Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the Future of HFR
One of the most discussed films of the fall season is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, directed by Ang Lee and adapted from the novel by Ben Fountain about a young Army soldier returning home with his battalion and being treated to a national victory parade by the United States Department of Defense. The novel has received widespread attention for its provocative views of war and what it means to be a patriot. But in the film world, it is receiving attention for a much more notable, and certainly visual reason.
After working in 3D for the first time with his landmark, Oscar-winning 2012 feature Life of Pi, Lee chose to up the ante by shooting it not only in 3D, but at a framerate five times higher than the standard 24 frames per second. Yes, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the first film to be realized and projected in 120 frames per second, creating an uncannily realistic sense of visuality the likes of which are hard to comprehend.
The use of high frame rate (HFR) filmmaking in Hollywood goes as far back to cinema’s early years, as photo magicians would oscillate between heightened shooting speeds for trick photography techniques to fool audiences none the wiser. A nascent example, but many decades later it would find more practical use for animation and miniature specialists looking to represent objects on-screen in a way that would make them seem larger than life. Douglas Trumbull, special effects wiz behind the design of sci-fi films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner found his calling at this point and time in the 70s, and after amassing a significant reputation, began to work on his own project to maximize what could be done with HFR from a broader perspective.
Trumbull’s self-developed technology, known as Showscan, purported to become the future of the moviegoing industry, by intensifying the level of clarity in the cinematic image through showing images at 60 FPS instead of 24 FPS. Working with such large formats as 70MM and IMAX film stock, Trumbull proposed that this increased quality of engagement would be on the same level of cinematic innovation as the introduction of widescreen process such as Cinemascope. Yet, the industry was reluctant to engage with Trumbull’s proposition, as in the greater scheme of things it seemed too unwieldy an idea and frankly not revolutionary enough to consider converting auditoriums to support its conditions. Trumbull had even proposed that his 1983 feature Brainstorm, starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood, be partially shot in Showscan, though when MGM did not put up the funding for this endeavor, he instead shot the film through a combination of 35mm and 70mm film stock, as well as shifting aspect ratios.
While Showscan was ahead of its time, the seed that was planted with Trumbull would eventually grow roots in Hollywood and begin to sprout thirty years later, when filmmakers, such as Peter Jackson and James Cameron, undertook HFR with the help of today's advanced technology. Digital cameras are able to match their celluloid predecessors in visual quality while shedding the unwanted, cumbersome size of analog cameras. While Hollywood hopes that HFR will assist in providing a solution to the issue of 3D-based filmmaking and projection methods, and provide a cinematic rendering that is on par with what one sees through their own untutored eye, audiences have not been completely sold on its virtues just yet.
Let’s take Jackson’s Hobbit films as a prime example; one of the most highly publicized example of a mainstream product being showcased in a special format in recent memory. Much hype was accumulated in the months leading up to the 48 FPS release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Early presentations of footage from cinema conventions were met with hostile reactions from a host of movie blogs. It was expected that these issues would be corrected in time for the film’s holiday release. Upon entering theatres that December, the opposite of what Jackson had intended occurred, as audiences complained that the HFR version lacked the sense of immersion into the story the technology purported to provide. The experience felt more like being on the set of the movie than actually being in the movie.
Lee’s decision to work with HFR for this particular story can’t be seen as mere coincidence; a large portion of the film is set in an Iraq combat zone, and another in a colossal Texas football stadium. The effect of HFR is similar to that of watching a football game in high definition; brightly lit and colorful with fast-paced motion at hand, especially if one is watching with the motion smoothing effect activated on their television. It’s one of the go-to examples for many when comparing what HFR seems like (another being like a very expensive soap opera), but both points of assessment highlight how much they oppose our understandings of cinematic form and function. By centering a major component of the story of Billy Lynn not only in the same environment, but the same visual panache as how we’re used to watching Sunday Night Football, attempts to subvert our feelings by undermining the nationalistic sense of patriotism and pride for America’s pastime.
As for the scenes of combat, Lee has expressed that he wanted audiences to feel completely immersed in the throes of warfare, unlike any previous dramatization has done before, especially when so much of that footage comes from CNN broadcasts or independently captured sources posted online. While such decisions would certainly raise the level of tension and audience-suturing, it may be too great a leap to undertake, especially for those who believe that HFR is ‘too real’ to comprehend.
The push for HFR in Hollywood is not likely to cease any time soon; fellow digital advocate James Cameron wants to shoot the rest of the Avatar series in 3D HFR, going as far to stalling development on filming to get the technology just right, mirroring his own insane 15 year journey to get the original film in the can. At the risk of losing patience, the payoff for this tech would be worth it, as the time Cameron spent to get Avatar just right resulted in 3D taking over thousands of theatre screens, with studios even applying quick 3D post-conversion jobs to films that looked ultimately garish upon release. Just as it has for over a century now, cinema is expected to continually modernize and not stay content with what it has achieved to date. The past will exist for formalists to experiment with of course, but the innovators like Lee, Jackson, and Cameron are essential in being trailblazers for the artform, making mistakes and successes along the way to carve out a path for the medium’s ability to transgress.
Advancements like IMAX and 3D have certainly made for more memorable cinema-going experiences for a plethora of audiences. Even though theses advancements have been widely employed to persuade viewers to engage with the enchantment of the theatre experience over viewing the same product months later on their laptop. Despite coming across as an advancement of motion picture presentation, at this current stage HFR does not induce pleasure and comfort in the desired spectator, or at least it hasn’t in a way that Hollywood has managed to make adaptable. Why this technology has not been more widely adopted in documentary filmmaking, where it would surely benefit remains a mystery. History has already shown it doesn’t belong in a fantasy film, like The Hobbit, where HFR greatly exposes the level of artifice at hand. In a story like Billy Lynn that wishes to be a compressed time capsule of life during wartime in post-9/11 America, HFR might also be a detriment, as early reviews have expressed the same concerns over the loss of immersion.
Lee plans to use HFR technology (or perhaps an even greater form of shooting technology) for his forthcoming Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier boxing film, but it remains to be seen if Billy Lynn will justify that opportunity. As there are only two theatres in the United States able to show the film in 4K 3D 120 FPS, ‘the way it was meant to be seen’, it would appear as if Lee, like HFR itself, has aimed too high in his plans to change the way we see movies.