(Excerpted from the November 2016 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
I was treated to a profound movie-going experience on Veterans Day, a press screening for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at 120fps, 3D, 4K, with a 28 foot-lamberts screen brightness; (several times what is typical for 3D projection). It was followed by a Q&A with the movie’s two-time Academy Award winning Director, the masterful Ang Lee.
Now I’m not one to hype cinematic gimmicks that are not in service of storytelling. Aside from a few notable exceptions like Avatar, Gravity, or Ang Lee’s own Life of Pie, I’ve never been all that keen on most filmmakers’ use of 3D. It’s either distractingly in your face or it’s so subtle you have to ask yourself why you paid extra for it and also had to wear those annoying glasses. And although I’ve been a fan of Peter Jackson, I was one of the ones who disliked his use of high-frame-rates on The Hobbit. However, I think this time Ang Lee reached new ground in taming technology to more effectively communicate to his audience. Sadly, however, very few will ever see this movie, and only a small fraction of those will see it as the Filmmaker intended.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which shot at 120fps, native 3D in 4K with Sony F65 Cine Alta cameras is quite a visceral experience, drawing the audience into the character’s POV. We follow a returning war veteran being honored during an NFL football game’s halftime show, which is intercut with his wartime flashbacks from Iraq. Besides the unique technology, Lee also broke a cinematic convention with his actor’s eyelines. Every time someone was playing opposite the lead character of Billy Lynn, they looked directly into the lens, or at us, the audience for their coverage. This was apparently another tool Lee used to put the audience in the boots of this combat infantryman.
Close-ups were also handled differently; instead of going to the traditional longer lens, Ang Lee chose the “Big-Up,” moving the camera very close to the subject and filling the frame with their face. This required the use of a fairly wide lens which left Steve Martin, playing an antagonist, on the borderline of looking grotesque. It seemed very real, probably too real for the romantic female lead, where Lee seemed to back off from this treatment a bit so as not to distort her features. (He shared in the Q&A that she was also the only actor not to receive any make-up.)
Very few of us have ever seen a movie at 120fps, 3D, 4K, and 28 foot-lamberts, and honestly it takes a little getting used to. I have to admit that it was distracting at first, as Lee set the stage and conditioned us as his audience to accept this nontraditional cinematic view of the world. However, by the time we got to the bigger action moments, Lee had us right where he wanted us. It was really way more immersive than any entertainment I have ever experienced, including VR, and told a compelling story of the toll that going to war can take on a soldier’s psyche.
Of course, Mr. Lee did not achieve this remarkable accomplishment alone. Let’s start with the legendary two time Academy Award winning Cinematographer, John Toll, ASC. Mr. Toll’s lighting, as always, was outstanding, subtle when it needed to be, but slapped you in the face for the many combat and big stadium scenes. He certainly must have contributed to the unique style of composition and coverage, a question I would have liked to ask him about in an interview, (more on that to follow).
We’re proud to say that Ang Lee was also joined by a DCS member, Technical Supervisor Ben Gervais, (X-Men: Days of Future Past,) who worked the project from start to finish, preproduction, production, post, and even supervised the set up of the special projection needed for this screening, (more on that to follow). Stereographer Demetri Portelli, (Hugo,) must also have had his hands full breaking ground with new 3D techniques that were impactful, but not distracting.
Sadly, most of you will never get the chance to see these fine filmmakers’ work in the manner they intended, (120fps/3D/4K/28fl). Only a very particular Christie projector, the Mirage 4KLHs, has the needed capability, and it requires two, (one for each stereo eye). It’s a laser light powered projector that needs special projection room cooling and painstaking setup by Tech Supervisor, Ben Gervais, who traveled the world in advance of Ang Lee to each premiere screening. Only a very few theaters were ever equipped to show the movie in this manner, and outside of China, where this technology has been embraced, such facilities were only set up on a temporary basis.
When I started to do this write-up, I was thinking of calling it “James Mathers’ Long Halftime Walk.” That’s because I had been vigorously lobbying for quite a while to try and get a proper Industry screening of the movie for DCS members and other related guilds and associations. This effort started when I was contacted earlier in the year by Ben Gervais who knew the great lengths we went to in making sure The Hateful Eight was shown as the filmmakers intended. We hosted a 70 mm film print screening for DCS members which was attended by some of his team. That screening was followed by a very interesting Q&A with the film’s DP, Robert Richardson, ASC. In case you missed it, the interview can still be found streaming here: https://vimeopro.com/digitalcinemasociety/digital-cinema-show/video/149714154
So, I started this effort by reaching out to this movie’s Cinematographer, John Toll, ASC, who graciously offered to make himself available for a similar Industry screening with Q&A. However, I was never able to get the movie’s distributor, Sony Pictures, to agree.
I figured that there would surely be Awards Consideration screenings which DCS would be invited to, so I wasn’t too disappointed. However, I soon realized that such Industry screenings would be as was the wide release, only formatted for standard DCI, either 3D or flat. In fact, the ArcLight Cinerama Dome, where I had the pleasure of seeing this movie, was the only place set up on the West Coast, and it only lasted there a week
If I had paid to see the movie, it would have cost me $20.75 for the privilege, (before popcorn, candy, and cold drinks). That’s expensive, but the ArcLight is a premium venue to start with, and the added cost for these special enhancements is understandable given the complication and elaborate technical setup for this movie.
Unfortunately, the film’s initial release did not fare too well, grossing less than a million dollars of its forty-million dollar budget in the first weekend. However, an audience who does not see this movie in its proper projection format could not appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, so the unfavorable reactions were a self fulfilling prophesy.
Sony Pictures Distribution made a business decision not to absorb the extra cost to show this movie the right way, either for the general movie going audience, or for the Filmmaker’s Industry colleagues. Perhaps this is because several critics who were able to see one of the few properly set up screenings, such as the New York Film Festival in October, did not react favorably. Comments ranged from “3D in this Lee movie often looks weirdly like something shot on videotape in the 1980s,” to “the visuals look both crisp and fake.”
I can’t blame Sony Pictures for acting in what they believe is in the best interest of their Shareholders, and can understand why they didn’t support a wide release in 120fps/3D/4K. Even with the full monty treatment, as I mentioned earlier, this movie is different, and does take a little getting used to. I believe, however, that if more audiences, (especially the Filmmaker’s Industry colleagues), got to experience Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as it was intended, it could have been a completely different scenario.