NAB: First Reactions to Ang Lee's 'Billy Lynn' 120 Frame Rate Footage: 'Awesome,' 'Unbelievable'

Ang Lee -Getty - H 2016
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An overflow crowd of filmmakers and tech execs at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas enthusiastically applauded an 11-minute clip from director Ang Lee's upcoming Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk when it screened Friday for the first time in public in 4K resolution, 3D and a whopping 120 frames per second — an unprecedented production format for a Hollywood feature-length film. 

Although a few viewers complained that the results looked too much like video — the same complaint that greeted Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies when Jackson went beyond the Hollywood standard of 24 frames per second to present those movies at 48 fps — most of the reactions to Lee's footage were overwhelmingly positive, with viewers tossing out words like "awesome" and "unbelievable."

Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, is offering multiple screenings of the clip at NAB, where he is delivering Friday afternoon's keynote as part of the Future of Cinema conference. In introducing the demonstration clip, he said that the footage was unfinished and and included some temporary visual effects. 

Sony's TriStar and Britain's Film4 are partnering with Jeff Robinov's Studio 8 on Billy Lynn, an 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.

The clip cut back and forth between the war scenes, which used the high frame rates for a realistic, some would say hyper-real, way to put the viewer in chilling combat situations, showing the horror of war in the closeups of the soldiers. Scenes from the halftime show had a different look, with all the lights and the star-like flashes in the stadium. Lee is said to be varying the frame rates throughout the film for creative purposes. In the film, Destiny's Child performs during the halftime show, though in the clip, only the backs of the performers' heads were shown from a distance.

Those attending the first screening of the footage included Avatar producer Jon Landau, visual effects master Douglas Trumbull, technology execs from the Hollywood studios and representatives from many digital cinema technology companies.

"I'm shaking," said Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers standards director Howard Lukk immediately following the screening. "That content combined with the technology — it was the most compelling 3D I have ever seen."

Trumbull — the director and VFX pioneer who created effects for such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner and who is a proponent of high frame rates, having developed his own system — said: "Awesome. And this was the worst possible scenario [for a screening setup]. It was like being there, which I anticipated. It looks like he will be delivering a stunning movie experience. I'm trembling."

Since there is currently no single digital cinema projector capable of playing back 4K, 3D at 120fps, a projector configuration that used two 4K "Mirage" laser projectors from manufacturer Christie, Dolby 3D glasses and 7th Sense's Delta Infinity III servers for playback was installed at the Las Vegas Convention Center for the screening. There was a long line that snaked around the hall as delegates eagerly attempted to get into the screenings.

Billy Lynn, which given Lee's track record is considered a potential Oscar contender, is currently in postproduction and scheduled for a Nov. 11 release. It will be the first studio feature in the experimental, cutting-edge format, and Hollywood's entertainment technology community has been abuzz with anticipation about this demonstration for weeks. Some even stayed in Las Vegas after CinemaCon ended on Thursday, just to catch a glimpse of the presentation.

Sony hasn't announced how and in what format it plans to release the film, but insiders say the intent is to project it in various formats, extracted from the master format.