Ang Lee's 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk': Only Two U.S. Theaters Will Be Equipped to Show "the Whole Shebang"

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk - Still - H - 2016
Courtesy of New York Film Festival

As the movie has its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, the director is readying different versions of the film's cutting-edge format — 4K resolution, 3D and 120 frames per second — for its general release.

New York Film Festival attendees lucky enough to score a ticket to Friday night’s world premiere of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will have a rare opportunity to see Ang Lee’s ambitious new film in an unprecedented format — 4K resolution and 3D at 120 frames per second from each of the two projectors displaying the film.

That’s because when Sony Pictures releases Billy Lynn on Nov. 11, there will be only a half-dozen theaters around the world equipped to project the movie in the cutting-edge specifications that Lee calls “the whole shebang.” In addition to New York’s AMC Lincoln Square, which has been specially equipped for the NYFF premiere, there is expected to be one theater in Los Angeles that will be upgraded to handle the format. The ArcLight Hollywood is believed to be under consideration, although no deal is yet in place.

Additionally, plans have been made to show the movie in its full specs in at least one theater in Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai.

In effect, Lee considers the new format's full specs as a sort of proof of concept, designed to get Hollywood thinking about the potential of pushing digital cinema forward.

To accommodate the pic’s wide release — and still give audiences a glimpse at what the filmmaker sees as the further potential of digital cinema — various additional versions of Billy Lynn have been created. They include 120 fps in 2D and 60 fps in 3D as well as today’s current standard of 24 fps. Billy Lynn is also getting a Dolby Cinema release, with two high dynamic range versions that can accommodate 2D and 3D, with up to 120 fps in 2K resolution. Lee and his team have been working at his specially equipped postproduction facility in the Chelsea section of New York to create the best possible versions of each of the formats, derived from the 4K, 3D and 120 fps master. “The experience Ang is delivering will be there, it’s just at different levels,” producer Marc Platt promised.

Within Hollywood’s tech community, Lee’s bold experiment is considered a historic development — not just for technology’s sake, but for its potential to introduce a new language and a new way to involve audiences emotionally, while also advancing 3D to make it a more comfortable and realistic experience.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter just hours before the premiere, the director admitted he was a little nervous. “It's more than a movie, I’m launching a potential new medium,” said Lee. “I hope people will take it in.”

Billy Lynn is an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel about an Iraq war hero who comes home with members of Bravo Company for a victory tour. The drama culminates in a halftime show at a Thanksgiving Day football game — a high-intensity extravaganza that bring back memories of his trauma in Iraq.

As Lee sees it, the look he has achieved is “about intimacy and, I believe, a new cinematic language. I would like people to watch it with an open mind and treat it as something new. You have to see it.”

Earlier in the day at a NYFF press conference, the Oscar-winning helmer elaborated: “It's important for the viewer to think about this as a new medium. It's a beautiful medium. Let's give it a chance.”

To those who may be hesitant to watch a film with such clarity, Lee reassured, “It's very clear to me that our eyes like details. When the information is sufficient, it's pleasing and relaxing. … When it's not efficient, you stare harder and it's frustrating.”

Lee stressed that the new technology allowed for “no movie tricks” like quick editing or excessive shadows in shots. Shooting close-up shots in 3D with such high resolution meant the cast — including newcomer Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin — could not wear excessive makeup and couldn’t deliver less-than-authentic performances. “The most precious thing for me is the study of faces, that’s the most rich thing for human beings to study,” Lee said. “You see the thoughts in their eyes, the emotions they feel under the skin. … It should be done with drama, that's where you get the most.

“When an actor is hot and he's pretending to be cold, you know he's hot,” he continued. “There’s one shot I couldn’t use: On Thanksgiving Day, he's looking at his home, you just know it's not 30 degrees.”

Platt said the novel is “particularly suited to the technology Ang had been exploring” because “it’s a dissertation of our difference between what our perception of war is and an experience that none of us who haven’t been in war can really truly have. If you talk to any soldier who has come back from Iraq or Afghanistan, you’ll find that their view of how we report and experience war — which is often on or through television, through journalism or on our phone — is not what they feel is real.” He further stressed that the film is an immersive experience one can only have in the cinema, and “for that alone I felt motivated to get involved.”

Newcomer Alwyn nabbed the titular role because of his ability to communicate the book’s paradox of war with just his facial expressions, said Lee. “From the first reading, halfway in the first scene, he's top-notch talent," said the director. "I was worried: Is he too handsome? But his face is too compelling, and there are handsome soldiers in the U.S. military!”

Though the drama’s battle scenes are sparse, they are effective, Lee added, explaining, “As human beings watching humans going through that situation, you will be affected, you will have sympathy and you will put yourself in their shoes.” The soldiers onscreen endured weeks of Navy SEAL boot camp training because “they had to look like the real thing.” They were even given guns with special springs that would add a recoil when they shot blanks — a feeling that often left them shaking. “They cannot shoot like Rambo with two guns!" he said. "A real bullet cannot shoot that bravely.”

Throughout filming, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll, stereoscopic supervisor Demetri Portelli and the rest of the production team had to rethink everything, including different approaches to lighting.

To film the war sequences, “usually, you switch cameras to create confusion, but I wanted to do the opposite. It might be confusing for a soldier, but they can also tell you what happened in two seconds over 20 minutes,” the director said of his realistic approach. “It's a tranquil clarity, a true moment, unlike real life, when we just let things go by.”

In postproduction, Lee’s longtime Oscar-nominated editor Tim Squyres also was in untested territory. Lee, Squyres and their team even tried subtle changes to create the desired emotional response: In Lee’s words, they created “three gears” by having some shots and sequences appear as 120 fps in 4K, others as 60 fps in 4K and a few as 120 fps at 2K. “Once you are above 60 fps, [the experience] is more subconscious. [It’s similar to] the way you choose lenses, it doesn’t call [attention to it],” said Lee.

In order to present the film at NYFF, a special installation was required. It includes two Christie Mirage 4K laser projectors (so cutting-edge that they have not yet been installed in cinemas) with 7thSense's Media Server for playback, using festival sponsor RealD’s 3D system and 42-foot-by-19-foot Ultimate Screen, the company’s latest screen technology for movie theaters designed to evenly distribute light while reducing or eliminating a hot spot that can form in the center of a screen for 2D or 3D projection. The installation is expected to display 28 foot-lamberts (a measurement of light) per eye, a huge jump in brightness compared with what’s generally seen in today’s cinemas, according to RealD chief innovation officer Pete Lude.

Lee admits there is much more to learn about the new format, and he hopes to next experiment with the medium on his planned Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing film. “This is just the beginning” he said. “One answer brings 10 more questions.”