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First Hollywood feature shot in high frame rate receives mixed reviews

First Hollywood feature shot i...
Ang Lee's latest film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the first Hollywood feature to be filmed at 120 frames-per-second.
Ang Lee's latest film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the first Hollywood feature to be filmed at 120 frames-per-second.
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Ang Lee's latest film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the first Hollywood feature to be filmed at 120 frames-per-second.
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Ang Lee's latest film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the first Hollywood feature to be filmed at 120 frames-per-second.
Ang Lee (right) directing Joe Alwyn (left) on the set of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
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Ang Lee (right) directing Joe Alwyn (left) on the set of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee recently premiered his latest film Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk to New York audiences, giving the general public their first glimpse of the possible future of cinema exhibition. Shot and exhibited in a state-of-the-art 3D, 4K, 120 frames-per-second format, the screening seemingly left audiences unsure as to whether this degree of heightened resolution helps or hinders the cinematic experience.

Surpassing the traditional 24 frames-per-second (fps) projection rate, this faster system is designed to not only load more visual information into a single second of screen time but also eliminate some of the long-running stuttering issues with modern 3D digital projection. In the instance of Ang Lee's latest expensive experiment early reports indicate this dramatic rise in frame rate may make the experience so realistic that it becomes difficult to connect with the material.

Rodrigo Perez at The Playlist argues that "the cutting-edge technology diminishes the picture emotionally, its ungainly look trivializes the drama and indulges it with an undesirable air of superficiality."

Over at The Wrap, Dan Callahan interestingly points out how the new frame rate technology makes traditional cinematic focal points inherently dysfunctional. "In most of the scenes in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a figure will stand in the foreground of the frame and the background will be out of focus, and the foregrounded figure is so super-clear that they look like a cut-out with scissors from a glossy magazine," he writes.

Ang Lee (right) directing Joe Alwyn (left) on the set of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Ang Lee (right) directing Joe Alwyn (left) on the set of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

For several years now many pundits in the film industry have been pushing for higher frame rates and increased digital resolutions. Back in 2011, blockbuster power-player James Cameron presented a tech-demo showing a 3D reel shot at 60 fps. At the time he was moving into an extensive pre-production phase on his upcoming Avatar sequels and loudly proclaimed high frame rates as the way of the future for 3D cinematic experiences.

The following year gave the general public their first chance to experience a high frame rate film with Peter Jackson's The Hobbit screening internationally in 48 fps 3D. The general sentiment following early screenings was controversial to say the least, with audiences claiming the film looked like a "tv production" and the extra detail simply revealed the artifice of the set constructions and the unreality of the make-up.

The Hobbit experience raised some interesting and fundamental questions about how Hollywood productions could move forward with this new technology. The higher frame rate undoubtedly had many significant positive returns, particularly in reducing a frustrating motion blur always present in current 24 fps 3D projection, but the enhanced visual detail also made intimate scenes feel like they were costumed film sets (no more painted styrofoam caves).

Over the next two Hobbit releases the post-production team worked tirelessly to improve and learn from this initial feedback. But audiences had made up their mind and by the time the third and final film hit our screens in 2014 there was barely any talk of a 48 fps release, even though from all reports the technology had been greatly improved. In 2014 James Cameron also backtracked from his earlier statements and decided to shoot his Avatar sequels in 48 fps.

The question that was constantly hovering over all this high frame rate discussion was: "Is there a point when something becomes 'too real' and begins to negatively affect the cinematic experience?"

With all this talk about 48 fps and 60 fps, Ang Lee was doing something crazy. He was taking a relatively small and intimate novel about a soldier returning home from Iraq and shooting it in the most technologically advanced way possible. Making a film in 4K 3D at 120 fps revealed a whole host of unforeseen problems that were only discovered while in production.

It was quickly learned that actors could not wear any make-up as it was painfully visible when viewed through the hi-res cameras. Sets and lighting had to be re-conceived to suit the technology. Even the actors themselves had to change the way they traditionally performed as the technology revealed many general mannerisms came across as false and hammy in this new format.

From recent reports it seems Lee didn't overcome all of these issues as, Brett Lang in Variety elucidates, "... there are other moments where the format exposes the artifice of the acting. When Billy's fellow soldiers slap each other on the back, laugh at one another's jokes or reach for that bottle of Jack, their movements feel overly choreographed. Their schtick is more schtick-y. It's like watching a high school play."

All of these questions may be ultimately moot for general audiences, given there are currently only two cinemas in the US that are technologically equipped to play Lee's latest film in its ultimate 4K 3D 120 fps format. For most cinemas the current maximum they can reach is 2K 60 fps and the film is still going to be rolled out in a more traditional 24 fps format as well.

Is this just a case of the shock of the new and audiences will take some time to get used to this dramatically new visual experience or are high frame rates fundamentally unsuited to telling small, classical human stories? Ang Lee certainly isn't backing down from this new artistic challenge. He is already moving on producing his next film with high frame rates and maybe by the time that one comes out we'll have a few more cinemas capable of actually screening it.

7 comments
Chizzy
a film recording that shows artificiality. sounds like we need to insist that all reality TV be filmed this way.
Mabbamam
I don't think I saw it in the article, but is this not the old "Soap Opera" effect? Also, if we would update the cinemas technology to 4k 120fps then a 24fps "effect" could be used for the majority of the movie then with 120fps for only certain areas in the movie.
oldguy
Frame rates are all about money. When motion pictures were first invented, experimentation showed that 'persistence of vision ' produced a moving picture from still images projected at around 16 frames per second. Film was (is) made of expensive materials including silver so the slowest frame rate was the least expensive to film makers. Later, more experimentation showed that a frame rate of 24 frames per second was the slowest speed that would work when sound was added as an optical stripe along the side of the film. The standard 'sound speed' of film was thus the cheapest speed that the studios could get away with and it has stayed the same for many years. We still write MOS on the slate when shooting a silent or mute scene. It stands for Minus Optical Stripe.
ScottW
The author says, "...there are currently only two cinemas in the US that are technologically equipped to play Lee's latest film in its ultimate 4K 3D 120 fps format." Where are those cinemas? What are their names? I'd like to see the movie in the intended format if possible.
TJG
One thing Jackson did right was to use a high f-stop. That way, nearly everything in frame was in focus. I find my eyes tend to wander more watching 3D movies. Having everything in focus makes the experience better. I rather enjoyed the heightened level of reality watching The Hobbit in 3D IMAX HFR. I would like to experience 120 fps.
Bob Flint
The eye doesn't actually have frame rates, but motion perception by the light frequency reflected off of objects can vary, but generally at the center of the eye's focal point 60fps, hence the long standing refresh rate of monitors started at 60hz frequency. With the advent of higher frequency or refresh rates say 120hz & up then we started to see stereo or 3D vision as each eye had recognized the moving images at the 60 Hz or frame rates. Motion blur and higher frame rates help to eliminate the fuzziness created as the eye tries to fill in the blanks fast moving events.
As I understand in static or slow motion event the amount of detail in say 4K 3D @ 120 frames per second is actually too much, and therefore creates what we perceive as not natural as in every day life occurrences too much detail and looks fake. Kind of like pushing a turbo button for high speed events is fine if the details need to be captured in order to play it back as in the case with high speed cameras in excess of ten's of thousands of frames per second to capture the details in split second events the eye cannot see.
Madlyb
Maybe it is because I grew up watching 24fps and equating it with movies and quality, but higher frames just seem cheap and artificial to me. I hated the Hobbit in 48fps, but it was more palatable in 24 and the first thing I do is turn off high refresh rates and motion smoothing on my TVs for the same reason.