Fall/Winter 2016-17

Cutting Edge: Fast Forward

Ang Lee talks about the trials and tribulations of shooting at 120 frames per second, in 3D no less


Director Ang Lee (Photo: Emily Andrews/The New York Times/Redux)

At the edges of the known world, mapmakers used to draw dragons to symbolize unexplored territory. Only a true trailblazer would dare go where there might be dragons.

With Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee found himself on this kind of a bleeding edge as the film he shot in native 3D at 120 frames per second using the Sony F65 camera was released with most theaters not equipped to show the film in its optimized format. And the director clearly knew he might find himself among dragons when he undertook the project.

"I felt like my character Billy Lynn—I was going into battle with my crew," says Lee. "We had to find a way to battle with the technology, which is new and difficult."

Lee believed the high frame rate would remove a barrier between the audience and the film, that it would give viewers a deeper connection with the characters. For this project he reportedly had a modest budget of around $40 million, a tight production schedule and an unknown actor in the lead role of a character-driven drama.

The director had to work intensely with his actors since the new format made every minor adjustment in their eyes visible to the audience. There was no place to hide anything.

"They needed more from me, more manipulation, more thoughts for the audience to see," says Lee. "In this format, it's the closest thing to the ways our eyes really see each other, so you're looking deeply into someone else's feelings."

Lee kept his shots simple and didn't attempt the kind of elaborate camera moves he might have had he not been shooting at 120 fps. Lee spent a lot of time in pre-production developing a detailed shot list with cinematographer John Toll so that no time would be lost while shooting. Early on, for example, Lee, Toll and 1st AD Richard Styles scouted and prepped their Moroccan location using a viewfinder, their Zeiss camera lenses and still cameras to plan the film's battle sequences. Toll also planned to use a small Grip Trix electric vehicle and telescoping cranes instead of dollies and Steadicams as their camera package weighed more than 100 pounds.

Toll worked carefully with his crew to bend other aspects of the production to the needs of the higher frame rate as well.

"The higher frame rate meant we had to adjust light levels to accommodate," says Toll. "This meant creating more levels of illumination with existing units, or using different units entirely. Making these types of decisions was an important part of our pre-production planning period."

Both Lee and Toll agree the technology brings an entirely new viewing experience for the audience and that filmmakers interested in the 3D/4K/120fps format need to be prepared to adapt their projects to the demands of the technology for the time being. For Lee the complications of working with such new technology were outweighed by the benefits. The director wanted to advance the visual style of his storytelling, and he wanted to find a way to keep the process fresh for himself.

"I knew there was another way of seeing this story that would be different for the audience," says Lee, "and I had to chase it."

As to whether he would recommend the format to his fellow Guild members, Lee concedes there's "limited knowledge" presently about high frame rates but suggests directors keep an open mind. "With this new technology you can find a forefront to your artistry," he explains. "Once audiences and filmmakers get used to it, anything is possible."

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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