If It’s Not Virtual, It’s Not Real

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2016

On Billy Lynn, high frame rate, and the future of virtual cinema.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the new film by Ang Lee, appears to be dead on arrival in commercial terms. Which, of course, is a shame in aesthetic terms, because the cinema needs more people as perpetually willing to try shit as Ang Lee, regardless of whether it works. In this case, Lee was experimenting with high frame rate, shooting 120 frames per second with the intention of projecting at the same rate. This, Lee said, was in an attempt to create a more vivid sense of reality in the film’s depiction of war. But, considering only six theaters in the world are equipped to screen the film as it was shot, and advanced screenings for press went off awkwardly, by the time it reached the public Billy Lynn was a(nother) war movie without all that huge an ad budget that, despite the best efforts of Kristen Stewart fans on Twitter to fav and retweet literally every mention of her thirty billion times, lacked A-list stars in their most identifiable mode (Vin Diesel, after all, is not playing Dominic Torretto). And it made a hair less than a million dollars in its first weekend in wide release, which in movie math is holy shit awful, however much everyone reading (and, believe you me writing) these words would welcome that sum if it suddenly appeared in their bank account. Given that this commercial fiasco was not directly due to a public rejection of high frame rate, it may appear hasty to argue against further experimentation with it in the commercial cinema, but that is exactly what I plan to do. Indeed, until fully, sensorially immersive virtual reality is possible, the cinema should not settle for less.

This is leaving aside the fact that VR, of this type, would be a separate medium from cinema as we’ve ever known it. Even the most transformational advances in cinema have yet to alter the basic reality that once the medium took any kind of form at all it did so as a medium defined by editing. It’s through the juxtaposition of one (usually moving) image and the next, and the manipulations made possible by arrangements, that cinema became what it is. VR points to a constructed universe that must seem seamless, where any manipulations have to be invisible lest disbelief lose its suspension. If VR is an extension of any existing medium, video games are the springboard. Immersive technologies, not to belabor the obvious, lend themselves to immersion, which despite the cinema’s power to compel and elicit emotion, it can never fully achieve. Past a certain point, true immersion needs to leave cinema behind.

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

Cinema is to the potential of VR what painting is, roughly, to photography. Both are ways of capturing visual images, but they do so in ways so different as to be wholly separate media, one requiring the manipulation of the artist, the other allowing for it. And, while photorealistic painting is a thing, and I’ve certainly spent my share of time in art galleries standing a couple feet away from, say, Audrey Flack paintings murmuring “Damn, it really looks like the real thing” a photorealistic painting will never be a photograph. Photography is newer, requires technology that was not available when painting became a thing . . . and is different, not the next stage of painting’s evolution.

In saying that cinema should focus less on technological advancement and more on aesthetic is not to say that cinema should disregard technology, or retreat up its own asshole into formalistic sophistry. Technology is good, when it’s useful. But form is essential. And, though I’m admittedly a cinemagoer who ardently supports pretty pictures and sensory experiences, content is important, too. Not every film needs to be about something, but the ones that are need to be about that thing in carefully conceived ways. Films, after all, do not just happen, they have makers. Billy Lynn’s maker made the considered decision to aim for an immersive experience using technology that had precedent – the Hobbit trilogy, using a previous record-high frame rate – for taking audiences out of the experience by not looking like ordinary movies. It’s a gamble, as not looking like anything they’ve ever seen before could make it more immersive, or it could make it totally not. Due to exhibitor limitations, we may never know.

This is why I say wait until technology catches up to the level of the creative mind. Not, to be clear, to resist progress. But wait patiently until processing power allows full immersion. It’s the sort of thing where anything less is a half measure. Paddling around in the shallow end is fun, and it’ll cool you off on a hot day, but it’s not the same as diving in. Of course, if you spend too much time underwater you can drown, but that’s for another day, perhaps a cautionary essay on Virtual Reality School Rejects called “Is Too Much VR A Bad Thing?” We’re not there yet. Hopefully we will be someday.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all