Ang Lee On His Game-Changing ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’

Ang Lee Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
TriStar Pictures

EXCLUSIVE: Ang Lee, the two-time Oscar winning director of Life Of Pi and Brokeback Mountain, sat me down in the dark screening room of his small unassuming West Side headquarters, where he has edited what he hopes will be a groundbreaking cinematic step forward with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. You wouldn’t guess it from the $40 million budget, but this Sony film was harder to mount than than Pi, the 3D VFX-heavy film shot on water with a computer-generated tiger. Billy Lynn is the first major studio feature shot in 120 frames-per-second 3D, with 4K clarity. Lee had a wall of noisy military flight simulator projectors he required to display footage whose 120fps is five times faster than traditional movies and nearly three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit. Billy Lynn’s 4K clarity is twice that of most traditional films.

Ang Lee Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

What does all this technical wizardry — which, for want of a better name, Lee calls “The Whole Shebang” — mean for an adaptation of the Ben Fountain novel about a young soldier who returns home temporarily from Iraq with his Bravo Company cohorts to be feted during a Thanksgiving football game in Texas after their firefight went viral and made them American heroes? Well, Lee has just shown me a scene in which the title character engaged in fatal hand-to-hand combat with an insurgent. The scene ends, and I sit there staring, long enough that Lee eventually pokes me. I tell him I felt like I had just witnessed a homicide, rather than watched a scene in a movie. Lee’s Whole Shebang technology removes that barrier that always existed between the audience and the images on a movie screen, giving the audience a feeling of stark reality.

This was the second time I found myself in the company of a world-class filmmaker who really stretched himself, and felt vulnerable because he didn’t know if the gamble was going to pay off. The first was while James Cameron was editing Titanic, and while it was clear to me that the images he showed me were unforgettable, Cameron went 100% over budget and was understandably nervous. Lee is by nature more humble and soft spoken, and Billy Lynn cost far less. But it’s no less of a gamble than that Cameron film that became the highest grosser of all time. The most pristine version of the film, the one Lee calls the Whole Shebang, won’t be seen by the mainstream. Even though he made lesser versions he feels will still look better than contemporary films, there aren’t 2000 screens outfitted with equipment sophisticated enough to handle the 120fps 4K 3D format.

Before the closing-night offering at the New York Film Festival this evening, Lee was clearly nervous. From my vantage point, he had done something I’ve never seen before, erasing the distance that flickering images brings with something more intimate: a visual experience presented the same way that the human eyes and brain processes real interaction. You are there at this football game with Bravo Company, and you see in bold relief everything from the taut lower back muscles of the actress playing Beyoncé in a halftime show, to the flaws in actors’ complexions, to the extras that usually blend into backgrounds, to the subtle effects of PTSD in soldiers, to the concussive blowback in the sand that comes with mortar fire.

That Lee is the first renowned director to take the 120fps quantum leap is intriguing, given he’s the first to admit he can barely work an iPhone. But he has surrounded himself with technically gifted craftsmen, and he treats like artists with as much say on his sets as anyone else. Here, with the help of his technical advisor Ben Gervais, Lee explains how he made an Oscar-season film unlike any that will enter the race.

DEADLINE: Do most theater houses have the equipment you need for the Whole Shebang?

GERVAIS: No. We basically evict pretty much everything that’s in that booth for the Whole Shebang.

LEE: Whole Shebang means 120 frames-per-second, 4K, 3D. It’s too long to try and describe it, but we haven’t come up with a sexier name. But you must understand, when I talked to Tom Rothman initially, it was with the understanding I would try at least 60 frames-per-second and 2K. I wanted to do it in 3D, because after making Pi, I thought pursuing a higher frame would help me find answers. When they pitched me the book, I thought this was a great chance. It was about the temporary cessation of soldiers from the battlefield to normal life in Dallas. I thought that the media, the higher frame rate, served the content and that presented a great opportunity. I think it was a good marriage, but the understanding was some kind of a higher frame rate. At that time, we only knew 48, but I told him I had done an experiment with 60 and that 60 would be the next generation. He got excited. We researched, and saw what Peter Jackson did with 48 frames. I visited Doug Trumbull who was doing his own 60fps tests, and so was Jim Cameron. And I realized that if you could get close to 120, it would be like what you actually see. It’s not a movie anymore. Then I had a decision to make.

DEADLINE: What was the decision?

LEE: Would I stay in movie land, or move out of movie land? That was a tough decision. A conscious, morality decision. When you watch a film, you feel the flicker, which is severe in 24fps 3D. It is more subtle at 60, but you still know you’re in movie land, in somebody else’s story. You’re safe.

DEADLINE: So with the Whole Shebang, we’re not safe.

LEE: I could not help the impulse of what you called me back in your Cannes article: a disruptor. I was tempted by the apple. Faust talked to me, and at first, I said no, that 24 frames is the fence of paradise. Don’t go over it. But I just could not stop myself. We could try 120, we run into a lot of trouble with the lab and because nobody knows how to handle this frame rate. In fact, how we set this up is we’re using the military flight simulator, same as is used for that industry but not movies. We’re the first to try this with live images and storytelling. Making a movie is a big endeavor, and investment, so I had to make that decision before I take a leap of faith. To answer your specific question, we didn’t know about 120 when we set out. We were thinking 60fps 2K, but 4K follows because you can see it so much more clearly.

TriStar Pictures

When you want to try something new, you need a good excuse; a reason to do it. My reason was, you could put the sensation of the battling soldiers, the adrenaline, and all that, and watch them go back to Dallas, where it would drive Billy Lynn crazy, and you could look at that with clarity. I thought, I got a movie here where I can put a halftime show and a battle together and have the journey of this boy, his sensation of going through Thanksgiving Day celebrating, with everybody projecting the heroic act. What would that be like? It’s really driven by sensations. The material was challenging and it allowed me to feel what…the biggest pain for veterans is a feeling is us against them over there, and when they come back home, it’s still the same. They cannot share it with their families, and a lot of them cannot go back to normal life. People just don’t understand what they’ve gone through. That is their truth, many of them. It is not reality but it is their truth. They keep either going back, or going crazy. A lot of them; not all of them. A lot of them have that problem, which is very telling to me when we get into a new medium, new look, new sensation. We can get very personal. What would that be like? That is why I think the media and the material sort of fit each other and that is what got me excited to make this movie.

DEADLINE: When did you take the leap and focus on 120fps 4K?

LEE: We did our own test to see what 120 looks like. And then, finally, we saw the Whole Shebang, and that happened a few weeks before we start shooting. At that point, 60 frames-per-second was for sure our goal. I saw the 60fps test first from James Cameron, who was promoting his own thing. That made me think, this doesn’t just have to be 48fps. I thought 48fps was it, but it seemed like people didn’t like it so much [when Peter Jackson used it in the first Hobbit film].

DEADLINE: I remember the criticism. What did you think of that?

LEE: I think it was moving in the right direction but people weren’t used to it. The filmmakers were trying something new, but in an old movie format and story. People didn’t know what to say, so they said things like, it’s like a giant TV, which it is not really fair. It was just something new. The second one I think works better both from the filmmaking side and for the audience because they’re used to it more, which is part of the process. With this, we were much cheaper. Once we saw the 120fps, and that I could do a more fully experimental thing, I just couldn’t resist. We’re not a big commercial movie, so why not try?

GERVAIS: The very first test we did was October of 2014. We were evaluating cameras and 3D rigs. At that point we had already knew we needed to shoot at 120fps because, if you shoot at 60, our issue was how do you make a 24-frame version for the projectors that can’t do 60?

LEE: Television has 30.

GERVAIS: Because 24 doesn’t divide evenly into 60, it means that we could have simulated it but then we would have had to touch up all the shots up with VFX to fix the errors. Every shot in your movie becomes visual effect at that point. So it’s a big cost add.

DEADLINE: How did you get around that?

GERVAIS: That’s where the decision to make 120fps came from. It started with mathematics; 120 is 60 multiplied by two and it’s 24 multiplied by five so it’s easy to discard frames or average frames to get back down without needing to involve visual effects whatsoever. It was a mastering format idea, but then once we had made that decision to shoot in 120, what does it actually look like? Our theory going into it was, maybe it looks like the jump from 24 to 48, which is a pretty big difference. Going from 48 to 60 is a little bit less of a difference. We thought maybe it might be a case of diminishing returns, that maybe we don’t see much difference. And then we got it up on a screen, only two weeks before we started shooting, and we saw it was going to be something else totally.

LEE: It was not a movie.

DEADLINE: Was that a great moment?

LEE: The crew was shaken. Like, how do we make this movie? It’s like all the movie magic we did, all the tricks we know, out the window. That moment was pretty…

GERVAIS: There were a lot of pale faces.

LEE: Dead silence. No discussion. We all saw it, and walked out. For a long time nobody speaks. It’s just a dead silence.

DEADLINE: And then what?

LEE: We were already set to make the movie. It was like, what do we do now?

GERVAIS: Everybody is like, back to the drawing board, on everything. Because you see all the makeup, and you see that the set looks fake. You see everything.

DEADLINE: So the make-believe element is gone? I saw those scenes, and it was as stark and fully realized as the three of us sitting here, right now.

LEE: To me, the biggest thing is the acting. How do you act, in 120fps? Everyone knew their lines, but how do they pretend everything they will do is happening for the first time?

DEADLINE: So instead of enjoying this technological breakthrough, it sounds like your reaction was, “We’ve created a monster.” What adjustments did you have to make? You mentioned makeup.

LEE: Even preparing for 60fps meant you just don’t use makeup, and [Luisa Abel] had spent months of preparation on their skin tones. They had to be treated like babies.

GERVAIS: They were on special diets.

LEE: She found this silicone-based makeup because we found that it can see through skin. You can feel the person’s essence. So if somebody didn’t sleep well or some blemishes start to pop out, you can cover it with a silicone base but that’s see through. I’m sure in the future they can invent makeup or other ways to do makeup, but we’re the first ones to do it. We didn’t have any answers except, no makeup.

DEADLINE: How did your actors feel about that?

LEE: The young ones probably thought, all movies are like this. The experienced actors, I think they were nervous. I just told them, “Trust me. You’ll be OK.” When they were cast, we knew by then we wanted to do 120fps but I hadn’t seen it with actors, even at 60. I told them, “I probably won’t use makeup. Just prepare for it. Are you OK with that?” They go, “OK, fine.”

DEADLINE: Did they all look at this as an experimental film that could be important?

LEE: It was a mixture. We can all psych ourselves out to think what we do is different, it’s a game-changer. We can tell ourselves whatever we want to tell ourselves. But you still have to cope with the fact that, this is a movie. We still have to make a movie.

GERVAIS: As much as it scared us, the images that we saw were so compelling that, even as we said it was back to the drawing board, at the same time we were thinking, this is awesome.

DEADLINE: Was this similar to how you felt when you made Life Of Pi?

Image (2) lifeofpi__130206065900.jpg for post 430789
20th Century Fox

LEE: No, because Avatar came before me and so that way was paved. I felt like I barely survived that one. It was so hard, with the water, the kids, the tigers, the 3D. At the time, nobody had taken a 3D camera out of a controlled situation. It was a big studio movie, but really an art house film you watched in 3D. It was all intimidating, but the beginning of this journey began there. I chose 3D because I didn’t know how to crack that book, philosophically. I thought I might need a new dimension to deal with Pi, and what the rational number becomes. Because that was 3D, I needed to use digital cinema when before that, I was a die-hard defender of film. Then, I realize 24 frames is all strobe and you couldn’t see it well and so to get less strobe you open the shutter so it is adding exposure time. Once you open that, you pick up blur…

That movie was so hard, but it not only survived, it was quite successful. It planted the seeds for a lot of things and I was very curious about many things. Then came the 48 frames of The Hobbit. I cannot say I really liked it, but it bothered me that people said it was like watching a giant TV. Then I saw James Cameron’s 60-frame test and what Doug Trumbull was doing.

By the time we did our own test, I never before saw what I saw [in that test]. I would never have asked about high frame rates if not for Pi, because it was hard to see clearly. That’s the first time the question about where does frame rate come from? Why 24fps? From day one, movies were always 24. Nobody asked. I didn’t ask. You just deal with 24. If it blurs, if it strobes, you just don’t do that shot, or you slow it down so you can see it. You learn to cope with it as part of the art of moviemaking. I never questioned until I saw Pi, but on Pi I couldn’t change anything.

After Pi I was going to do the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing movie, in 60fps. I did my test. I got good ideas. I went and visited Doug Trumbull, who has something that can be done with existing projectors. He has a method but it was a test. When I make the movie, and I get into my own 60 or 120, you actually have no experience and nobody can teach you. There’s no learning except probing, and research. What’s scary is it’s not mathematical. If 60fps is that intense, you think 120, which is twice as more and 4K and 3D is eight times more. So you have 16 times more. It must be too much…but it’s not. When you see it, it’s just something else. You cannot calculate. It becomes its own thing. It actually in a way scares filmmakers, but for the viewer I think it’s very comfortable. Because your eyes like information and the information is sufficient. It’s actually very focused. You can see a lot more. You can handle it and at the same time, it makes you happy and relaxed. Your eyes in real life make judgments, but movies are not eyes. There is the frame, this blown up image that is its own thing. Except we don’t know. You have to see the monitor to see it, but the monitor is 60 frames per second. That’s the highest it will go, and it has half the resolution of HD or two thirds. My only judgment is my booth, my 3D monitor.

DEADLINE: But at least you can tell when your shot looks twice as realistic as what you’re looking at on the monitor.

LEE: It turns out it’s not. As I said, it has its own thing, its own chemistry. It’s not mathematical. It just gives you something else. More clarity doesn’t mean more intense. Or somebody, for example, acting well in 24fps, in 120fps it looks they are acting too much, or it’s too shallow. In 60fps you think the same take must be intolerable in 120fps 4K, but when you get there, it actually looks better. You see more nuances. The performance actually looks good again, but different. It just has its own thing. And because we had no experience, we were guessing a lot.

DEADLINE: If we watched a silent film right now we would say, wow, everyone is overacting.

LEE: If you made a movie like that now, you can’t watch it.

DEADLINE: So how did you have to adjust the direction of the actor performances in 120 frames?

LEE: Two things. We had to tone it down, and enrich it. If they just toned it down, it would look dull, shallow, one dimensional and too simplistic.

DEADLINE: So what do you do to get your actors to act differently than they have always done it, especially when they don’t even really know what 120fps will do to their performances?

LEE: I had to throw more thoughts into the actor.

DEADLINE: What do you tell Kristin Stewart or Vin Diesel to verbalize what it is that you’re looking for? And have they seen the results yet?

Vin Diesel;Joe Alwyn
TriStar Pictures

LEE: No. They might freak out [tonight]. That might be another story. What I told them, other than, trust me, is that we’re exposed to the unknown here and you have to get onboard for that. They’re good actors. They want to try different things. Those are the actors I try to work with. Instead of giving specific direction like most directors usually do, like, you have a task, do something so we can see you feel that way, I tried to give them a lot of subtext. Throw more thought into whatever the scene is, and see what happens. To see if they have a lively look, and they look just like real life and they are believable. It’s a lot more complicated than the usual movie acting.

DEADLINE: Even though you are directing our attention to a scene, our eyes are able to process everything around it and the background is was more noticeable than in a 24-frame film. How frustrating is it when your actors did a strong take, but you notice that an extra in the football stadium crowd scene did something that distracted attention away from where you wanted us to focus?

LEE: To me, it’s a pleasure. It’s not the focus. Life is like that. In the frame, you still know where you’re supposed to look. I think that’s new moviemaking that is just much less tolerant on sloppiness. It’s less forgiving. To me, it is a pleasure when you see so many things. You see Bravo Company, all eight of them lined up and all doing good, different things. I think it’s a pleasure. I don’t think it’s distracting.

DEADLINE: Did you do more takes, to be on the safe side?

LEE: You can’t, because those shots are very difficult. Even a simple shot is difficult because we didn’t really know what to do. You experiment. The scary thing is it took a while to figure out even what’s wrong, what you shouldn’t be doing. You’ve been doing that for 100 years. Think about it, you’re noticing you need to correct something. Take experience, a lot of horrors, a lot of the tension and many try too. So we shot pretty slowly, like six or eight setups on average, because every take is very difficult. Every shot is precious. So you had to be like soldiers on the battlefield. There is no down time. You have to pay attention, all the time, from morning to night. Not only do I rehearse every scene, I shot every scene with a single camera, even before I go to shoot. We would have morning meetings with the key crew members, just going through things we need to be alert on. How to organize if something happens. We just had to work extra hard, and be extra careful. The adrenaline of making this movie was draining, like a battle. I used to tell them, there’s Army strong, and there’s 3D high-frame-rate strong. Remember that! [laughs]

DEADLINE: What complications came from lighting? Can you shoot at night?

GERVAIS: The camera needs some more light because we’re shooting at a higher frame rate.

LEE: It’s three and a half stop…

GERVAIS: Two-and-a-third. But still that takes you from 800 ASA all the way down to 160.

DEADLINE: And your average 2D movie is?

GERVAIS: Most digital cameras are rated for 800. So DPs are used to using a lot less light than they did 30 or 40 years ago when the film stock was slow. Now, you’ve got to get those big lights back. The other part is, we’re shooting in 120fps so we have to test every light to make sure it doesn’t flicker. So we had to do all sorts of testing with every single light fixture, every single practical light on a set.

LEE: Imagine the lights of a football stadium.

GERVAIS: I shot an entire day of just video walls, to find a video wall that didn’t flicker. There’s all these elements to it that basically put a lot of prep into the project.

DEADLINE: What happens if the light flickers?

GERVAIS: Then it’ll flicker on the screen so we don’t want that. It would be distracting to the viewer, so we had to find things, technically, that could give us enough light. Can they give us enough light and then how does John [Toll] light with them in tight spaces with not a lot of room? We didn’t have an unlimited budget. We only had 49 shooting days so we couldn’t take tons of time to light it. There’s a lot of issues that come with that. We managed to make it through, and discover some efficiencies as we went, that allowed us to cheat a little bit on the ASA. As long as everybody kept an open mind and adjusted what they do, because every single department in one way or another had to change how they did their jobs. They had to objectively look at the dailies or test footage and go, that’s disappointing, it’s not what I expected or something’s not behaving the way it should. They had to learn to say, what can I do to fix that, to make it better?

LEE: The conversations became that. It was like going back to film school, learning how to make movies all over again, for all these people who are consummate professionals and they’ve been doing this for a long time.

GERVAIS: That was scary at first, but then it became empowering and they got excited. Instead of doing the same thing, they’re doing something new.

LEE: I asked John to light it differently. It had to look interesting, like natural light, but you go one step beyond: how do you make it interesting 3D-wise? How do you make the details that becomes a new aesthetic, instead of casting shadows. A lot of it you could just see, like the acting. John had to be able to lighten that up, or find some other ways to deal with a problem, and make it look interesting. It was challenging.

DEADLINE: Hardships aside, what was most gratifying when your actors adjusted their games to suit this new technology?

LEE: They could just put out an attitude, and act around their belief. They had to go deeper. Not that in the past we don’t have brilliant performances. There are, but they had to adjust their performances for that frame rate, same as is done on the stage, or was done with black and white, and silent films. They all had their own things, and same with movies that flicker. But now, we have a new thing. I don’t say that one is better than the other, but this is something new. Here, you could not assume you’re good. You had to find your way. Just like if a DP is good making a regular movie, it doesn’t mean he’s good in 3D.

DEADLINE: How close did you get to what you imagined was possible when you decided to shoot this movie in 120?

LEE: It’s a weird thing. Nothing you imagine matters, because it’s different now. It is just its own thing and you have to respect it. I cannot tell how the audience will take this. Is it jumping too far? Is it too this or that? That goes down to how people perceive 3D, especially at this clarity. People’s perception is different than with 2D 24 frame. They go their own way, they are less in unison and I welcome that. I think a movie ought to be that. It’s the best thing if no two audience members go away with the same feeling about the movie. I think people will perceive this as being more different. People react differently. Maybe it’s culture, maybe it’s our eyes.

GERVAIS: Literally, you don’t know what to expect, and that’s why we didn’t have a vision in mind like you just said. If you can imagine showing a movie for the first time to someone who hasn’t seen one before, they would not know what to expect. This is very much like that; as long as they have an open mind and they don’t expect it to be like the thing that they’ve always seen before, this will be OK. There’s definitely a comfort level with regular movies. My girlfriend, for example, you turn on a movie and 20 minutes later she’s asleep because she’s in her happy place. This is not that.

DEADLINE: Your goal is for the film community to see this and embrace the possibilities. How costly would it be for a movie house to install the technology to make it possible for its audience to experience the Whole Shebang?

GERVAIS: There’s a lot of issues at play in exhibition. To put what we call the Whole Shebang into a theater is quite pricey at this moment. That’s why we made all these other versions of the film. For a 35-foot screen, you’re talking about a million dollars. It’s insanely high for now. Our feeling is, this is what we think the future might look like. We know that every theater can’t convert tomorrow to this. It’s not realistic, but that’s our message to other people in the industry. There’ll be a few screens that can show it this way. Have a look and see what you think. If you agree this is the future, then we need to get everyone onboard on that path. We’re not going to be there tomorrow but maybe in 10 years we’ll be there.

DEADLINE: We always hear that moviegoing suffers because people get everything they want from streaming services and television. This does not feel like some gimmick, like 3D conversion or even colorization were. This feels like singular, something that could belong to theatrical moviegoing experience. Was that something you considered?

At the Theater

LEE: In my mind, we don’t go to church, to the temple, or mosque that much anymore. But we do need to go to the temples and those are movie theaters. But we’re not as excited to do that anymore, when we can watch on an iPhone. I think this will help us go back to the temple. Not every movie can withstand this kind of look, the different mentality of filmmaking, this different experience. But that will change; this is just the first step. I think this is what the new beginning of digital cinema means, a new kind of cinema where your engagement is different. Others can still do the regular thing, and this can follow two tracks. Maybe this is the Cirque du Soleil. I don’t think you can say, I could watch this on television and won’t go back to experience this again. Because in my mind, this is the temple.

DEADLINE: The surprise is that most of the attention is going towards Virtual Reality, where you put on the goggles and can see imagery whether you look up, or down, or even behind you.

LEE: Somebody asked me to compare and I gave a pretty rude answer because it’s almost funny to me. I said, “I’m a filmmaker. I like to believe my VR is better than your VR.” The guy got embarrassed and I had to apologize. But there’s a certain truth in that. I think somebody has to do the high priest’s job through the ceremony, and people participate. It has been that day from day one of our civilization, from cavemen describing by torchlight how they hunted a lion. People listened, getting into that fantasy world. That storytelling comes from day one. I think somebody will give you his version of a story and you take that away to your own imagination. That is theater, not virtual reality. Maybe the two will come together. Certainly, we can help each other out. But I think the fixed frame, where I determine the virtual reality, through the camera movement and the staging, I don’t think that’s going to disappear.

DEADLINE: Given that theaters will have to buy into this if it is to grow, how are you feeling at the end of the road of making Billy Lynn?

LEE: I want to try this again. And we have options with this film. Commercially, we have two popular versions. One is 60fps 2K in 3D and then 120fps 2D, which looks pretty great too. I relit it especially for those versions. And then there is a Dolby version, which is pretty but not 4K. We chose 120fps 2K, in both 2D and 3D.

DEADLINE: Can you break down the difference between 2K and 4K?

GERVAIS: That’s resolution. We’re all familiar with the resolution of our TV or something like HD or 4K. Most technological people in the industry say the difference between 2K and 4K is not that remarkable, but what we found is that in 3D it’s a different story. You feel the difference more in 3D than you do in 2D. The reason for that speaks to the way that we see a 3D image, in stereo on a monitor or a movie screen. The way that your brain places things in depth is actually by fusing fine detail. So instead of looking at edges or anything specific, your brain is looking at texture. It’s matching these textural patterns from one eye to the other and then it places those in depth. So 4K gives you essentially four times more pixels than 2K because it’s twice as wide and twice as high. What that means is that there’s so much more detail that the depth stage is much more nuanced. It’s much more natural.

LEE: It translates into clarity in your head and transparency. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

DEADLINE: It removes the detachment we feel when we watch movies now?

GERVAIS: Exactly. The enemy of resolution is actually a low frame rate. The lower your frame rate, the more motion blur you have. As soon as you move the camera at 24 frames that whole frame is a blur and the only reason you can make out a person’s face is because the camera operator is panning on the person you’re looking at. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to see the expression on their face because it would be blurry. Going up to 120, each frame has a fraction of the blur that it has at 24, so those frames are all sharp, and you’re seeing them all that quickly. So now the motion blur is mostly gone, and we’re showing you really high detail frames, faster than your eye can individually perceive them. They all are integrating on the back of your retina. What that does is it means you can see little things like…when we saw 120 for the first time we had been watching a certain test shot where a girl lifts up her shirt and somebody touches her side. We had seen that a bunch of times in the lower frame rate. All of a sudden, we see that in 120 that her side quivers before he touches it. You can see in someone’s face…in a close-up you can see the subtleties of facial tics and eye movement and things like that that in 24 you never see.

LEE: To me, it gets under the skin, to what they really feel. I don’t know why that is, but you see more.

GERVAIS: It gives you this sense of immediacy and intimacy that we haven’t been able to experience before. It’s like that person is sitting right across from you, but it’s more powerful because that person is now massive on the screen.

DEADLINE: So how many venues will offer the Whole Shebang?

GERVAIS: It’ll be a handful, because it’s so pricey. Having this master version means that we can boil it down to lower frame rate versions that go to the regular theaters and stays as true as possible to that source material. We can get 3D 60 at lots of theaters and we can get 120 2D in 2K. With those, you can get close to the experience. You can’t get there but you can definitely bring some of that intimacy back.

Tim Dahlberg Boxing
Associated Press

LEE: The whole thing is how the movie flows. This is not a regular movie, with acting and scenes. This has its own flow. It was very challenging, but that’s what makes moviemaking interesting. We’re not doing jobs. We’re trying to figure something out that makes you feel alive. You hit your head a lot, getting there. All I’m asking is that people keep an open mind. This is the first movie. It’s not going to figure everything out, all the answers, but we tried. And I believe it’s very watchable and that is something I’m very proud of. We made it watchable and I think that’s a miracle we went this far. It’s a big leap. I want to continue in this world, and it is good we went through this. I wanted to do that boxing movie and we figured out some things, but there are a lot of other challenges with that movie. It’s a higher-budget movie, and it has action in it. You cannot really act in the ring. How do you do boxing convincingly, so you feel like what it is to be hit by Joe Frazier? Imagine Ali, seeing Frazier coming at him with bad intentions? Or you’re the referee, watching the two of them. What’s that like? But I think we’ve now got half of the puzzle sort of figured out.

I’m also eager to make a case that I think this media is most effective when you watch faces more than action. It is a very important thing in life; we study each other’s faces. I’m really eager to persuade people that 3D is about that, and not the action or the spectacle. They think 3D is either action or spectacle, maybe a space movie, or a cartoon. I beg to differ. I think the most you get out of this, is reading faces. When you have details, the way you pick up information is different. I think the most worthy thing is watching the faces.

DEADLINE: When James Cameron made Avatar, he showed it early to a lot of top filmmakers to demonstrate what was possible in 3D. You didn’t show this to anybody other than NYFF director Ken Jones. What are you hoping this movie says to filmmakers, and to the exhibition community which is having trouble getting audiences to come to the theater and see something they cannot by staying home with all the forms of media that gives them what they want when they want it?

LEE: Honestly, I hope this intrigues some filmmakers to do their thing. We have a saying in Chinese. You throw a brick, something that’s almost nothing, and back comes something precious. I hope somebody sees this and wants to do something better with it. My ego would get hurt a little bit. I like to hear praise for my work, but here we were just trying our best to figure out something new. It’s important people like yourself can set the table and let the world know and I can say, look, please have an open mind. That’s necessary because we’ve jumped maybe too far here. But eventually, we don’t want to be alone in this quest. It’s too hard, and too lonely. We want people to join. Movies become so good because people watch, and then they do it. I want people to watch this and say, let me show you what I can do with that. I can do better. I hope some will be inspired. I cannot expect that everybody will be.

DEADLINE: Can TV or home theater replicate what you just showed me?

GERVAIS: Not in the Whole Shebang format.

LEE: And not in the next 10, 20 years. And so this could be a thing that brings people back to the theater. I hope.

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