At the New York Film Festival premiere of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” director Ang Lee told audiences to think of his film as an experiment. Shot in a revolutionary new format —stereoscopic 3D, using hi-def 4K digital cameras, at 120 frames per second — the picture was made on a tight 48-day schedule that left no room to go back and reshoot any mistakes, despite the fact that the filmmakers’ technique improved over the shoot.
“We were feeling our way,” cinematographer John Toll tells Variety.
Of course, high-resolution digital has been done before: “District 9” and “The Social Network” were both shot in 4K. Combine that with faster frame rates and native 3D, however, and Lee was working in uncharted territory.
As the “Billy Lynn” helmer and his DP discovered, it’s not just the cameras that need to change when switching to the new format; the upgrade affects everything, from acting to lighting to makeup to mise en scène. According to Lee, who discussed the advances at a post-screening Q&A for press in Los Angeles: “In 3D, performances have to change. Your eyes pick up so much detail.”
That’s something the director realized on “Life of Pi,” which made Lee hyper-aware of motion artifacts, such as blur and strobe effects during camera pans, and got him thinking about how to improve the experience for audiences.
Higher resolution and frame rate give viewers more visual information than their eyes and brains are accustomed to processing when watching a movie. While that’s potentially a good thing for cinema in the long run, it can be a jarring experience when seen for the first time — assuming that audiences will even be able to see it that way. Since the format is so cutting-edge, only two commercial cinemas were equipped to show it in the U.S.; Lee and Toll were forced to retrofit “Billy Lynn” in 2D, 2K, 24-fps versions (and nearly everything in between) for its Nov. 11 release.
“When you first hear about the technique, somehow it’s assumed that it’s all about spectacle and action,” Toll explains. “But the primary emphases became story, emotion, and point of view, and how this was expressed by the actors in close-up.”
After “Life of Pi,” Lee intended for his next project to be “Thrilla in Manila,” about the landmark 1975 bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Excited by what a higher frame rate might mean for the boxing sequences, Lee reached out to fellow filmmakers — and innovation advocates — James Cameron and Douglas Trumbull.
Their enthusiasm inspired him to shoot a test at 60 fps, so Lee invited Toll (who’d shot “Jupiter Ascending” with Lana and Andy Wachowski) to collaborate on the initial camera test. According to Toll, they ultimately decided to double the speed, since 120 fps could easily be converted to 24 fps (the Hollywood standard since the late 1920s) by using every fifth frame.
When Lee’s boxing movie fell through, the director shifted his attention to “Billy Lynn,” an Iraq War drama about an American soldier (played by Joe Alwyn) facing the dilemma of whether to return to the front during a surreal publicity tour back in the States.
Recognizing that the project offered less action and more intimate character drama, Lee and Toll conducted their first camera test in November 2014. In fact, they planned to do a whole series of tests to familiarize themselves with the equipment before going into production. Then the Sony hack happened, and all the studio resources shifted to damage control. With the movie still on track to begin shooting in January 2015, the filmmakers had to learn on the fly. Some scene, such as the first one they shot — the reunion between Alwyn and his on-screen sister (played by Kristen Stewart) may appear over-lit. And yet, between the high frame rate and 3D, Toll found less need to rely on contrast, a now-redundant tactic cinematographers use to create a sense of depth and volume when shooting in 2D.
For Toll, the two biggest challenges were the need for increased levels of illumination and mobility. Bulky 3D rigs contain two cameras (one for each eye) and weigh just over 100 pounds, roughly three or four times a standard package — “like operating a refrigerator,” in Lee’s words — and yet, the filmmakers didn’t want to limit movement. So Toll mounted the cameras on a Grip Trix electric dolly car.
“It was a more cumbersome way of doing it, but we could do shots similar to an operator wearing a Steadicam rig,” the DP says. To address the brightness issues, he used LED bulbs and “lighting balloons” (large, illuminated helium-filled spheres). “It wasn’t like doing ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ where people are working under three arc lights and hot temperatures,” he says.
Still, as Lee was keenly aware — and early audiences have noticed — performances are perhaps affected most by the new format, which calls for less acting (surprisingly, the less-experienced actors seem more natural than the established pros like Steve Martin and Chris Tucker). Toll says that one of his favorite shots in the movie is a salute to “The Star Spangled Banner” in the Georgia Dome. It’s a tight close-up on Alwyn, who stares directly into the rig’s oversize matte box for nearly a minute.
“The camera was so close that all Joe could see was the camera, and probably his own reflection in the mirror,” Toll says. “There’s not a word said; there’s almost no change in expression, except that he starts to cry in the shot. It’s incredibly moving and so believable; it’s almost like you can see into his heart. The technology did what was intended; it basically makes all of that emotion more accessible to the audience.”