Over the years, digital capture has moved significantly, from a limited tool that tied the hands of cinematographers, into a highly capable technology that stirs the imagination. One of those points of exploration has been higher frame rates. Peter Jackson, with the support of Warner Bros, admirably took the first big step along this route, with the three releases of Hobbit. The first step may not always the best step, and while Hobbit was cited for its many flaws, none of it perturbs filmmakers. Ang Lee is no exception, with the upcoming release of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 120 fps 4K 3D glory.
Readers may recall that Hobbit was in 48 fps 2K 3D. Warner Bros could not have done more to ensure a wide cinema footprint in the format of the filmmaker’s choice. But even then, the footprint was in the 500 cinema range. As capable as digital cinema technology may be, moving away from traditional 24 fps to 48 fps 3D proved challenging. 48 fps 3D requires linear 96 fps operation (each visual frame is stereo), which is outside of the DCI specification, which in layman terms means it’s pushing beyond the normal limits of operation. 120 fps 3D hits the stratosphere.
Why 120 fps, then? To numerologists, it turns out that 120 fps is a magical number in media. It is an integer multiple of 24 and 30, even though a bit short for the 25/50 fps world. Theoretically, a movie produced in 120 should print down nicely to 24 and 30 fps platforms. But experts in this space who have been actively evaluating the capability of high frame rate have learned otherwise. It turns out that the blur of lower frame rates is valuable for proper perception.
This means that while high frames rates capture motion with clarity and far less blur, motion blur must be added back in when printed down to a lower frame rate. This might seem easy, but in fact, it’s hard. Only the moving bits must be blurred, leaving the stationary imagery clear and sharp. And blur must be in proportion to the rate of motion, adding further complexity to the process. A method for adding such blur when printing down was the basis of a patent application by Doug Trumbull, the pioneer of higher frame rates in cinema.
In the end, Ang Lee’s stratospheric choice of shooting in 120 fps may have been to the advantage of Sony Pictures, the movie’s distributor. There is no doubt that a 24 fps release is needed to monetize the production. But there must have been the obvious option of printing down and re-activating the 48 fps footprint of screens used by Hobbit. Arguably, a 48 fps would not look like 120 fps, making it a completely different product in the filmmaker’s eyes, and likely led to a veto. That would reduce the release options to a full 120 fps special release version, along with the 24 fps wide release version.
The technical ability to deliver 120 fps 3D 4K is not simple to achieve, requiring 2 capable projectors and media blocks. Full brightness 3D is desired, which further amps the budget. Not too many exhibitors were likely willing to pull out their wallet to accommodate. If a contribution from Sony was needed, that would further narrow the 120 fps footprint. This may explain the result of having only 6 cinemas in the world capable of showing the movie in the manner in which it was captured. There will be a middle version shown in Dolby Cinemas, however, of 120 fps 2K 3D, increasing the footprint of 120 fps shows, even if in reduced resolution. For those sitting in the middle of the theater, the limitations of human visual acuity guarantee that you won’t miss much in the way of detail, making the Dolby Cinema option a worthy consideration.
Ang Lee is a pragmatic man, quoted at his movie’s premier as stating “It’s kind of an experimental movie.” As one might expect, early reviewers found the experiment to get in the way of the story. To an adventurous filmmaker, higher frame rates may represent a new frontier. But to an audience for whom MP3 music has proved to be good enough, motion picture technology may, too, have reached its point of diminishing returns.
That doesn’t mean that experimentation shouldn’t continue. The history of cinema is ripe with experimentation, and the ability to do so remains a valuable capability of the medium. But those who have dreams of worldwide footprints for their experimentations may be in for disappointment. Ang Lee was correct in describing his decision to shoot in 120 fps as an experiment, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk may become the example, rather than the exception, for how experiments are distributed in the future.