‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’: How Ang Lee and Cinematographer John Toll Changed the Way We Look at Movies

Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll left his comfort zone for Ang Lee's experiment in 120 fps/3D/4K, screening in LA at the Cinerama Dome.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"

The possibilities for visual storytelling expanded with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Ang Lee’s hyper-real experiment in 120fps/3D/4K cinema. The nightmarish PTSD war drama not only fulfills the promise of Doug Trumbull’s Showscan experiment from the ’80s (60fps/65mm), but also takes it to another dimension with greater clarity, depth and volume.

As a viewer, it gives the sense of opening a window and stepping closer to the action for the most realistic, visceral, and immersive 3D experience. Huge closeups leave actors totally exposed, and far-reaching depth of field gives more freedom to explore.

For Lee, there’s greater truth in the primacy of the image. “It’s more mise-en-scene than montage,” he said at last week’s screening at the Dolby Cinema at Vine Theater (in 120/3D/2K).

The realistic, immersive effect was he primary motivation for 120; also, it could easily be converted to 60 and 24. (“Billy Lynn’s” will screen in 120/3D/4K  exclusively at the Cinerama Dome in LA from November 10-17, and at New York’s AMC Lincoln Square beginning November 10.)

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

Lee and two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (“Braveheart,” “Legends of the Fall”) felt like soldiers in their own cinematic battlefields; Toll in particular, as he’d never cared for 3D’s capture and display limitations.

“I was surprised about getting the call from Ang to do the test, and was very upfront about having no experience with [3D], and I had questions about his ideas for the process,” Toll told IndieWire. “I think Ang thought I would be appropriate because I was not tainted with any preconceived ideas. So we did the test [with the Sony CineAlta F65 4K camera], and I think [what we’ve accomplished] makes the experience more accessible.”

Still: With a $40 million budget, a limited shooting schedule in Atlanta and the bulky F65, it was almost like returning to film school.

Crucially, what they learned was normal conventions of light and shadow no longer applied. “In 2D photography, we’re used to using contrast and shadows as a way to create depth and volume,” Toll said. “But this process offers inherent contrast, depth and volume, so we limited the use of shadows.”

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

They also stressed longer takes and less camera movement, but tried to maintain the option of mobility. “We couldn’t pick up those cameras and go grab a shot,” Toll said. “Just in terms of the technology, that aspect of it was equally interesting and rewarding if you pulled it off. You didn’t need a lot of flashy camera work because it was all there to be seen.”

And then some. Between the action-packed flashbacks in Iraq to the tense Thanksgiving halftime show to the domestic drama in between, the experiment accentuated Lee’s talent for spectacle and intimacy. By opening up the Z axis, time and space could take on new meaning. But pulling focus became a tricky endeavor so it didn’t distract from Billy’s point of view.

The choice of actors, meanwhile, was predicated on a less-is-more approach (along with minimal makeup, due to the incredible detail and intense scrutiny afforded by the frame rate). Newcomer Joe Alwyn stars as Billy, Kristen Stewart plays his sister, Garrett Hedlund and Vin Diesel portray mentors Dime and Shroom, and Steve Martin guest stars as the weaselly Dallas Cowboys owner.

“There are some great close-ups,” Toll said. “In the National Anthem shot of Billy, you see the tear form in his eye before it drops down his cheek.” And there’s another shot of Billy during an altercation with a fan involving another soldier from his Bravo unit. “All of a sudden, you look in his eyes and [realize] that he’s capable of murder given the right circumstances.”

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

The documentary-style, hand-held action in Iraq was also enhanced by the process. “Now we can film while a car is shaking. There’s no flickering,” Lee said last week. “It’s more exciting… there’s more dimension, light, and clarity.”

Even the limo ride to the stadium became an immersive, reflective adventure, which took Toll totally by surprise. “In order to get the camera shooting toward the front from the rear, you needed to see 10 people in the background, which we shot wide,” he said. “And in order to get the camera in the limo, we had to take it apart and put it back to together in the limo. Ang had such a commitment to reality … you’re in the limo.”

While not everything in “Billy Lynn” works — it received a mixed response at the New York Film Festival, putting a damper on its Oscar chances — it’s a vital first step as a disruptor, offering a new visual language.

And Lee intends to follow this with another 120 shoot for his “Thrilla In Manila” boxing brawl between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. By then, cameras and projection systems will be improved.

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