This week the director who gave audiences acclaimed, visual masterpieces “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life of Pi,” is asking viewers to trust him as he pushes beyond the limits of our collective visual comfort zone in his new picture “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The film, an adaptation of the Ben Fountain novel, was shot using high-speed, high-resolution 3D camera technology and is intended to be shown in 3D at 120 frames per second in 4K resolution.
Early reviews of the film, which opens on Nov. 11, suggest that audiences find the extreme level of detail Lee packs into every frame a bit overwhelming. Most pictures are recorded and shown at 24 frames per second – that’s what our eyes are used to seeing when we see a movie. Lee’s trick is to add more detail to the picture by showing the audience more frames into a shorter time period. So if you think of a typical movie as a flip book with 30 pages that you flip through in about five seconds, this movie would be 120 pages (so lots more stick figures gradually doing their thing) that you flip through in the same amount of time (hopefully without getting a paper cut).
High frame rate is a relatively new tool for movie directors to add more detail to their films and bring audiences into them by providing an extremely realistic look. It’s a technique that we’re going to see a lot more of in movies, video games and virtual reality, according to Drexel professor John Berton, who directs the Extremely High Frame Rate (XHFR) Lab in Westphal College, but it’s going to take a while for audiences to get used to what they’re seeing.
Berton recently took some time to explain the challenges facing visual artists, from filmmakers to video game designers, who are trying to incorporate high frame rate in their work, and how we can expect this technological advancement to affect the things we watch in the future.
How does “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” compare, in terms of visual effects, to the movies we’re used to?
The quality of the visuals is going to be much higher and detailed than anything we’ve seen before. Lee has packed more visual detail into this movie in a way that is very new to cinema audiences.
During my 30 years in the visual effects industry we spent a lot of effort making pictures at higher and higher pixel resolution. First at video resolution, which is about 640 pixels across, then at 1,000 pixels (or 1K), 2,000 (2K) and ultimately 4,000 (4K).
But in that time and many years before, film was always shown at 24 frames per second. We increased but we never expanded our resolution in time. Pioneers such as Douglas Trumbull (“2001,” “Silent Running,” “Brainstorm”) created 60 frames-per-second movies in the Showscan format, but the expense of the extra frames (and 3D as well) proved impractical.
Why do you think Ang Lee took on such an ambitious undertaking?
He likes to push the limits and have fun with visual aspects of film, and Hollywood lets him. He has a proven track record of making beautiful films that people want to see. He’s an innovator and high frame rate is the next way of pushing more visual information and detail into films.
To his credit, Mr. Lee did not mess around with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” He went for full 4K, full stereo and not just 48 fps, but 120 fps.
It’s a bold jump into the unknown and could change the cinematic landscape. It’s a very exciting venture into making better-looking movies. It won’t work for everything maybe, but it will work for many things. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it.
What challenges does the format of Lee’s movie present for theaters to screen it?
While many of the projectors in theaters around the U.S. can show the movie in some reasonable form, but most are not configured for 4K, stereo and 120 fps all at the same time.
Basically, it boils down to disk space and the configuration of the systems in the theaters. Reconfiguration and/or upgrades should make it possible for theaters to show this movie at full resolution, in stereo at 120 fps without replacing all the projection equipment.
I understand that there will be several options available to exhibitors, such as 4K stereo 120 fps, 4K flat 120 fps or 2K stereo 120 fps. There might even be a 4K 60 fps option.
One big advantage of digital cinema is that the projectors can be upgraded without replacing the mechanical assemblies. So it’s much easier and inexpensive to upgrade now than it was in the past.
What will stand out to the audience viewing this film?
They’ll probably notice the details and just how realistic it all looks—especially if they’re viewing it in 3D.
Our challenge in visual effects production used to be making the pictures at higher and higher pixel resolution, first by increasing video resolution—jamming more pixels into the same size screen to sharpen the details and make the picture really pop for the audience.
Digital imaging has opened the door for this idea to take hold in a different way. Digital allows us to maintain solid registration for 3D stereo and to control frame rate and sound synchronization much more easily.
So we’re still packing in lots of visual data, but we now have the opportunity to present viewers with more images per second, which should generally create a more realistic impression as it moves cinema in the direction of the continuous visual stream that we see in reality. Some studies show this to be true, even stating that images using fewer pixels but more frames look more realistic than fewer frames with more pixels.
I believe that part of the problem with Peter Jackson’s HFR experiment in “The Hobbit” trilogy was that it is a fantasy and the introduction of HFR—and all the detail and realism it brought—made audiences see the world of Middle Earth for what it was: a set.
I think Ang Lee also believes that this is the case and that the solution is to shoot a movie that is meant to take place in reality, where enhanced realism is a plus.
Do you think we will see high frame rate used more often in filmmaking?
It depends on whether or not people go to see the movie.
“The Hobbit” trilogy got mixed reviews. Many viewers saw the realism of the higher frame rate as distracting or complained that the movie looked like it was shot on a set, not in Middle Earth. This was dubbed “The Soap Opera Effect.” This is interesting, because soap operas are one of the few places where viewers have seen HFR in practice. Soaps are shot at 30 fps and shown at 30 fps, a faster rate than film. There are other television shows that are 30 fps, but they are mostly live programming such as news, talk shows and sports events where they are supposed to appear as a window on reality, not a fictional drama.
Most of the fictional dramas in prime time were shot at 24 fps and then “pulled down” to 30 fps with a technique that showed two frames in a span of time when normally there would be three, in order to show them at the correct speed on television. This made these shows blurrier and softer looking than soap operas and gave them a “cinematic feel.” This difference made the theater audiences correlate what they saw on the big screen with other aspects of soap operas, such as bad production design, poor acting and melodramatic story lines. This correlation did not help people appreciate “The Hobbit.”
One place where I think we will continue to see the use of HFR production is video games and virtual reality applications.
Gamers love HFR and call 48 fps “lag” because they prefer 60 fps or higher. Some games already run at 120 fps and gamers are chomping at the bit to go faster and to eliminate motion blur from the digital image. VR researchers and developers are also looking for higher frame rates so that the can create experiences that respond instantaneously to movements of the player and allow augmented reality overlays of digital images onto the real world.
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