Ang Lee on the Bright Future of Cinema

Tim Squyers, Ang Lee and Ben Gervais

At NAB Show’s Future of Cinema session on Saturday, Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee revealed the results of his extensive experimentation with the technology and even the essence of motion picture storytelling. A number of technology demonstrations were presented to overflow crowds of an 11-minute clip from Lee’s upcoming feature “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The film is in a projection format, so new and complex — 4K, 120 fps and 3D — that it is currently inaccessible to most viewers outside this rarified venue.

The dual Christie laser projection and server technology required isn’t just going to show up in even gold-standard cinemas. However, the technical and artistic achievements involved in this movie, shot with a dual Sony F65 camera rig at frame rates up to 120 fps, could well lead to a digital cinema of the future that looks and feels very different from the movie experience audiences have grown accustomed to.

Lee spoke in detail at the conference keynote, tracing his own artistic journey from celluloid die-hard, opposed even to digitally color grading his films long after that was standard procedure, to a filmmaker pushing the outer limits of digital cinema.

Lee shared the stage with collaborators: editor Tim Squyres, ACE, and Ben Gervais, credited as production systems supervisor but referred to by Lee, reverentially, as “my workflow guy.” Variety Senior Features Editor David Cohn joined the three to moderate the more technical segments, which also included Scot Barbour, VP of production technology, Sony Pictures, and stereographer Demetri Portelli.

Lee said his evolution began while attempting to figure out how he could adapt facets of the book “The Life of Pi” into a cinematic realm. This led him to think about stereoscopic filmmaking and the extra “dimension” that could add. “Pi’s” success increased his appetite for pushing the technology further with 4K resolution and led to extensive discussions with technical innovators.

For Lee, the higher temporal resolution and considerable reduction of phenomena such as strobing and motion blur all combine to make three-dimensional motion picture images “clearer” and closer to “reality” than previously possible. “I think we’re still finding out what digital cinema is,” Lee said, noting that he’s already discovered the benefits it offers in terms of “more detail, more resolution, more light. I think [the viewer’s] mind functions differently the more [visual information] they get. It’s more at 4K than at 2K, more at 120 frames than 24, more with 3D than 2D. But we’re still figuring this out and how we can use it.”

This was a recurring theme throughout the discussion. The panelists, Lee most of all, were quick to point out that they were constantly experimenting in the production of both “Pi” and “Billy Lynn,” trying new things they weren’t even sure could be done; they felt that rules and theories and received wisdom were no substitute for creative experimentation.

Before editing “Pi,” Squyres recalled, “People were saying you have to cut differently in 3D. I was skeptical.” He didn’t believe these new rules about how long 3D shots need to stay on the screen or what kind of image should cut with what. So he always piped the 3D image through his Avid and wore glasses to edit: “That way I could see for myself what I could do.”

On “Billy Lynn,” he wanted to edit in HFR so he could make decisions based on his own creative instincts. This, he explained, was no small feat. He used a beta version of the Avid software that could let him work on a version that had been down-converted from 120 to 60 fps to get as close as possible. “I’m very confident if I’m editing a traditional movie on a monitor or an old Steenbeck that I know what it will look like on the big screen,” Squyres said. “I don’t have that confidence if I work in 2D that I know what it will look like in 3D or if I work at 24 fps how it will come across to the audience at 120.”

The entire representation of reality is different, said Lee, at 24, 60 or 120 fps. Of that highest frame rate, he posited, “It’s clearer, brighter, you see more. We didn’t dare put make-up on any of the actors [in “Billy Lynn”], except one cheerleader, and you’re supposed to see she has make-up on.”

Likewise, Lee said actors’ performances read differently. For example, a moment that might seem “real” in traditional cinema might feel like “acting” under the heavy scrutiny of the higher-resolution, brighter, 3D system. (Or the reverse, as in the case of the performance of an actor in one scene that disappointed Lee when he saw it on Squyres’ Avid system at 60 fps. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to be that much worse at 120 fps. But then I saw it at 120 fps and it was much better!”)

Lee concluded by stressing how excited he is about the potential of 4K/3D/HFR to take the magic of the cinematic experience he’s loved his entire life to an entirely new level. After infusing the large South Hall auditorium with a palpable excitement about “Billy Lynn” and all the new technology it necessitated, the director humbly apologized for being a bad salesman.