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‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’: The Challenges & Cinematic Possibilities of HFR Imaging

“The aesthetic is different when you see all that detail. You see everything. It was really intimidating,” says director Ang Lee.

With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, director Ang Lee redefines what is possible in filmmaking and storytelling with the goal of further engaging the audience in an advanced cinematic experience. Joined by cinematographer John Toll, ASC, Lee employed Sony F65 cameras and a novel workflow to shoot native 3D, 4K, 120 fps footage. His goal is to create a new way for audiences to experience drama, presenting the heightened sensations that young soldiers feel on the battlefield and the home front.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the novel by Ben Fountain, is told from the point of view of 19-year-old Pvt. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), who, along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a harrowing battle in Iraq and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. Through flashbacks, culminating with the spectacular halftime show of the Thanksgiving Day football game, the film reveals what really happened to the squad—contrasting the realities of the war with America’s perceptions.

Billy Lynn, dancers and the Alabama State Marching Hornets

Lee’s film is a tour de force of HDR, 3D and Dolby Atmos at a 120 fps frame rate. Is this the first step toward an entirely new kind of filmmaking?

The HFR Experience

I saw an 11-minute clip from the film at IBC in September. The screening’s 3D HDR projection came from twin 4K Christie Mirage laser projectors at 28 footlamberts each, running at 120 fps. The IBC Auditorium was rigged with a Dolby Atmos sound system.

The screening left most IBC delegates with a sense that they were looking into one of the possible futures of filmmaking. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit experiments in high frame rates had left some skeptical about HFR’s effectiveness in narrative storytelling, with the greater image information in HFR footage revealing too much detail, underlining the artifice of moviemaking, distancing viewers rather than drawing them in. But the Billy Lynn screening showed that high frame rate production—at 120 fps, twice the frame rate of The Hobbit—can create an entirely new palette for moving picture storytelling.

Joe Alwyn with director Ang Lee on the set

For the first minute or two of watching the film’s 120 fps footage, it was hard to shake that “video look,” the sense that I was watching something cheap and ordinary. Whether that effect is the result of a lifetime of indoctrination into the “magic” of 24 fps, or our brain’s assigning “commonplace-ness” in direct proportion to the rising frame rate is still an open question.

But eventually the “video” effect gave way to the sense of looking through the screen at another reality. It wasn’t quite a feeling of looking through a window—although with a lesser talent at the helm, that might have been a natural conclusion, and high frame rates in sports coverage will capitalize on this “window” analogy—but of seeing another real, flesh and blood world carefully manipulated by the storyteller.

The traditional cinematic frame rate of 24 fps requires the brain to do a lot of interpolating of the missing motion. Taking into account motion blur as well, a significant portion of a 24 or 30 fps film is literally left to our imaginations. But 120 fps, which offers many times more visual information, produces an unsettling sensation of being pulled into a real event.

The Bravos prepare to return fire in Iraq. From left, Dime (Garrett Hedlund), Holliday (Ismael Cruz Cordova), Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and Shroom (Vin Diesel)

The higher frame rate became a particularly evocative way to depict the sensation of the horrors of war. There’s no motion blur with 120 frames: it highlights all the little pieces of dirt flying as the camera pans; facial expressions are revealed even in a moving shot. The new immersive cinema allowed Lee to depict war in the sharpest, highest visual quality, which dovetailed with his belief that for a soldier, the war is real—everything else is not.

Expectations and Experiences

“Different combinations of frame rates and resolutions each have their own chemistry,” Lee observed in an interview with IBC 2016 Big Screen director Julian Pinn. “The original plan had been to shoot Billy Lynn at 2K 60 fps. After you pass 100 frames per second, the strobing goes away. But once I saw the [120 fps] image, I realized we were going to have to rethink how to make the film.”

The higher frame rate opened a Pandora’s box of challenges that had to be tackled by the production team. Beyond the technical issues, the hyper-realism of 120 fps revealed every artificiality of the filmmaking process.

The beginning of the halftime show

“The aesthetic is different when you see all that detail. You see everything. It was really intimidating,” Lee confessed. “Things we have done for 100 years in movies, we couldn’t do [on Billy Lynn]. And that’s scary. To get even a simple shot to look good takes a lot of work.”

Ang Lee’s forte has always been directing actors, but even that skill was challenged by the high frame rate production: “The scary part [with HFR] is that you can see the acting. So I had to change my direction to the actors. Usually an actor will have an exterior or interior goal, but for this film we had to be subtler and multidirectional. The performances had to be internalized, and as a director, I had to put thoughts in their minds—sometimes conflicting thoughts. Every take, I found I had to give them five different directions just to try to keep the performances fresh and alive.”

He believes that changes in frame rate have subtle but potentially profound effects on audience perceptions. “Each frame rate and resolution seems to produce a different mindset. At 120 frames per second, you’re dealing with a sharper picture, and your eyes get more greedy. As we move into higher frame rates, we’ll have a lot to catch up on—we’ll even need changes in the way actors hold themselves and in the writing itself. Moving forward, I would like to rely less on the story arc and more on intuitive experience. I think that’s more reflective and more satisfying.”

Developing New Workflows

Norm (Steve Martin) introduces the Bravos.

A follow-up “technical deep dive” panel discussion at IBC 2016 added Lee’s long-time editor Tim Squyres, Sony Pictures Entertainment head of production technology Scot Barbour, and the film’s technology supervisor, Ben Gervais.

Gervais said the production went to a lot of commodity hardware in its management of the massive workflow. The team was aware of how experimental the project was: “Lots of times we’d make an advance and then say, ‘What do we do now?’ I look to other industries to borrow ideas. We used a lot of VFX processes for our dailies.”

Gervais noted that one of the benefits of working with 120 fps source footage is that it is easily reducible to lower frame rates, with 120 fps being a multiple of 24, 30 and 60 fps.

The production employed RealD’s TrueImage virtual shutter software, which allows the creation of a virtual shutter of any shape, size and duration and the easy elimination—or augmentation—of motion blur and strobing artifacts. The use of the software has been key in mastering formats at different frame rates.

Ang Lee said that most cinemas around the world will be able to show Billy Lynn in 2K 120 fps, but it’s likely that most viewers will end up seeing the film at a fraction of its intended frame rate.

HFR and the Audience Experience

Director Ang Lee, Joe Alwyn, Brian “Astro” Bradley, and Mason Lee on the set.

The inevitable question is, will high frame rates be accepted—let alone embraced—by audiences? As James Cameron almost singlehandedly dragged an industry into the 3D world with Avatar, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn could be a pivotal point for high frame rate production and projection.

A cynic could argue that we’ve already had a long trial period with higher frame rates. After all, we’ve been presented with 24 fps at the cinema and 29.97 fps at home for years, and after decades of comparison, the almost universal consensus is that 24 fps means “quality,” “art,” and a magical transportation to another world. Television’s 30 fps, not so much.

It is not impossible that humans need some kind of artifice, some kind of distancing effect, a “once upon a time,” to fully embrace the magic a narrative has to offer. Maybe we got lucky with a 24 fps cinema industry. Maybe the higher frame rates that Thomas Edison had originally recommended would have made the cinema an intriguing novelty, but not the land of dreams that dominated the 20th century. Maybe it was low frame rates that created the magic of the cinema.

But the truth is, until we see these technologies widely used—and used in a variety of circumstances by a variety of talents—we can’t fully know what they have to offer, and what nuances of storytelling they represent.