The latest big advance in filmmaking technology took place Friday night in New York City, where the New York Film Festival (NYFF) world-premiered director Ang Lee's new film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, in the director's preferred exhibition format — stereo 3D, with 4K resolution for each eye, running at 120fps.
That's a massive quantity of data for a movie. 4K resolution increases the data demands by four times, compared to the much more common 2K, and running the film at 120fps represents another 5x increase over the standard rate of 24fps. Now that you're looking at 20x the bandwidth required by a typical feature film screening, remember that showing the film in 3D simply doubles it all. It took a combination of dual Christie Mirage laser projectors, 7thSense Delta Infinity Media Servers, and a high-reflectance RealD screen (yielding a whopping 28 foot-lamberts) to pull it off.
The screening didn't take place at any of NYFF's typical Lincoln Center venues. Instead, it was staged at a commercial multiplex across the street, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13. The Lincoln Square multiplex has two of the most massive screens in New York City — the 600-seat Imax screen all the way upstairs, which is currently closed for renovation with the new Imax laser-projection system, and the cavernous 876-seat Loews theater on the second floor — but the Billy Lynn screenings took place instead in the modest Kings auditorium, which features a relatively small screen and seated barely 300. That must have something to do with the current state of the art in laser projection, though I'm not sure whether the deciding factor is screen size, throw distance, or something else.
The film itself is an adaptation of a novel by Ben Fountain about Billy Lynn, one of a squadron of Iraq War veterans who have returned to the U.S. where they are hailed as heroes. Its centerpiece scene is a halftime show during a Dallas Cowboys football game where Destiny's Child performs amidst pyrotechnics and smoke and fog effects as the soldiers are trotted out for recognition. The men are taken aback — and in some cases retraumatized — by the aggressive attempts at making them momentary celebrities. I didn't see the first screening, but I was there for the second one, where Lee seemed visibly relieved that the premiere had gone off without a hitch. In his introduction, Lee briefly discussed the new technology and ventured that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is in some ways "an experimental film," which was an interesting way to frame the presentation.
Well, he wasn't kidding. The high-resolution, high-frame-rate (HFR) stereo cinematography was clearly evident from the first frames, and throughout the running time of the film, it was easy to sense that Lee and cinematographer John Toll, ASC, were trying to find ways to make the most of it. A scene of Lynn and company clowning around on the football field before the game has a really clear sense of the huge empty space they're playing in. (At one point, a football tumbles directly toward the camera — probably the most dynamic 3D effect in the film.) Some of the shots have a first-person-POV quality, putting the audience in the place of Billy as other characters talk to him. There are tightly framed close-ups, most notably of Steve Martin (playing a fictionalized version of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) and Vin Diesel (playing the philosophical Sergeant Shroom, who is killed in the line of duty), whose big round heads seemed to be floating at the front of the theater. The effect is striking, but also distracting. Also present is the much-maligned "soap opera effect," the phenomenon that has HFR footage reminding some viewers of shot-on-video television programming.
If HFR ever becomes the norm, viewers will no doubt get used to it. But for now, it still looks weirdly artificial and cheap, at least to my eyes — footage sometimes gives the impression of being sped up, and shots of the soldiers interacting can take on the appearance of community theater. (I'm not alone in this regard.) One more thing I always notice when screening HFR movies? The increased temporal resolution really highlights wobbles and hitches in camera pans and tracking moves that would look entirely smooth at 24fps.
At the same time, the process created some really interesting visual textures, especially as the stereography interacted with shallow depth-of-field effects in the Sony F65 footage to create images that were simultaneously familiar from other films and utterly new in the way that unfocused planes seemed to inhabit 3D space. As Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers gaze out at the stadium audience from behind a semi-transparent LCD display, the stereo effects pointedly separate the multiple planes of action and experience in the picture. And when the narrative switched over to flashbacks set on the brightly lit desert battlefields of Iraq, the sense of exterior space up on the screen brought home the immensity of that conflict. It was, as the cliché goes, like looking out a window.
And I have to say this: as much as I found the HFR cinematography to be a distraction in some scenes, the film's centerpiece, where the halftime show gets underway and Billy Lynn and his brothers in arms walk in formation across the gridiron, is absolutely electric. The scene is a riot of action and it's much more colorful than anything else in the film; it's also the moment when the film's soundtrack really roars to life. It's the film's signature Big Moment, and it's overwhelming even if you expect that it's coming. I felt the boundaries of the frame falling away as sound and image completley dominated my experience. The only thing that I could cite as a distraction in that set piece is the sensation of the hairs on my arm sticking straight up. It's no wonder that was the section of film that was chosen as demo material for advance 120fps clip screenings at NAB and IBC. It's a remarkable achievement by any measure.
What's the bottom line? Despite its glorious moments, I'm afraid Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is going to go down as a technical triumph but an overall disappointment. Based on those early previews, expectations were high that this, a character-driven drama directed by one of the most highly acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, was going to be the film that would do what all four epic-fantasy installments of The Hobbit failed to do — sell the industry and the ticket-buying public on the superiority of HFR exhibition. Instead, early results have the film stalled out critically, earning a "rotten" 46% rating based on 13 reviews on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, where critics call the HFR effect "crisp and fake," compare it to HDTV motion-smoothing, and complain that it's like taking "a cold shower." Ouch. And the technology won't really have a chance to be vindicated by multiplex audiences, since only two theaters in the U.S. will be equipped to screen it in all its 4K 120fps glory. Looks like Billy Lynn is going to have to pass the football to James Cameron, whose upcoming Avatar movies are the next high-profile HFR productions.
Of course, there is one more factor to consider. Much television programming these days is delivered in 4K despite the fact that very few viewers have the hardware to watch it. Similarly, while Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a native 120fps production, most audiences won't see it that way. But Sony will have the full-resolution asset on hand for deployment several years down the line, if and when this type of production becomes the norm. It's a form of future-proofing. Even if audiences aren't ready for 120fps movies now, that may well change in the future. And when it does, Sony will be happy to have films like Billy Lynn in the archive. For Ang Lee, the more pressing question is whether Studio 8, for whom Lee is expected to make Ali-Frazier boxing drama Thrilla in Manila, will pony up for a similar you-are-there experience in that film.
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