Ang Lee was in prep on “Hulk” when he felt the pressure to abandon film and shoot digitally for the first time, but it would take a decade for him to become a convert. Over those years, as Hollywood transitioned to digital cinematography, Lee resisted — not unlike fellow Hollywood fixture Christopher Nolan — going so far as to even avoid the digital intermediate (DI) process that had become a standard post-production practice. From Lee’s perspective, there was a sleight of hand going on in the film industry that continues today.
“They are trying to make digital look like film,” said Lee during an extended interview with IndieWire this week. “It’s a different media with different perception, different requirements. Digital doesn’t want to be film, it wants to be something else. I think we need to get past that and discover what it is.”
With “Gemini Man,” Lee has made his second attempt at shooting in a high frame rate (HFR), using a 3D digital format. The movie, which hits theaters tomorrow, doesn’t sit well with many critics, who are openly calling on the auteur to abandon his quixotic pursuit of a new type of cinema. Some profiles paint the 64-year old director as an isolated figure searching for relevancy, and even suggest the two-time Academy Award winner has become desperate. Yet for all the negative discussion surrounding the film, little of it is focused on what Lee is actually trying to do, or even what he’s actually accomplished.
For all its flaws, “Gemini Man” is a major step beyond Lee’s first HFR 3D effort, “Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk,” and shows that he is making real progress toward what he calls “the promise of digital cinema.” He’s not there yet — but there is an authenticity to his journey that deserves more respect.
Lee’s critics can’t sort out why the man who created the cinematic poetry of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and captured the pained longing of Heath Ledger’s cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain,” has traded the 24 frames per second (FPS) magic of film for the distracting hyperreal look of HFR. Lee said he knows where the backlash is coming from: HFR filmmaking can look ugly and be unpleasant to the eyes. But that’s exactly the problem he’s looking to solve. As he would often repeat to his told his “Gemini Man” crew, “there is no bad media, there’s only bad artists.”
“Film got so good because for over a hundred years, genius after genius, craftsman after craftsman, years of audience feedback, it got really sophisticated,” said Lee. “I just believe there is a very different beauty, a dreamlike-ness in digital. I’m trying to find it.”
“Gemini Man”: Ang Lee and Will Smith
Lee was first forced to shoot digitally when he wanted to experiment with 3D for 2012’s “Life of Pi.” Despite winning the Best Director Oscar for his work, he struggled with 3D. He was constantly frustrated with the lack of information and strobing of 24 frames per second that made it hard to see into the depth of the frame. He also realized he had no idea how to stage or shoot scenes in volumetric depth. In the process, the director became acutely aware how much film lenses limited the viewer’s depth of perception, and more profoundly, how his choice of lens had become second-nature — a component of his mastery of film language.
When it comes to the depth of 3D filmmaking, “we don’t quite know how to equate that to your expression, your emotion,” Lee said. “With [film] lenses, I can tell you how to do it, which lens does what, at what distance and how you move your focus. I was very familiar with that.”
To compensate on “Pi,” Lee said he sometimes intentionally limited the depth possible in 3D. For the first time in his career, he was uncertain about how to frame shots to evoke the desired emotion. But that lack of familiarity intrigued him, especially once he saw the sharp detail and depth of 3D when combined with a higher frame rate. That was the first time he started to consider the potential of digital filmmaking that continues with his latest work.
He began to wonder if he could express otherworldly concepts through hyperreal images. “In life we have to be sharper, because we have to make adjustments so we can survive,” said Lee. “We have to be sharper to detect in a different way than watching a dreamy movie. So once you are in that place, can you make art? Can you dream? All those questions popped up for me.”
The exact thing people hate about HFR, that extra detail, the hyper-reality, is what Lee has been trying to explore and harness the last five years, and “Gemini Man” shows that he has made some progress. In one early scene, as Henry Brogan (Will Smith) goes to bed, the camera is next to the bed, our hero resting in the foreground, but through the window and deep in the background we see a group of assassins enter frame and surround his house. The visual revelation is as clear and emotionally jarring as any cut; it’s a masterful shot that proves how far Lee has come since “Billy Lynn.”
In trading in the performance-driven prestige drama of “Billy Lynn” for a Jerry Bruckheimer action film — as well as Hollywood’s first fully digitally created human character, a younger Will Smith clone — the “Gemini” director has found a story-based excuse to pack more detail into the frame. Action genre prepares viewers to expect the unexpected, which gave Lee the excuse to explore how the HFR 3D medium gives the viewer a sharper perception of the surroundings. In addition to casting scenes against deep, far-as-the-eye-can-see landscapes — with a huge assist from Dion Beebe’s remarkable day-for-night cinematography — “Gemini Man” is at its best when it plays to our ability to see detail we aren’t able to process in a 24 FPS action scene.
In an early sequence introducing Junior (a WETA motion-capture based creation), a 23-year old Will Smith clone hunts down 51-year old Will Smith in a motorcycle chase. In addition to the normal stunts and gun play, we focus on the mechanics and strategy of the chase. It’s thrilling to watch how Junior changes the gun magazine while driving one-handed on a sea wall, while in the foreground his older opponent navigates the road, trying to escape his assassin. Lee alters traditional action compositions to allow us to see such detail, the camera often positioned head-on rather than capturing lateral movement through the frame.
In another standoff between the two Smiths, a four-minute hand-to-hand combat scene set in a torch-lit catacomb, we see detail that is striking for a chaotic melee. The facial expressions of both men are visible without any cutting or reframing. Instead of a series of images featuring bodies rolling and punches being thrown, which would all blur together in 24 FPS, one can clearly discern the mechanics of the fight along with the the characters’ intention, strategy and emotion – what Lee refers to as “the extra kick” necessary to make digital cinema work. Lee believes the viewer craves more information and detail that digital cinema allows.
“You process HFR 3D differently, you process it like real life,” said Lee. “When you do that the requirement is detail. The way you scan it and put it in your head is actually quite different and you can be more immersive, you have more range of the language, and once you get into that, that’s what digital promises you.”
“Gemini Man” comes up short when it relies on the tricks of a normal action film, proving Lee’s belief that very little of 2D filmmaking translates to this medium. Lee is on to something about the potential for our eyes are able to wander inside a packed frame, but he has yet to pair his digital aesthetic with the right material.
“You have to stimulate it, you have to light it, find contrast in a different way to make us think it’s pretty,” said Lee. “That’s what I’m trying to discover. It’s only the very beginning. I’m just aware of it, I don’t know how to do it yet.”
Before production, cinematographer Beebe sent Lee a photo of one of the cameras used on the first Hollywood sound films. The enormous, cumbersome apparatus was a reminder of the awkward 72-pound, two lensed camera Bebe’s team would have to operate. The photo was also a reminder of what happened in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s: The late silent era included some of the most lyrical filmmaking ever made, but it ended the moment sound came in, as the mechanics of trying to record passable sync dialogue constipated everything from the performances to camera movement: Sound killed the dreamlike quality of silent filmmaking, not dissimilar to the way Lee’s 120 FPS can feel to a modern audience.
It may be impossible to ever get an audience to accept 120 FPS as a moviegoing experience. At the same time, “Gemini Man” touches on new possibilities that can’t be so easily discarded. While 24 FPS has been perfected over 100-plus years, 120 FPS is a nascent approach that Lee has only begun to explore, and other creators will eventually follow suit. “I believe it will get easier and easier,” Lee said. “It consumes a lot of your energy. The poor crew has to work 10 times harder for it not even to look as good, but we are still doing it because when you find something new, something fresh, the adrenaline is really high. That’s the reward.”
Lee remains convinced that the industry is close to unlocking the aesthetic mysteries of HFR 3D, but feels somewhat isolated by his experiments. “The most painful thing for me is the lack of feedback,” said Lee. “Filming is just the beginning of the process. You make a provocation and then there’s feedback, you communicate with other people. Without the showing experience, without other movies, without a culture, you have no feedback. You can do all you want, but what did you learn?”
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
However “Gemini Man” is received, it won’t spell the end of HFR 3D — not with James Cameron shooting the four upcoming “Avatar” films in the same medium. Lee has faith that the “far more technical” Cameron can make even greater breakthroughs, and admitted that he was unsure what the future of the medium looked like.
“I don’t want to believe there’s no hope in digital cinema because it looks real and we can’t watch movies that way,” said Lee. “I think you just have to be good at it.”
Paramount releases “Gemini Man” nationwide on October 11, 2019.