Most movies have their world premiere at the New York Film Festival show up in theaters weeks, if not days, later. And while the fest audience can claim to have seen a movie first, regular moviegoers soon can see it for themselves. But at this year’s 54th edition, the lucky audience on hand for the world premiere of Ang Lee’s newest work, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — five screenings take place Oct. 15 and 16 — will walk away with genuine bragging rights.
Breaking technological ground, Lee, 61, has shot the film in an unprecedented format involving 4K resolution, 3D and the high-frame rate of a whopping 120 frames per second. Currently, movies are generally shown at 24 fps (a measure of the speed at which images flicker past the projector’s lens), a rate that dates to the early days of cinema. But even the most advanced digital cinemas aren’t equipped to project a movie in Lee’s envelope-pushing format, so for the NYFF screenings, there will be a custom installation at the AMC Lincoln Square. Not only will the NYFF cognoscenti be the first to see the new format in all its promised glory, but they also may ultimately be among a relatively small number of moviegoers to see it in its full specifications.
Sony Pictures, which will release Billy Lynn‘s Nov. 11 in North America, has not yet revealed plans for its theatrical presentation. It is expected that showing in the full spec will be extremely rare. The film will play instead in a variety of 2D and 3D formats at various lower-frame rates extracted from Lee’s master.
According to the Oscar-winning Lee — who always has been fascinated with pushing the boundaries in terms of both subject matter (the male love story Brokeback Mountain) and technology (the CG-created tiger in Life of Pi) — his latest experiment amounts to creating “a new cinematic language.”
Adapted from Ben Fountain’s novel and with a cast that includes newcomer Joe Alwyn as the title character as well as Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin, the film follows an Iraq war hero who, along with members of his company, is participating in a homecoming victory tour. The drama culminates in a halftime show at a Thanksgiving football game — a high-intensity extravaganza that brings back memories of Billy’s trauma in Iraq.
Lee explains that he’s not simply interested in new technology for its own sake, but rather in using it to explore more involving ways of storytelling. “The use of high-frame rate and high-dynamic range will provide, I hope, a unique opportunity to feel the realities of war and peace through the protagonist’s eyes,” he says. “It’s very involving. You see the thoughts in his eyes.”
The prevailing 24 fps didn’t become the industry standard for any aesthetic reasons. Instead, its use was determined by practical considerations — it could best accommodate the soundtrack that was part of a film strip. But now that Hollywood and movie exhibitors have left physical film behind for digital filming and projection, frame rates don’t have to be set in stone.
Peter Jackson upped the ante when he shot his Hobbit trilogy at 48 fps, which was the maximum frame rate that was practical to produce and display a movie in multiplexes when the first film in that franchise hit theaters in 2012. It was met with a lot of skepticism, with complaints that his movie looked more like video than film. But when Lee previewed 12 minutes of footage from Billy Lynn’s in April at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, reactions among the tech community were ecstatic. The verdict was that the format offered a visceral, you-are-there experience. “I’m trembling,” exclaimed VFX pioneer and high-frame-rate innovator Douglas Trumbull, who described the results as “awesome.”
The NYFF is a fitting setting for the movie’s full unveiling: The Taiwan-born Lee studied film production at New York University and has made the Big Apple his home. It’s also where he has set up an innovative postproduction studio to complete work on the $40 million Billy Lynn’s. “We are toddlers in this medium,” he says of his latest effort, which he’s hoping will open up a whole conversation about filmmaking methods. “Give it a chance.”
The versatile Ava DuVernay (Selma) turns to documentary filmmaking for the festival opener with a look at the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and its legacy.
20th Century Woman
Annette Bening stars in the event’s Centerpiece screening, a comedy/drama from director Mike Mills (Beginners) that conjures up Santa Barbara in the freewheeling 1970s.
The Lost City of Z
In the closing-night film from director James Gray (The Immigrant) and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, Charlie Hunnam plays a real-life, 1920s British explorer searching for a mythical city in the Amazon.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.