Ang Lee’s Experiment with “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk”

Only a handful of cinemas around the world displayed Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk” in its full 120 fps, 4K, 48-nit 3D glory. It was an experimental format, requiring a non-DCI-compliant projection system to properly present it. While some in the technical community have railed on Sony for not making it more widely available in its experimental form, it’s an unfair position. This was an expensive experiment, and Sony should be congratulated for supporting Ang Lee’s vision at all if such experiments are to ever take place again.

It is no secret that “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk” was not a box office success. At the time of this writing, the $40M production generated less than 60% of that in worldwide box office. Stunningly, less than $2M of that was generated in the US, where a movie about the war in Iraq, coupled with the most contentious election in US history, was not a winning formula. There are plenty of things to point at for its lack of popularity, but I would put 120 fps at the middle of the list, not at the top. Having been one of the relatively few to see the movie as Ang Lee would have it, I have a lot of thoughts to share.

First, story is king. I’ll leave it for others to comment on the directorial and acting values in the film, but there is bound to be controversy over this. What is interesting is whether the technology enhanced the ability to tell the story. Ang Lee is a believer, having shared with an audience at the Hollywood-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that it was an epiphany to see the movie in its final form. For this observer, it lacked the cinematic feel that most productions strive to achieve. The movie has many lengthy facial closeups, with all of the production values of a still image. The high frame rate format punched through, though, most memorably in a fast pan taken inside a limousine. But while the technical achievement was impressive, the speed of the pan pulled me out of the story.

There was tendency in the movie to capture a scene as a wide shot, presumably to allow the audience to immerse itself without the distraction of a moving lens. But I didn’t find such shots to add to the story. Instead, the shots tend to tend away any mystique in the sets. The first “Hobbit” was plagued by this. Ang Lee obviously took care to improve on Peter Jackson’s experience, but such shots leave it to the audience to create suspension of disbelief. Most people would say that’s the filmmaker’s job. This feeling was best captured by another audience member, who commented afterwards that the movie had a coldness to it, as if watching a live play.

Then there is the conversion to 24 fps to consider. When converting 120 fps to 24 fps, it’s not as simple as printing every 5th frame. Motion blur suitable for 24 fps must be added back in. Notably, that blur is not present in the 120 fps version, so it has to be manufactured. RealD’s True Image technology was put to work for this purpose. I have yet to see the 24 fps version, but it did not receive an encouraging report from a well-known image expert in Hollywood. Your mileage may vary.

While “Billy Lynn’s Walk” may significantly raise the bar a producer must cross before another high frame rate release finds its way into a cinema, this won’t be the end of experimentation. Coming up will be higher contrast, higher light levels, wider color gamut, all leading to high dynamic range.