Ang Lee directing Life of Pi

A few years ago, James Cameron started touting higher frame rates — 48 or 60 frames per second instead of the industry-standard 24 — as the future of cinema. “If watching a 3D movie is like looking through a window, then [with this] we’ve taken the glass out of the window and we’re staring at reality,” he boasted at ShoWest 2011. Then we finally got our first look at an actual feature film shot and projected in 48 fps in 2012 in the form of Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The results were spectacularly underwhelming, and the so-called “cinematic revolution” stalled before it even began.

But maybe it’s finally time to give the high frame rate thing another go. This year, Ang Lee brings to screens the first feature film ever shot in 120 frames per second, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The first footage from the Iraq War drama screened at the National Association of Broadcasters trade show this past weekend, and attendees have begun sharing their impressions of the film itself and the higher frame rate. 

Based on the book by Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows a young soldier, Billy (Joe Alwyn), who is brought to a Dallas Cowboys game where he and other members of his Army unit will be honored for their service. Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, and Chris Tucker are among the large ensemble cast. According to Variety, CinemaCon attendees were shown 11 minutes of footage that cut between an Iraq War battle and a football game halftime show, presented in 3D and 4K at 120 frames per second.

Based on the reports out of the event, the reactions were mostly positive. Variety’s David S. Cohen shared his thoughts on Twitter:

The Verge’s Bryan Bishop offered an optimistic but evenhanded assessment:

While still in its early stages, the footage screened certainly delivered on the promise of flicker-free, pristine 3D. As technologies like IMAX Laser have upped the ante on brightness used in theaters, 3D presentation has certainly improved dramatically in recent years. But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk took things a striking step further. The image was impeccably bright, the frame rate resulting in utter clarity throughout the entire frame. It truly was more like looking through an impossibly-clean window than watching a screen, with the 3D producing no eye strain whatsoever. Given the lack of blur, it was possible to discern normally imperceptible details that simply wouldn’t be visible in other movies: from the way a shell casing pirouetted after being ejected from a machine gun, to the tiny puffs of dust in the distance when a bullet found its mark.

Despite those extraordinary aspects of the image, however, the “soap opera effect” was still there. From the opening shot onward, the footage seemed like it could have been pulled from some fantastic and futuristic camcorder (or a television with motion smoothing cranked up), the change threatening to pull me out of the story even while the added detail was luring me in.

In his reporting of the event, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Christopher Lawrence sounded impressed:

In a nutshell, the higher the frame rate, the closer an image looks to real life. During Saturday’s demonstration, the depth of field was staggering, almost as though the back of the screen had opened up. Actors often seemed to emerge from the screen, hologram style. Co-star Vin Diesel never looked more lifelike.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Carolyn Giardina also noted the warm reception:

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.” […]

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.

On the whole, the 120 fps footage from Lee’s Billy Lynn seems to have been much better received at NAB than the 48 fps footage from Jackson’s The Hobbit was at CinemaCon in 2o12. Some of the complaints about the format still stand, like the way the higher frame rate makes everything look like video, and it’s definitely going to take some getting used to. But it sounds like Lee’s managed to figure out how to use higher frame rates to enhance a film. Billy Lynn should be worth checking out in 120 fps later this year, especially for anyone curious about the latest developments in cinematic technology.

That is, if you can actually find Billy Lynn playing in 120 fps. Lee, it turns out, is so far on the cutting edge of cinema that at present, there aren’t actually any commercial theaters equipped to show the film in its native format of 3D, 4K, at 120 frames per second. But if HFR really and truly is the future, someone has to spur those theaters to change — and if the great buzz out of NAB is any indication, perhaps it might as well be Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will be released November 11, 2016, though it remains to be seen in which formats.

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