Deadline Disruptors: Ang Lee, ‘Life of Pi’ 3D Maestro, Taps The Potential Of High Frame Rate

Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren

Ang Lee is one of cinema’s most exciting contradictions. This quiet, 61-year-old filmmaker from Taiwan is still a giant of the form in Hollywood, whose voice reverberates loudly whenever he releases a movie. He’s a double Oscar winner, for two movies that demonstrate his unique grasp of storytelling on every level; Brokeback Mountain is a universal love story about a pair of gay cowboys, and Life of Pi is a next-level 3D fantasy with cutting-edge effects that enhance rather than dull its emotional resonance. Lee is a modern day Leonardo, inventing the tools with which to practice his art. His films, which include the upcoming war movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, shot in 120 frames-per-second High Frame Rate (HFR), don’t use storytelling to show off technology. Instead, they demand technology deliver an immersive storytelling that goes beyond the white noise and bluster of today’s event cinema.

Life Of Pi DEADLINE: The 3D in Life of Pi was such a singular accomplishment. You started by making no-budget relationship movies, and now Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk among techies at NAB. What led to this marriage of storytelling with immersive visual experiences?
LEE: There’s no simple answer, and maybe no answer to that. I’m only aware of it because people keep asking me that question. If it was up to me, I’d just keep doing what I like to do without even looking back or breaking it down. You know, I’m not a technical person at all.

LEE: Like, I cannot hardly use email. My smartphone? I only call out. Zero interest in technology. The opposite of technology, that is me.

So why did that happen to me? I’m doing the most advanced computer stuff; now we have to trick the computer to do things it has never done before. But I don’t know how to use a computer beyond basic things. I think it’s curiosity and this relationship I found with my technical crew. I think at heart, artists aren’t happy just doing technical, which is mostly pretty boring. The first thing I learned about the big computer years ago, when I did Hulk, was how dumb it is. I realized that the way a computer thinks is the dumbest way and so it was not interesting to me. I would say that it is probably often true for even technical people, who have to endure a lot of boredom.

DEADLINE: So why is this innovation happening?
LEE: I think the chemistry between me and them started with, would I have something interesting to think about that is kind of impossible, but is inspiring? And they just keep going at it to achieve something they’ve never seen before. I think it’s that chemistry that keeps pushing us. I cannot do the technical, and they need somebody to raise the artistic standard. So they go through hardship, and things I find boring, to get at what’s interesting.

I’m a dramatically-trained filmmaker. I take actors, stage them, and then figure out how to shoot them. Over the years, I tried to be conscious about things as a filmmaker. I’m not in the drama world anymore. I try to make it visually more interesting, so movie by movie I try to move away from drama, and get more visual with storytelling. But after a while what I do isn’t satisfying. I just want to see more. In principle, I won’t do any visual stuff unless it reflects the mental state of characters and how they feel and what they want to express. What I do here is externalize the internal feelings. That’s what I do. I get a little uncomfortable when people say, “You’re breaking technology.” That’s not what I do at all. I have no such ambition and interest.

DEADLINE: Most look at a movie like Brokeback Mountain, and how universal you made a love story even for people who might not identify with gay cowboys, and think they could not do what you did there. It sounds like you’ve paid similar respect and awe to these technical guys; treated them as artists, and together you’ve broken storytelling ground.
LEE: You’re so on the point; that’s exactly what it is. When you treat people like artists they respond to you that way. But they have to be good ones.

DEADLINE: What movies that broke ground most inspired the path you are on?
LEE: I began to feel this since Pi, that we all pave the way for each other. Avatar really is the first one; that giant step forward to legitimize 3D as a storytelling tool rather than just a gimmick. Without the success of that movie, there’s no way I could do Pi in 3D. I wanted to do 3D, before Avatar existed, because I tried to crack Life of Pi, the book, and thought I needed another dimension to see the circle. Pi is an irrational number, and many elements that are most interesting in the book are un-makeable, not just technically but philosophically. It’s a story examining the value of story. I think that can be done in literature, but I didn’t think it was possible in existing movie form because your attention to the screen is so mandated by the photorealistic images that are ongoing, and you never want people out of the movie. Once you fail to keep them in the movie, it would take you a long time to bring them back, so that’s a bad thing. So how do you tell a story where they won’t stop and say, “Wait a minute,” and start thinking about what they’ve just seen? Then, a fancy thought hit me. What if I have another dimension? And I thought about stereo 3D, before I even knew what it was. As I got into it, I came to think that animation is far ahead of us, because everything is controlled, and when you watch it, the mindset is not as serious. Avatar was such a big step forward because you have some realism in it, the storytelling is long, but you’re still inside of it. That was a huge step. But I think, that’s just a beginning. 

LEE: Once I got my hands on it I realized things are going wrong. Everything in movies is set up 2D. We’ve been trained that way. So there’s no 3D thinking, really. I was struggling while at the same time making the most difficult movie in 3D, because water is the hardest thing. We have a tiger, we have a kid, and survival. But 24 frames just doesn’t work and that’s obvious to me before I start shooting. Anything moves, you don’t see the faces. It looks so strobe-y, because in 3D that’s closer to what our eye sees. It’s less forgiving; you need more accuracy, you pick up more nuances. We moved up to 24 frames, I realize, because that’s the minimum to carry soundtrack. Fortunately, I found a way to survive, and it was successful.

We’re in the beginning of something we don’t know what it is yet. 3D, digital cinema, frame rate with clarity. We don’t even know how to make a movie where you see clearly. It seemed full of potential, and very exciting. On the other hand, you open a can of worms.

DEADLINE: Peter Jackson made the attempt to shoot HFR at 48 frames-per-second, and it took people time to get used to it. Now, you’ve shot Billy Lynn in 120.
LEE: He paid for that himself, and I really admire the guy. But everything that has been done so far has only just scratched the surface.

DEADLINE: What is the payoff?
LEE: An immersive experience. It’s more like how our eyes are designed to see. I think people are so wrong to see 3D and HFR as tricks that only hacks use for action or spectacle. I think it’s the opposite. What 3D gives you is intimacy, and what 3D does best is portray faces. I’m so eager to show that. That’s what 3D is about, not action. We haven’t even gotten there yet. My Dinner With Andre should have been shot in

DEADLINE: What most frustrates you when you are trying to break ground in 3D or with frame rates?
LEE: Technically it’s hard because the industry doesn’t have a pipeline for this. You can get beat up really badly and you have to be independent. But then because it’s a little bit more expensive, you need a studio, you need an ecosystem to help you. The biggest thing is the cynicism. People still look down on 3D, as if they won’t call it art so they can feel better about themselves. So nobody really helps you except your comrades, and you struggle technically.

And then the next level of difficulty is the science. We don’t have the equipment. Even how you hold a camera and how you shoot, the physicality and how computers do this. We didn’t have a lab until we invented one. It’s like reinventing the wheel and physically it’s hard to go from one step to the next. You see, 2D is sophisticated, but 3D? We haven’t begun yet. So that’s the first level.

The second level is, what are you doing artistically? I’m pretty good at this, but who’s qualified to use this for art? There is no 3D aesthetic yet. How do you invent that? All I want to do here is move away from 2D and try not to think like a 2D [filmmaker]. It’s very difficult. The artistic part is the next level of difficulty. Beyond that, what’s really hard is commercial applications. How to show it in the theaters, how to change viewing habits and people, culturally. That’s the hardest thing. So technology is first level, and the second is art. Above that is the commercial application.

DEADLINE: You will follow this with Thrilla in Manila, a film about the bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, shot in the same immersive technology. Do you foresee yourself playing in this sandbox for the rest of the films you’ll make?
LEE: I don’t know. Each time you search, you find answers and raise more questions. I find that interesting. And otherwise, it feels like work. I don’t want filmmaking to feel like work. I want to give everything I have for this, and it becomes existential. I become the movie I’m making. I live that life and I want to keep progressing. I also don’t want to do this and find that only people in five theaters can appreciate it. When you can see things on a screen more clearly, your mindset in making the movie becomes different. It all takes effort, and it takes time.

DEADLINE: A lot of the discussion about disruption has been about initiatives like Netflix and Screening Room; alternatives to the movie going experience. How do you feel about all this?
LEE: I want to bring people to the theater, and give them a reason to go to the theater instead of watching at home. Something special, like when we were kids and you’d go to the theater and it was not casual. It was very exciting. I want to go back to my childhood, when I watched movies, and you have to raise your game to get people to feel that childlike innocence. It gets harder and harder to get people willing to believe in these fantasies. From day one, in the dawn of history, this is what we want. We want to get together for some special event, something that is theatrical, that is inspiring, that will make you cry over your feelings, and you share it. But you have to give people good reason to do that. If they can watch it on an iPhone, why would they go to the theater?

DEADLINE: So the challenge in Billy Lynn is making me feel, in a theater, what it’s like to be in war, and in Thrilla in Manila, I’ll feel what it is like to be punched by a heavyweight boxer.
LEE: I hope so. I think there is a big difference in the high frame rate in 3D and that is involvement. You engage in the theatrical experience as more of an insider, rather than watching something else and peeking into someone else’s business. That’s the biggest change with 3D filmmaking and we haven’t quite gotten there yet. But we will.

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