On Ang Lee’s envelope pushing

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 11/05/2016

One of the most intriguing recent film news stories – aside from the steady stream of rapturous reviews of Moonlight – has to do with Ang Lee’s new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which premiered last month at the New York Film Festival. Telling the story of a soldier returning from war, the film is meant to be viewed in 3D at 4K resolution, at an impressive 120 frames per second (fps).

I say “impressive” because it is; the presentation is at the absolute frontier of film presentation that’s currently possible. It requires processing of the image in 4K resolution at five times the rate of a typical film. It employs 4K resolution 3D, which until now was limited to 2K. State-of-the-art laser light engines create the massive amount of brightness needed to overcome 3D filters, which previously transmitted a small fraction of the light they took in. There are currently two (2) theatrical screens in the U.S. capable of projecting this film in its native format.

To put all this in perspective, films (even in today’s digital era) are typically projected at 24 fps or, on occasion, 25 or 30 fps. Peter Jackson’s 2012 version of The Hobbit played at 48 fps, and while some commentators then saw a mismatch between form and content, speculating that this wasn’t the right story to be telling with this particular technology, there were also many reports of physical disorientation in ways they simply didn’t care for.

Likewise, reviews of the Billy Lynn viewing experience – to say nothing of the film, which we haven’t seen – have been, shall we say, mixed. Commentator have again reported physical discomfort, feeling queasy and disoriented. But, interestingly, some have also said that the high frame rate actually reveals too much detail – it allows them to notice aspects of set, costume, and even makeup that remind them they’re watching a constructed environment, taking them out of the story. This thoughtful piece from Daniel Engber in Slate is excellent (and also links to some other reactions).

Engber notes that, while scientific studies have consistently shown that subjects prefer HFR images on measurable qualities, no viewers seem to be embracing or fawning over the 120 fps experience of Billy Lynn (or The Hobbit). But there are plenty of people who think that will theoretically happen: intrepid heavies like Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, James Cameron (who’s planning to use HFR in Avatar 2) and the O.G. of modern high frame rate (HFR) technology, Douglas Trumbull. Trumbull created the frankly astounding special effects on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other films, and for decades has been experimenting with and investing in HFR as a storytelling tool, first on film stock and now digitally.

Trumbull is attempting to elevate our physical perception, and while HFR images may look more realistic, accuracy isn’t the goal here. Maybe HFR is meant to produce effects that are wholly their own, for different, more evolved aesthetic purposes. If so, HFR pioneers are also attempting to change convention and expectation. At the moment, viewers expect, consciously or not, that an image in a theater won’t exactly resemble real life. Perhaps this is part of the escape of cinema.

On the other hand, as Engber points out, tastes can change quickly. I think back to DVD, which for a time was actually preferred by some to 35mm film prints, with 35mm being used as a backup at the first film festivals I worked at. By now, thoroughly conditioned over the past several years to HD, most viewers could probably see the inferiority of a DVD image pretty clearly, compared to a 35mm print or even a Blu-ray. It’s like early recorded music: some early audio recordings were dramatically demonstrated on stage by an opera singer who would begin a performance and then stop midway through – with the audio continuing offstage to a baffled audience, until a curtain was pulled back to reveal a phonograph playing a recording. Nowadays, we’ve all heard early phonograph recordings, and I don’t think anyone would for a second mistake a recording from that era for live sound.

Another parallel: if you plug an electric guitar directly into a mixer or converter, it will sound laughably thin and puny. But guitar amplifiers are prized not because of their accuracy and transparency, but for the way individual amps augment the sound coming in: the way they add harmonic richness and complexity. This taste developed from limitations in technology, but now it’s expected for certain music to sound that same way, with sound quality itself actually suggesting that this is rock music or this is funk when the actual content may suggest otherwise. The “sound” of rock guitar exists today because of the particular way equipment was unable to function with complete accuracy.

All this is interesting to me because it reveals the role of habit and expectation – that these play a crucial role in an aesthetic experience. Billy Lynn won’t be playing in 120 fps anywhere near New Orleans anytime soon. Maybe, as with virtual reality, HFR cinema hasn’t hit on the right story or use that unlocks the medium, allowing large audiences to suddenly glimpse its possibility. It may be inevitable that it will, but it’s less clear how capable audiences will be to experience it that way. Rock guitar, recorded music, budget: all point to presentation – projection – as a limiting factor. This is a particular quality especially of modern art forms: the difficulty of fulfilling the goal to present work as an artist intended, when what the artist intends has never been done before.

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