Ever since I saw an 11-minute clip from Ang Lee’s new movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention last April, I’ve been itching to see the whole thing. Aside from the story itself, my main interest is in how Lee shot the movie—4K resolution, native 3D, high dynamic range (HDR), and 120 frames per second, a combination that is unprecedented in a major motion picture. (Douglas Trumbull shot his 10-minute short UFOTOG with these parameters a couple of years ago; in fact, he says that Lee was inspired to use them after seeing UFOTOG at Trumbull’s studio.)
I got to see the entire movie last night at a private screening in Dolby’s prototype Dolby Cinema, which includes twin Dolby Vision HDR projectors and Atmos sound system; for more on that theater, click here. The movie will begin its theatrical run on November 11, so I was fortunate to see it well in advance.
The fictional story is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain. In 2004, an Army squad known as Bravo engages insurgents in Iraq, and 19-year-old Specialist William Lynn (amazingly played by first-time actor Joe Alwyn) happens to be videotaped while trying to save his wounded sergeant, Vincent Breem, aka Shroom (Vin Diesel). The video goes viral back in the USA, and the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad are sent home for a two-week “victory tour,” after which they will be shipped back to Iraq.
The tour culminates in Bravo’s appearance during the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys football game on Thanksgiving Day. Most of the movie is set during the game, with flashbacks to the war and Billy’s arrival in his hometown of Stovall, Texas, where he spends some time with his family, especially his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart).
Other notable characters include Bravo’s remaining sergeant, David Dime (Garrett Hedlund); Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), owner of the Dallas Cowboys; Albert Ratner (Chris Tucker), a Hollywood producer trying to drum up support for making a movie about the squad; and Faison Zorn (Makenzie Leigh), a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who makes a real—though brief—connection with Billy. Without exception, the acting is wonderful; the characters are all very genuine and entirely believable.
According to Lee, the actors had to bring a new mindset to their craft because the 4K resolution, 3D, and 120 fps frame rate are much more revealing than conventional movie specs—so much so that the actors couldn’t wear normal makeup, which would look too obvious. Lee directed them to be more authentic and internalize their character’s emotions more than usual, and in the shots from Billy’s point of view, the actors look directly into the camera. The result is absolutely mesmerizing and deeply involving.
The movie was first shown earlier this month at the New York Film Festival in its full glory of 4K, 3D, and 120 fps (but not HDR) using two Christie Mirage RGB laser-illuminated projectors. Unfortunately, there will be only a handful of cinemas in the world specially—and temporarily—equipped with these projectors, which are not digital cinema-certified models because don’t have the security measures required of DCI projectors.
The best DCI projectors can do 4K at 60 fps or 2K at 120 fps, and at those specs, two projectors are required for 3D. But many theaters are not equipped with such high-performance equipment, so the movie is being released with a variety of specs, including 4K and 2K, 3D and 2D, and 120, 60, and 24 fps, depending on the capabilities of each theater. At the screening last night, it was shown in 2K, 3D, 120 fps, and HDR with an Atmos soundtrack, which is how I expect it will be shown in commercial Dolby Cinemas.
You’ve probably read stories about the high frame rate and how many people don’t like it, saying it’s not “cinematic” or it’s “hyper-real” and actually distracts from the story. I am not among them; I loved how it looked, and it pulled me much deeper into the story.
Granted, it does not look like a 24-fps movie, but Lee wants to push the boundaries of what movies can be. The frame rate of 24 fps was established nearly 100 years ago because it was the slowest rate that would support decent-sounding audio tracks imprinted on film. Now that digital capture and presentation are the norm, why must we stick with an outdated system? Lee is trying to develop a new cinematic language, so of course, it looks different.
In my view, the high frame rate enhances and deepens the experience, making it far more immersive, which is Lee’s goal. Movement is sharp and crisp; for example, riding along with Bravo Squad in a Humvee racing across the desert, you can still see the expressions on their faces even as they bounce up and down. It puts you in the vehicle with them without the whole image becoming a blurry mess. I agree that it looks more real than 24 fps, but I didn’t think it looked like a PBS special shot on video as some people describe HFR.
Part of the reason is that Lee used RealD TrueMotion and TrueImage technologies. Starting with 120 fps and a 360° shutter angle—that is, the camera shutter remained open during each entire frame—these technologies let him “synthesize” any shutter and other parameters in post-production to change the look of motion in the image. They also facilitate reduction of the frame rate by blending and processing groups of frames to yield a better result than shooting at a lower frame rate to being with.
Likewise, the 3D is very effective. In one shot when Bravo Squad is tossing some footballs around, one of them flies toward the audience, and I physically flinched to avoid being hit! Lee does not use 3D as a gimmick, but to enhance the story, and I found it to be completely successful in that regard.
However, Dolby Cinemas—and all cinemas with twin 6P (six-primary) laser-illuminated projectors, such as Imax Laser theaters—use spectrum-separation 3D. In this process, each projector outputs slightly different wavelengths of red, green, and blue, and the glasses filter out one set of RGB to one eye and the other set to the other eye. It works well except for the fact that the reflections between the inner surface of the 3D glasses and the outer surface of my prescription glasses causes multiple images under certain circumstances—e.g., white text on a black background—and a milky haze surrounding the image all the time. (Interestingly, the clip I saw at NAB used the same technique, but it was twice as bright as Dolby Cinema 3D, and the effect didn’t bother me as much.)
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is a wonder. I especially enjoyed how the soundstage opened up during transitions from a small, intimate scene with most of the sound near the screen to the football stadium or Iraq with sounds all around. At one point, the crowd in the stadium applauds Bravo Squad, and I felt the urge to clap along as if I was really there. And in Iraq, the sound of bullets flying from one side of the theater to the other was incredibly effective.
UPDATE: Starting on the evening of November 10, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will be shown in what Lee calls “the whole shebang” (4K, 3D, 120 fps, but not HDR) at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in New York City, the ArcLight Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, and a few theaters in China and Taiwan. That run is expected to last only one week, and if you live in one of these areas, I strongly encourage you to experience it for yourself there. Then, starting Nov. 17, the movie will enter wide release, and three AMC theaters will present it at 120 fps in 2K: the Dolby Cinema at AMC Village on the Parkway 9 in Dallas (3D, HDR) as well as the AMC Loews Boston Common 19 in Boston and AMC Tysons Corner 16 in McLean, VA (both in 2D and not in the Dolby Cinema auditorium, so no HDR).
Even if you can’t get to one of the special theaters, I strongly encourage you to see this movie, even at 24 fps—which, as I mentioned earlier, should look better than a movie shot at 24 fps originally. I recommend seeing it in 3D, since Lee made it an integral part of the presentation, but if you don’t enjoy 3D, I’m sure that 2D is fine. The most important thing is the movie’s emotional complexity and impact, juxtaposing the adrenaline of war with the adrenaline of American football fever and jingoism. The novel has been called the Catch-22 of the Iraq war, which is entirely apt. It’s a remarkable movie in every way, and a beautiful, exciting experiment in the future of cinema.