was a million dollar lab with a lot of servers, computers and smart people who stayed up all night processing the files so that we could watch them,” said Friedberg.
Shooting in Atlanta, the production also built a special screening room so the “Billy Lynn” team could watch dailies, something that’s unheard of in modern times where on-set monitors show what is being captured.
Lee’s “Billy Lynn” team had actually done some advance work. They had prepped another film with a more involved story to be shot at 120fps, “but it became apparent that we would maybe need to try something a little more limited,” said Friedberg.
One of reasons Lee switched to making “Billy Lynn” first was that the initial project relied on too many visual effects. Deciding that would be a mistake, he bailed on proceeding with the movie. In addition to the fact that rendering all the extra frames would be tremendously labor intensive, if not impossible, they also learned from Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” which pioneered shooting in a higher frame rate, 48FPS. Many critics panned that movie for looking like hard-edged television video.
“We learned from what [‘The Hobbit’] did,” said Friedberg. “You could see the line where the matte started and reality stopped. We’ve gotten so used to visual effects as a matter of course, but for the level of detail that has to be drawn or created in CG it’s almost impossible at 120 frames.”
Yet another irony of this new cutting-edge technology is that in a practical way it was like moving backwards in time to when movies weren’t dependent on digital technology.
“We’ve gotten used to digital technology,” said Friedberg. “We’ve gotten used to being able to fix what we need to fix, whenever we need to fix it. We tried to be as practical as we could and do things on screen, which puts more onus on the art department.”
Friedberg says that shooting “Billy Lynn” was a steep learning curve, but that he’s far more confident now about working in hyper-reality and he’s anxious for Lee’s next attempt at cracking the new format, adding that next time he wouldn’t hesitate to build more sets.
Watching the film you can feel just how new this way of working was for everyone. Similar to when movies added sound in the late 1920s, the movie is at times stifled and awkward as Lee, along with his all-star team of craftspeople and performers, try to adjust to what amounts to a new language and way of making of motion pictures.
Ultimately, Friedberg, like Lee, is a believer in the new format because of the strong emotional connection it creates between the actor and the viewer. Referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” the production designer theorized that the new format has the ability to tap into the way humans instinctually interact and read each other’s’ emotions. In a sense, Friedberg said, no one working on “Billy Lynn” faced a bigger challenge than the professionally trained actors, but he also believes they more than anyone else hold the key to this new way of making films.
“This is not only a way of looking at movies, but also a new thought about what movies are,” said Friedberg.