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Arts & Entertainment

Filming at 120 frames-per-second could upend movie storytelling

Actors Vin Diesel (L) and Garrett Hedlund with director Ang Lee (C) attend the
Actors Vin Diesel (L) and Garrett Hedlund with director Ang Lee (C) attend the "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" photo call on October 15, 2016 in New York City.

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It's back to the projector room for Oscar-winning director Ang Lee after his pricey, gutsy movie-making experiment, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” drew a mixed response at the New York Film Festival last week.

The ground-breaking war drama was shot at an ultra-fast 120 frames-per-second rate in 3-D with 4K resolution. The first wave of critics at the film fest panned the movie and blamed the technology.

Today on KPCC, Douglas Trumbull, a filmmaker and technical innovator who inspired Lee's experiment, blamed the NY screening for projecting the film “much too bright” and without necessary projector adjustments. 

Now, Trumbull is helping tweak the movie. He tells KPCC he’s working with Lee and Sony Pictures “to try to make sure that that next wave of screenings of 'Billy Lynn' are going to be much better than what I think we saw in New York.”

Also in the audience at the fest screening was L.A. Times film writer Steve Zeitchik. He takes issue with what he describes as knee-jerk criticisms and argues the movie's “immersive experience” requires a different set of criteria to judge it.

“What I would question,” Zeitchik tells AirTalk's Larry Mantle, “is this idea that we need to fix it. For one thing the heightened, hyper-real aspect from a purely experiential standpoint ... really does work.” He adds, “I've watched a lot of war movies — good, bad, and indifferent — over the years and I don't think I've ever felt as jolted ... felt war in quite as visceral a manner as I did watching this film. And so I think a lot of that has to do with the resolution and the frame rate. So when you bring down the brightness and you bring down the frame rate, you're losing a lot of that.”

Zeitchik also poses a question for studio executives and audiences: “Who's to say the kind of traditional cinema that we're used to, and traditional storytelling, should necessarily be the dominant mode for this new era of immersive cinema? ...Why can't we have something new or a mix of types and genres? ... Let's not fix the movie.”

Zeitchik observes that another major effect of the “immersive” film technology is that traditional movie moments of heightened drama or artifice lose their credence. In his L.A. Times piece he notes, “Because everything around the actors feels so real, when they’re asked to break from that reality -- to act in even the most slightly heightened way, or show an emotion that’s bigger than emotions people show in their everyday lives -- it can seem artificial or staged.”

Trumbull, whose credits include “Blade Runner” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” says “Billy Lynn,” with its faster frame, rate truly sings when shooting scenes from a first-person point of view.

“You want to switch gears from conventional third-person storytelling, in which the director is directing the camera to see an action that is off to the side. When you create more of a virtual reality, a first-person point of view is much stronger,” explains Trumbull.

If the faster frame-rate becomes more widely adopted, how will writers, performers, directors, and cinemas have to adapt?



Douglas Trumbull, Filmmaker and film technology innovator; Credits include "Brainstorm," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Tree of Life," "Blade Runner;" Trumbull convinced Ang Lee to use 120-fps

Steve Zeitchik,  Los Angeles Times staff writer who has been covering film and the larger world of Hollywood for the paper since 2009