NAB: Ang Lee Says Breaking New Digital Cinema Ground in 'Billy Lynn' Was "Terrifying and Exciting"

Ang Lee at NAB 1 - H 2016
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Oscar-winning director Ang Lee admitted it was "terrifying and exciting" to make his new film Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, in 4K, 3D and at a high frame rate of 120 frames per second — an unprecedented format for a Hollywood studio feature — during an appearance Saturday at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas.

But judging from the enthusiastic response to the 11-minute movie clip that he showed in that format, there was a sense among the attendees that this was game-changing moment and many entertainment technology professionals felt that Lee is giving Hollywood a bold look at digital cinema's potential.

“This is really the beginning of a new quest to get deeper into cinema, through storytelling and human emotion," Lee said, speaking before a standing room-only crowd. "To me there’s nothing like sitting in a dark room with an audience and sharing the mysteries of life. That was my motivation."

Billy Lynn is a dramatic adaptation of Ben Fountain's novel about a 19-year-old Army private (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who survives a battle in Iraq. He and his company of soldiers return to the U.S. for a promotional tour culminating with a halftime-show appearance at a Thanksgiving football game.

Lee said that after completing his 2012 Oscar-winner Life of Pi, he intended to make a boxing movie. But that changed when Sony motion pictures group chairman Tom Rothman presented him with the Billy Lynn material. "It seemed the perfect chance to test this new medium," he said. "It about experiencing — beyond storytelling. I thought if it could bring the sensation of war and also a Dallas halftime show, that would be incredible.

“Normal life is quite absurd; this was a good way to examine the new technology and also a good way to examine society,” added Lee. “I was very excited, so I put aside the boxing movie and went on this journey."

Lee did his homework before embarking on the production. He said he watched James Cameron's high frame rate test, which went to 60fps; Lee called it "eye-opening."

He also visited high frame rate pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who has developed his own HFR production and exhibition system, called MAGI. "He showed me everything he had developed and gave me a brief history of high frame rates. That was an inspiration," Lee said.

To make the movie, a complete production system — including editing, visual effects and data management — was specially designed and built in New York. During the presentation, the director was joined on stage by several members of his production team to discuss the technical challenges as well as the impact of the format on everything from lighting to makeup and performances. "I didn't dare have [the actors] put on makeup, because you see it. You also see them — their thoughts in their eyes," said Lee. "It's very complicated and I can see if you try to act, it looks like you are trying to act."

Since there are currently no single digital cinema projectors that are capable of projecting the format that Lee used, it's expected that a very limited number of two-projector systems will be installed to accommodate the release with that specification. There are plans to deliver it to wider audiences in additional formats. With the 4K, 3D, 120fps master of the movie, the filmmakers can also create versions for today's standard 24fps projection, as well as support newer projection systems that could handle formats such as 2K in 3D at 60fps.

"It's still business-driven; it's an industry. I hope we can deliver multiple versions that benefit everyone, even down to the iPhone," Lee said. "I think every one is an improvement, even 24fps, it's still a leap.

"I'm very positive about this," he continued, adding that each display format has its own advantages. He cited as an example that he had some takes in which "I saw some bad acting in 60fps, and in 120fps it gets better. It’s a mystery. How the human mind works is a wonder."

Lee admitted that as the professional industry explores the potential of these new tools and techniques, "the audience will tell us [what they think] — slap us or applaud us."

”This is the going to be a long journey to see what digital cinema can be," he summed up. "We want to explore it and see what we can do with it. We have to learn how to crack the art and how people will respond to it.”

During NAB, THR will offer additional coverage of Lee's production team, including Billy Lynn editor Tim Squyres; production systems supervisor Ben Gervaisstereographer Demetri Portelli; and Scot Barbour, vp production technology for Sony Pictures Entertainment.