Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the Challenge of Immersive Cinema

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What can be learned from Ang Lee’s divisive high frame rate experiment and hypercinematic technologies.

Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Ang Lee and others in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Sony Pictures).

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a war drama helmed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, premiered at the New York Film Festival last Friday to mixed reviews. The film was widely publicized for its technological ambition as the first feature release shot at a very high frame rate of 120 frames per second, while also being filmed in native 3D and 4K resolution. Rather than utilizing this technology to heighten action or spectacle, Lee attempted to enhance human emotion and story. The result was a daring visual experiment in “immersive cinema,” harshly criticized by its first viewers. The misfire was not due simply to the tech – which was powerful, albeit jarring – but because of the traditional lens through which audiences are viewing and filmmakers are using the technology.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Review: A Frame Rate Nightmare

High frame rate and 3D are just a few examples of emerging modes of “hypercinema,” a term coined by visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner). Hypercinema can be used to describe forms of image capture aimed at transcending cinematic spectacle to produce “immersive” or “hyper-real” stories and experiences. This tech includes IMAX, virtual reality and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones!). Although terms like “immersive” and “hyper” sound like passing trends, the struggle of studios to bring audiences back to theaters through spectacle or “eventize-ation” is real. Hypercinema is one way of helping launch the theatrical experience to the next level in order to win back streaming and smartphone obsessed audiences, but it isn’t foolproof.

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was popularly advertised as the first commercial feature shot in 48fps in 2012 – the highest frame rate of any wide release film at the time, since films are typically shot in 24fps. The high fantasy picture grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, but the high frame rate look was infamously panned. As our critic Rob Hunter pointed out in his review of the film, doubling the regular video frame rate of 24fps to 48fps smoothed out the movie’s 3D effect and created “unparalleled clarity, but that lasts barely a second before the movie takes on the appearance of a lavish BBC production.” Ironically, 48fps produced such a hyper-realistic look that the fake hobbits in their cinematic makeup and costumes looked fake.

Like The Hobbit, Billy Lynn’s intense 120fps made images notably sharper than usual. The characters looked as if they were popping out of the screen. It was like watching super, duper HD television on steroids, or sitting so close to a live theatrical performance you can’t help but notice the actors’ exaggerated makeup and gestures. The experience was jarring because our eyes are not used to so much information, which Lee had nervously reminded the audience about before the movie even started. The “cinematic glow” of film was hijacked by an extremely crisp on-screen “reality” that revealed every facial reaction and human imperfection down to the pore. This made the actors’ performances easier to discern as acting rather than true, human emotion.

This is the challenge of high frame rate cinema and hypercinematic technologies used in movies. Audiences and even filmmakers tend to look at these new mediums through the traditional modes of cinematic storytelling. Cinematic storytelling, designed for the 2D, flat movie screen, may not be the best techniques to utilize with extremely “hyper-real” tech. Trumbull himself said “what happens when you get into this hyper-real realm of a movie, that seems to be a window onto reality, is that the entire cinematic language begins to change.”

(Sony Pictures)

There are other “immersive” storytelling technologies that are already trying new ways of engaging audiences. The gaming industry employs gadgets like headsets and consoles to allow viewers to move around worlds created for the television or computer screen. Virtual reality goes a step further, allowing the viewer to situate herself inside the world and interact with it by donning a virtual reality headset. There are also examples of augmented reality and mixed reality being developed that situate stories within our own physical reality, as in the case of the popular Pokémon Go app.

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Through this view, “immersive cinema” becomes almost a misnomer because for something to be truly immersive the participant would need to be placed in the space of the story. This could mean wearing a headset to look around a 360-degree world, holding a console and controlling an on-screen avatar, or be moved or removed from a static theater seat. (See: Korea’s 4DX, Universal Studio’s Shrek 4D ride and Disney’s aerial adventure Soarin’ Over California.)

“Immersive” is the new hotness in the film industry right now and adding “hyper” to something is just as hip. At the end of the day, these are simply flashy marketing terms for technologies attempting to reach reality, or at least some version of it that we as viewers will be able to believe in and enjoy in order to be entertained and maybe even understand something new about the world. Limiting the immersive experience to the traditional space of the movie theater and its storytelling processes can ultimately limit the technology and its effects.

If something is to be truly immersive, the viewer must not feel constrained to seat 12 row F. Imagine if you could get up and be part of the film in some way. Picture running with Rey and Finn to the crew ship, escaping the orcs with hobbits, or engaging in battle alongside Billy Lynn and the Bravo team. These ideas aren’t far from what is already happening in gaming and, to a certain extent, virtual reality. Though hypercinematic technologies like high frame rate are still very new, the idea and desire to reach a more immersive reality is there. If filmmakers like Lee want to create truly immersive cinema, viewers cannot be confined to the sidelines. They need to be able to jump in and play.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.