Director Ang Lee is pushing the tech boundary

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk to be 3D, 4K and 120fps

Ang Lee in New York. Photo © 2016 The New York Times

In the action movies that Ang Lee grew up watching in Taiwan, it was perfectly commonplace and yet still thrilling to see rivals take to the air and fly at each other as they faced off in combat.

"People fly all the time," Lee, the Academy Award-winning director of Life Of Pi, said a few days ago at his roomy, lived-in post-production suite in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York. "You don't need an explanation. When people do kung fu, they fly. It's exhilarating. You just go along with it."

Now, Lee, whose films include Sense And Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain and his own martial-arts tale, Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), is asking audiences to take a different leap of faith with his next project.

This new movie, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is adapted from the Ben Fountain novel about a young army soldier who, while participating in the sensory overload of a football halftime show, relives his combat experience in the Iraq War and questions the mantle of bravery that's been thrust upon him.

The movie, which will have its premiere at the New York Film Festival today before its US theatrical opening on Nov 11, is a story of war, heroism and perceptions of reality.

Like many of Lee's movies, Billy Lynn is one that TriStar Pictures, the Sony division releasing it, expects will be a contender for major awards.

What distinguishes it even from Lee's idiosyncratic filmography is that he has made Billy Lynn in 3D and it will be shown -- in cinemas that can accommodate it -- at 4K resolution and a rate of 120 frames per second, surpassing any previous major movie release.

Asked why he wanted to make a sophisticated drama with a budget in the US$40 million (1.4 billion baht) range at high-tech specifications more closely associated with blockbuster spectacles like The Hobbit, Lee could only shrug and ask: "Why me?"

"It's just good to look at," he said in his gentle, understated voice. "You look at it, you just get it."

But being one of the first filmmakers to work in this format, Lee, 61, acknowledged, is "kind of painful, a little scary".

If Lee is ambivalent about how his Billy Lynn experiment would be received, he was often frustrated on Life Of Pi, his 3D treatment of Yann Martel's novel about an Indian boy adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

Making that 2012 film, Lee said, he felt hindered by the motion blur -- the apparent smearing of moving objects -- that resulted from shooting in 3D at the traditional rate of 24 frames per second. These defects, he and his colleagues felt, especially obscured the work of his lead actor Suraj Sharma.

"There's so much motion blur in his face that you start to lose his performance," said Tim Squyres, who has edited most of Lee's films, including Life Of Pi. "We did a bunch of things to try to compensate for that," Squyres said, "but it was unpleasant to look at."

Lee hoped to fix this problem on future movies by shooting at a higher frame rate, a technique that eliminates strobelike flicker. For a planned film about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's "Thrilla in Manila" boxing match in 1975, he shot test footage at 48 and 60 frames per second that he felt was satisfactory.

But when that project stalled -- Lee vowed that he will still make it -- he moved on to Billy Lynn, adopting an even higher frame rate. "I want to be more daring," he said. "Just to see what happens."

So far, wide audiences have not embraced higher frame rates, which can produce uncomfortably realistic images. That criticism was levelled at Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies. They were shown in certain cinemas at 48 frames per second, and some viewers felt they had been transported to a movie set, not to a fantasy world.

Lee said Jackson was "moving in the right direction" with those films. But rather than make "a fairy tale", Lee said, it was more logical to him to apply this technology to "a realistic drama -- I think that's a more likely experiment, so to speak".

In particular, he said, the technology seemed well-suited to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk because it is about the shifting perspective of its title character (played by the newcomer Joe Alwyn) in starkly different but intense situations: life-or-death combat in Iraq; an overwhelming Destiny's Child concert in a cavernous stadium; a face-to-face confrontation with a ruthless NFL team owner (Steve Martin).

Alwyn said that even though he'd never made a feature film before, "I could tell this was strange".

"The cameras were absolutely huge," Alwyn said. "Because of how intimate Ang wanted the shots -- so close to the faces -- you would be performing to the black-matte box around the camera, rather than being able to see the other actors. Oftentimes, you'd just be following bits and pieces of tape, moving around a black space, and delivering your lines to that. That took some getting used to."

For Lee, the hardest part of the shoot was not a war sequence or the halftime show but the task of filming Martin in extreme close-up for his verbal face off with Alwyn.

"I'm pretty good with bigger sequences -- it's just work, you knock off the shots," Lee said. "No matter how complicated things are, nothing's more complicated than reading a human face, especially with this clarity."

Squyres could not say for certain why Lee, of all filmmakers, would emerge as a leader in technological revolution in cinema. "Ang is one of the least technical people I know," he said. "He only got email a couple of years ago. What has pushed him is not his love of technology for technology's sake -- it's his interest in what it can do."

The kinds of stories he wants to tell are about "people taking responsibility, coming to accept who they are", Squyres said, adding: "There's a lot of repressed emotions in his films." Lee was not entirely sure, either, what drove him to make the kinds of movies he does in the way he does, but he knew what it felt like to be idle.

When he is not working on a film, he said: "I cannot not think about it. I try to pretend to. I spend some time with my wife. And she can see I'm a little absent-minded from time to time." A few weeks earlier he and his wife had used some free time to go hiking in Maine, where he fell from some rocks and hurt himself. So "work is safer". © 2016 New York Times News Service

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