Sunday, October 23, 2016
Why do I hate critics, this is why...
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk shows the promise and failure of high-frame-rate cinema.
Ang Lee, the three-time Oscar-winning film director, did his best to lower expectations. "It's kind of an experimental movie," he said at the Friday night premiere of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk at the New York Film Festival. His latest project, a $40 million drama starring Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, and Vin Diesel, is the first ever to be shot in super-high-resolution 3-D at 120 frames per second. Lee knew its novel look—unrelenting clarity, abundant blooms of fine detail—might come off as more disturbing than impressive. "This is not just a new technology, but a new habit in watching movies," he warned the crowd. "I hope you keep an open mind."
Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.
This was, perhaps, too much to ask. From the film's opening image—Billy Lynn in bed, looking like a 3-D printout of a human being with a hangover—I could feel the spring-loaded trapdoors of my mind snapping shut. The scene looked queer, uncinematic, like a theater sketch acted out in virtual reality. Others in the audience also found themselves distracted or unnerved by the movie's high-res format. "I'm sorry. I tried to keep an open mind," tweeted film critic Bilge Ebiri after the screening. "But High Frame Rate is a fucking crime against cinema."
Ang Lee is not the first director to stand accused of this particular crime. In 2012, Peter Jackson released the first of his Hobbit films in 48 frames-per-second format—not nearly as souped-up as Billy Lynn's 120 fps, but still twice the standard 24 fps. Then, as now, critics were dismissive of the high-frame-rate (HFR) effect. It looked like a teleplay, they said, or tatty summer-stock. When Jackson used the format for his second and third Hobbit films, he added lens filters and post-production work to relax and blur the imagery, hoping it wouldn't look so painfully precise.
A few of us were inclined to take a softer view of his experiment. (I rated Jackson's foray a stumbling success.) It was easy to imagine, back then, that The Hobbit simply suffered from a mismatch between frame rate and genre. Maybe the HFR would have been compelling had its razor clarity not carved away the artifice of Middle Earth, exposing the corny sets and props. Perhaps the format would be better-suited to a movie in a more steely, realist mode—one in which the sharpness added authenticity instead of making things look artificial. Now we have just such a film, an understated depiction of a young soldier with traumatic memories of his deployment in Iraq.* And yet, high-frame-rate cinema still looks unnatural and off-putting.
For a certain kind of cinematic futurist—a guy like Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, or James Cameron (who plans to use HFR for his Avatar sequels)—this rejection of fantastic, futuristic technology seems bizarre. High-frame-rate cinema isn't meant to be a gimmick, something pasted on for added thrills. It's supposed to be a cleaner and more honest record of the action in a scene, with the ugly artifacts of motion blur removed. As the press notes for Billy Lynn point out, by shooting in the unprecedented HFR/4K/3-D format, Lee's production stored 40 times more data than a standard film: five times as many frames per second, four times as many pixels in each frame, and then everything doubled for 3-D. How could all this extra information fail to make the movie better?
For decades now, forward-looking filmmakers have tried to prove that when it comes to frame rates, more is really more. Douglas Trumbull, who did the visual effects for 2001 and Blade Runner, has advocated for higher frame rates since the 1970s. By eliminating flicker, he argued all those years ago, filmmakers could produce a smoother picture—a sort of "liquid realism" that would be more affecting and engaging. According to an essay on high-frame-rate cinema by film scholar Julie Turnock of the University of Illinois, Trumbull tested out his theory by measuring the brain waves, pulse, and skin conductance of people as they watched movies with different frame rates. All three measures would increase, he claimed, as he raised the rate to 60 fps.
In the past few years, visual psychologists have taken up this line of research, confirming time and again that Trumbull had it right: Higher frame rates do produce more compelling imagery, at least insofar as one can measure such things in the lab. (Trumbull, for his part, is still working on HFR at his farm in rural Massachusetts.) A Japanese researcher, who published his work several months before the release of The Hobbit, found that people were better at perceiving depth cues in high-frame-rate 3-D films, where the moving images appeared more "natural." Two years later, a team of Canadian researchers published an experiment in which they showed 3-D movies to volunteers at different frame rates, then asked them to rate the movies' quality on a scale of 1 to 100. The HFR videos got the highest ratings by far, scoring 55 percent higher than standard clips.
The most effective scenes in Billy Lynn are the ones that seem the least movielike.
These two studies, and several others like them, show that people think HFR clips are pretty snazzy. But they don't have much to say about whether anyone actually prefers them. (An experimental subject might conclude, for example, that HFR is at once "natural," "high quality" and "a fucking crime against cinema.") Another vision researcher, Laurie Wilcox of York University, has recently addressed the latter question. In her study, titled "Evidence that Viewers Prefer Higher Frame-Rate Film," viewers rated short movies on four technical attributes (realism, clarity, depth quality, and smoothness of motion) as well as on their overall likability. On every measure, including the all-important last one, her subjects said the HFR clips were superior. That preference has been remarkably consistent across her work, she says, and it applies to both 2-D and 3-D content.
In other words, HFR appears to be the New Coke of cinema—a product people claim to love in taste tests but which no one enjoys in real-world settings. This disparity—what one group of sociologists calls "The Hobbit hyperreality paradox"—has no simple explanation. If HFR looks so damn good, then why don't we like it in the theater?
It could be that the lab tests, in which people watch very short video clips, don't get at how it feels to watch a full-length film. In the same way a soda "sip test" won't tell you all that much about a person's taste in soft drinks, a movie "clip test" might not predict her feelings at the multiplex. Maybe all the extra information you get from HFR goes down smoothly in small doses, while over time its richness overwhelms the senses. My own experience suggests the opposite: At screenings of both The Hobbit and Billy Lynn, the freaky newness of the format proved least palatable at the start, with the off-notes fading as the film went on. (Though they never really went away.)
Perhaps the scaffolding of Hollywood cinema is more to blame. Film clips used in high-frame-rate lab research tend to be artless and straightforward—documentary shots of trees or abstract animations. The frame rate could be a turnoff only when it's mixed with the grammar used for telling stories on the screen. Montages, tilts, and focus pulls provide a structure for a movie; they work like punctuation marks on a printed page, barely noticed guides for your attention. In Billy Lynn, the HFR makes those guides pop out. Panning shots no longer blur the background with their motion; cuts seem extra jagged. As a viewer, it felt like reading a book in which all the commas and periods had been put in bold and underlined.
Or maybe the issue is the content rather than the structure. The sets and props in Billy Lynn are as troublesome as they were for The Hobbit, though for opposite reasons. In Jackson's film, Gandalf's staff and Thorin's axe looked too fake, like low-end gear for LARPing. In Billy Lynn, a film that's set for the most part inside a football stadium, the props at times seemed too real. When Billy's unit gets invited to a lush buffet inside the owner's box, the limpid, high-res food—glistening kielbasas, ripe chunks of cantaloupe—disrupts and dominates the scene. You can't take your eyes off of those kielbasas! The actors, too, are more exposed in HFR. Just as high-definition cameras revealed the use of heavy powder and foundation, so do higher frame-rates spotlight an actor's put-on smile. I couldn't tell if the performances in Billy Lynn were wooden, or if they'd been made to look that way when viewed at finer grain.
In the early 1980s, Trumbull suggested the changeover to high-frame-rate cinema would be so significant as to require the development of new techniques of filmmaking. Directors would have to play scenes differently, he said, with over-the-shoulder shots minimized and "the angles, the timing, and the looks of the characters" adapted to suit the new format. Peter Jackson made no such effort, as far as I could tell. In Billy Lynn, though, Ang Lee does try to adapt to the new medium. He lets the camera linger in Billy's point of view, with other characters talking straight into the lens. It's a nod to the first-person shooter, a mode of digital entertainment where higher frame rates—60 fps, to be specific—have become de rigueur.
But the reference to videogames only makes the weirdness problem worse. We're used to seeing films at 24 fps; we're used to watching telecasts at 30 fps; we're used to playing Call of Duty at 60 fps. These distinctions are mostly accidents of history, yet they've come to stand in for a hierarchy of artistic production. As Julie Turnock points out in her essay, not all forms of moving pictures have the same prestige; some are deemed more sophisticated than the others. So a movie shot in HFR suffers from its likeness to less vaunted forms of entertainment: soap operas, sporting events, video games. For all its clarity and definition, high-frame-rate cinema comes off as déclassé.In the end, what's most troubling about HFR is not the way it looks—I mean, come on, it looks fantastic—but what that look connotes. And Billy Lynn connotes, more than anything else, a high-end game.
Indeed, the most effective scenes in Billy Lynn—I mean, the ones that look the best in superdeluxe HFR/4K/3-D—are those that seem the least movielike. First, a glimpse of action on the football field, just enough to advertise the format for showing live sports events. (Trust me, high-frame-rate 3-D sports will be extraordinary.) Second, Billy tussling, Call of Duty–style, with a soldier in a broken sewage pipe, hinting at a brighter future for virtual reality.
Most exciting is the way Lee modulates the frame rate from one scene to the next. At certain points he revs the footage up to 120 fps, while at others the movie slides toward more familiar speeds. Lee saves the most intense, hyperreal effects for Billy's wartime flashbacks, where the format works to sharpen the emotion. These are Billy's post-traumatic visions, the result of too much information stored inside his head, and the movie shows them as they seem to him—overly graphic, drenched in violent clarity, bleeding out minutiae. If there's any future for HFR in Hollywood, this must be it—not as a hardware upgrade on the endless path to total cinema, but as a tool that can be torqued to fill a need.
And after we buy those new TVs we turn OFF the motion smoothing as soon as possible so that movies don't all look like soap operas. More.
As of now, only two theaters in the country are scheduled to project Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in its native 120 fps. Even there it won't do much to advance the cause of its technology—it just looks and feels too different from every other movie we've seen in the multiplex. But Ang Lee is right: The aversion to HFR has as much to do with habit as aesthetics, and habits change more quickly than we think. In recent years we've seen a wholesale shift from celluloid to video, and a 3-D fad that never went away. Frame-rate standards, too, are starting to evolve. We now shoot TV shows at 24 fps to make them look more like movies, and we buy TVs that "motion smooth" our movies up to 120 fps. Will HFR/4K/3-D ever go mainstream? Our next chance to evaluate the format may not come until Christmas of next year, when Avatar 2 is scheduled for release. In the meantime, I'll try to keep an open mind.
*Correction, Oct. 21, 2016: This article originally misidentified the title character in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk as a Marine. He is a soldier. (Return.)
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