NAB: Ang Lee's Pushing the Envelope With New Film Shot at 120 Frame Rate

But how many theaters will be capable of showing 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' is an open question that had exhibitors at CinemaCon buzzing.
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Ang Lee

A version of this story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Director Ang Lee will make cinematic history April 16 at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas when he previews footage from his new film Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 4K resolution, 3D and a whopping 120 frames per second, per eye — no studio feature has ever been made for that cutting-edge format. But after Lee showed some footage from the film — presented in the conventional 24 fps format — at CinemaCon this week, the question of how many theaters will be capable of presenting the movie in Lee's preferred format when the movie opens in the fall became a major topic of speculation. 

First, though, some perspective: In 2012, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey introduced average movie­goers to what a film shot at the frame rate of 48 frames per second could look like. It was an ambitious experiment that, in the eyes of many audiences, fell short. Critics complained that some scenes appeared as though they had been shot on video.

Frame rates originally referred to the speed at which film passed through a projector, but now that film has given way to digital, they signify the number of still images projected each second. Frame rates can go much higher than the current 24 fps standard or even Hobbit's 48 fps — and, combined with other imaging factors such as 4K resolution, 3D and high dynamic range (with its blacker blacks and whiter whites), higher frame rates can become a tool to create a wide range of new looks. 

Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, hopes to push cinema innovation with his new film. Sony's TriStar and Britain's Film4 are partnering with Jeff Robinov's Studio 8 on the project, 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 States for a promotional tour culminating with a halftime-show appearance at a Thanksgiving football game.

When footage from the movie was shown April 13 at CinemaCon, Sony Pictures motion picture group chairman Tom Rothman emphasized the movie's story, rather than its technological breakthroughs, saying, "Technology is always secondary to story, and Billy Lynn's story is an American story." Rothman said that Lee would be using what he called "ultra high frame rates" for "blending" the intensity of war with the rest of life, suggesting that the frame rates could change during the course of the film to suit the filmmaker's creative intent. 

To simply get the movie made, a whole pipeline for postproduction and mastering had to be developed and built specifically for the project.

Before the movie hits the multiplex, though, there will be challenges to overcome. Currently, there is no single digital cinema projector capable of playing back the format in 4K 3D at 120 fps. At NAB, Lee's presentation will use two 4K Mirage laser projectors from manufacturer Christie. 

Sony hasn't announced its plans for the Billy Lynn release, and so it's unclear how many theaters might be equipped to show the film in Lee's preferred format. It’s expected to be a very small number due to the complexity and experimental nature of the production.

"The challenge is exhibition. Right now there isn’t a system to do it properly," explained Douglas Trumbull, the director and VFX pioneer who created effects for such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, during an interview this week with The Hollywood Reporter. Trumbull himself has developed an inventive system, dubbed MAGI, for displaying high frame rates and said that he showed his system to Lee and Sony before Billy Lynn got the green light.

Trumbull, whose has long believed in the promise in high frame rates, said that his MAGI system offered a few potential options. For starters, he said that the MAGI digital cinema package (the equivalent of a film print) could accommodate a 2K resolution image at 120 fps in 2D; or 2K at 60 fps per eye (equaling 120 fps) for 3D. And he said this could play on any currently installed Series 2 digital cinema projector, which are quite common.

He added that his MAGI projection system — which uses Christie Mirage laser projectors augmented with his own software — could play 4K, and 120 fps in 2D, or 60 fps per eye in 3D, using a single projector. Alternatively, using two projectors, it could get up to Lee's ideal format of 4K, 3D at 120 fps per eye, he said.

Dolby is among the companies talking with Sony about Billy Lynn, confirmed Doug Darrow, Dolby's senior vp cinema. Last year, the company began to roll out its Dolby Vision projection systems — which use two Christie 4K laser projectors and Dolby's proprietary high dynamic range technology —- a combination that Darrow said is capable of playing back 2K and up to 120 fps per eye in 3D. "We want our sites to be at the leading edge of what filmmakers want to do; [Billy Lynn] is another movie that's pushing the boundary," said Darrow. "We are working on what we could do to support higher frames rates."

There are currently 22 Dolby Vision projectors installed worldwide (18 of which are in the U.S.) with commitments for more on the way.

There is also a base of projectors from manufacturers including Christie and Barco that were installed for the 48 fps release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, which could play Billy Lynn at 2D at 60 fps, and there’s some speculation that Lee’s film might have a limited release in that format, where supported.

Sony also is taking with Sony Electronics, which developed the 4K F65 camera, which two-time Oscar winner John Toll used to photograph Billy Lynn, and which also manufactures digital cinema projectors. David MacIntosh, vp of Sony digital cinema, said the studio is being "even handed" in talking with suppliers "about what we can show and what can be done."

Technology aside, what does it all mean for moviegoers? "It should be more natural and easy to watch," says Wendy Aylsworth, CEO of entertainment technology consulting company Walden Pond. "There are people who haven't been able to watch 3D well or have complained of eye strain; a lot of that is your eyes seeing something that's not normal in real life and the brain working hard to integrate it. The general belief is the more information [in an onscreen image], the easier it is for the brain." She explains that as images become brighter — as laser-light projection and HDR are adopted — viewers sometimes notice a strobing effect, but increasing frame rates should help eliminate that."

The result, Aylsworth predicts, should appear different from what audiences saw with the 2K, 3D, 48 fps format used for Hobbit. "It should look much more realistic," she says. "The higher the frame rate goes, the more it will start to look like you are looking through a window."

The potential of frame rates is not limited to cinema, either: It's expected to be employed by emerging virtual and augmented reality systems. Says Technicolor CEO Frederic Rose: "In VR, we'll go over 100 fps. Gaming is above 100 fps; VR will have to [be also] in order to get continuous movements." If so, then Lee's demonstration could provide a window into the future.

NAB Show
April 16-21
Las Vegas Convention Center