Article: What Happened to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk?

In the mid-1970s, pioneering visual effects master Douglas Trumbull began experimenting with a revolutionary film process that would theoretically immerse filmgoers deeper into the world of the movies called Showscan.  Contrary to the industry standard of 35mm or 65mm film projected at twenty-four frames per second, Showscan aimed to combine 65mm film with an exceptionally higher frame rate of sixty frames per second.  The resulting image, when photographed and projected as shot, would appear more lifelike with increased clarity and far smoother movement in motion.  

The process was on the cusp of being utilized in Trumbull’s second feature film Brainstorm until the studio balked at the costliness of outfitting movie theaters with equipment capable of playing it.  Ultimately the process was scrapped in favor of a more affordable 35mm/70mm film mixture projected in standard twenty-four frames per second.  Years later Showscan did become essential to theme park rides such as the Trumbull directed Back to the Future: The Ride and he continued to develop newer processes such as MAGI which would photograph and project at one-hundred-and-twenty frames per second, blurring the lines between cinema and reality just a little bit more than before. 

Yet for all the advanced technical breakthroughs of film photography and exhibition, their collective uses remained outside of mainstream motion pictures.  Briefly that changed with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film series in 2012 which was photographed and released theatrically at a high frame rate of forty-eight frames per second.  Contrary to the industry standard this approach shot on the Red Epic camera provided smoother motion and solved a variety of 3D synchronization problems.  Despite being among the only high frame rate films to go wide, the process also engendered complaints either due to outdated machinery or ill equipped projectionists unfamiliar with the necessary adjustments to make. 

As a high frame rate motion picture, the process still didn’t match anything near the level of what Trumbull had proposed with Showscan or his recently proposed MAGI process and three decades went by with no new developments on the high-frame-rate process until Ang Lee’s 2016 Iraq war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, the Life of Pi director envisioned his talky, cerebral postwar satire as a cinematic game changer by photographing entirely in one-hundred-and-twenty frames per second!  While Lee consulted Trumbull for camera tests, the director ultimately went off in his own direction regarding the process. 

Budgeted at $40 million as a joint co-production between the United States, Great Britain and China, the film was shot on the Sony CineAlta F65 in HFR (highest frame rate) and was poised to be the film that would boldly challenge the conventional approach to film exhibition.  Unfortunately for all of Ang Lee’s ambitious, technically proficient envelope-pushing filmmaking, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fell hard on deaf ears.  Only two movie theaters in the United States were equipped to play the film in the intended frame rate and after being expanded to a wider release to measly numbers was dubbed the twenty-fifth worst ever debut for a major film. 

Lee received some of the harshest reviews of career and unlike the director’s previous technological demonstration film Life of Pi it never found an audience.  In the three years since its release it remains an almost entirely overlooked curiosity.  What went wrong?  How did the film directors like Douglas Trumbull have been pushing for after three decades come and go completely unnoticed by the general movie going public?  Furthermore, given the film’s commercial and critical failure, will we ever see a film quite like it happen ever again? 

Having finally viewed Ang Lee’s troubled (misbegotten?) technological breakthrough on 4K UHD disc which contains the film at a still startling sixty frames per second as opposed to the native one-hundred-and-twenty frames per second presentation, I’m frankly amazed of all movies that THIS was the one chosen to debut the HFR approach to filmmaking.  While escapist entertainments loaded with spectacle such as James Cameron’s Avatar and Ang Lee’s own Life of Pi seem tailor made for HFR, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a cynical, downbeat dialogue-driven Iraq war drama told largely in medium close-ups of the actors faces designed to anger and enrage the viewer rather than entertain. 

That much of it takes place within a football stadium only serves to exacerbate the intended format’s unintentional kinship with broadcast television.  When viewed at sixty frames per second, it tends to look like live network TV instead of cinema, creating difficulties in remaining invested in the idea of it as a feature film.  It’s worth noting despite being available on 4K UHD in a frame rate closer to what was intended, neither the UHD nor the 3D BD included can quite handle the film as shot. 

The conundrum of spending a majority of the film’s budget on a high frame rate cinematographic process which required additional lighting and transparent makeup on the actors’ faces only to have all of that innovation and money wasted on a theatrical release incapable of displaying it properly invariably boxed Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk into a corner.  How did Lee’s film get to the stage of being the most state-of-the-art technological film yet made to that of a film fiasco nobody saw?  One wonders whether or not the picture would have been more critically and commercially successful had the HFR process been avoided entirely. 

After being attached to the project, Lee presented his proposition of shooting the film at one-hundred-and-twenty frames per second to the then-CEO of Sony Pictures Tom Rothman who suggested mixing up the frame rates as he was unsure of the glistening patina of the full high frame rate.  Lee, who felt the technique would immerse viewers deeper into combat sequences than ever before, proceeded with his vision unfazed by Rothman’s complaints.  After turning over a final cut Rothman decided not to invest in outfitting theaters with the necessary equipment for a wide rollout of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  The move spoke volumes to the gulf between filmmaker ambition and studio financial flexibility, with what seemed like a corporate giant condemning its most prized possession to a quiet death.

While the end result is indeed visually stunning thanks to two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer John Toll and the frame rate does present a cinematic experience never seen before or since, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was simply the wrong movie to demonstrate the technology with.  Feeling more like a soap opera than cinema or live theater projected in cinemas via Fathom Events, the film while beautifully shot rarely offers much in the way of big screen spectacle.  With exception to scenic vistas like Vin Diesel and Joe Alwyn conversing beneath a tree in Iraq, this a mostly a modestly sized talker that happened to pump up the budget due to the high frame rate. 

With most of it taking place inside an arena millions of people watch on network television all the time, viewers weren’t so keen on paying to see something widely available for free.  The cost alone of a ticket to see it in the intended form ran $20 or more depending on the venue with frankly little to justify the price tag.  The Iraq combat sequences are indeed exciting but they’re few and far between, taking a back seat to heated conversations within the walls and mundanity of the football stadium.  Perhaps Lee’s intention was to force viewers to rethink the visual extravaganza and goals of a halftime show, but for many the cinematographic effect proved to either unwatchable or even Dadaist.

At times the frame rate invariably made some of the limitations of the computer generated imagery stand out that much more.  Take for instance a combat sequence being shared online to demonstrate how the technology works.  While every bullet flying out of the chamber is visible as opposed to a blur when viewed at the standard frame rate, effects like the smoke left from a rocket launcher or a terrorist evaporating in a mess of digital blood stick out like a sore thumb in the full frame rate.  Lee has always been one of the true technical craftsmen of the movie business and is always finding new ways to plunge into uncharted visual effects territory, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and recently Life of Pi being no exception.  Here, however, the extreme high frame rate and elevated sharpness only highlight the loose ends of his technique. 

Much of it is driven by dialogue and one wonders what the goal of photographing dinner table conversation or pillow talk at one-hundred-and-twenty frames per second is.  While not unwatchable, the very technological breakthrough meant to immerse me deeper into the film kept yanking me out of it.  In a way despite the decreased resolution, viewing the film at the reduced frame rate on the standard blu-ray included actually proved to be easier on the eyes and less distracting.

Then there are those especially peculiar moments where we’re drifting in and out of Billy Lynn’s head and to reflect his interior monologue the surrounding characters and backgrounds tint to black and white and revert to twenty-four frames per second while a halo around Billy keeps him in color at sixty frames per second!  It’s a bizarre effect that absolutely depends on the availability of the high frame rate in order to work on some level.  In the reduced frame rate the differences in the contrasting speeds becomes invisible, ruining the effect.  One also can’t help but imagine how a stack of footballs flying at the camera or a circumference of Billy Lynn during the halftime show would have looked with the full frame rate and 3D rendering in place instead of only getting one or the other on home video.

After bombing hard and taking an even more brutal critical takedown, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk quickly completely disappeared from pop cultural consciousness and the film was largely dismissed as inessential.  A shame but not entirely unsurprising as the goals far exceeded the director’s grasp with a troubled rollout and a downbeat, meandering postwar satire not many viewers wanted to sit through.  Looking back it is kind of a miracle something like it exists, utilizing all the untried state-of-the-art tools for escapist entertainment on a hard hitting drama designed to make viewers feel really bad. 

Is it any wonder why something like Lee’s fascinating misfire was doomed from the moment the idea of pairing this material up with this revolutionary film format came about?  The film may have worked far better and attained a greater following had it simply been made like any other motion picture.  By trying to push the envelope as hard as they did, the experimental techniques may well have inadvertently pushed moviegoers away from seeing it.  Some may rightfully argue in introducing the high frame rate process into the preproduction stages, the filmmakers may have lost sight of what they were really trying to make with too much emphasis placed on the technology rather than the story.

Also worth mentioning are MAGI founder Douglas Trumbull’s own reactions to the film, who notably disliked the finished product.  Trumbull, who is still working steadfast on his high-frame-rate film process, pointed to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as an example of how not to do a high-frame-rate movie.  As with pretty much everyone else who saw it, Trumbull remarked the film looked very like network television.  Furthermore he believes that with his still gestating MAGI process he will unveil a one-hundred-and-twenty frames per second cinematographic technique that will present increased clarity but will still look like conventional cinema instead of television. 

As the film business and its most brilliant innovators continue to come up with new ways to enhance or otherwise offer a different kind of moviegoing experience, one hopes that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk served as a valuable lesson to industry insiders and filmgoers alike.  While the resulting drama was well made and acted with some surprising turns by veteran actors like Steve Martin and Chris Tucker, overall the experience was weird.  You’re never really sure how to accept the film which uses all the tools of escapist entertainment to deliver a wry, unhappy experience that isn’t all that exciting to look at or contemplate. 

Compounded with a variety of technical factors working against the narrative largely related to the anomalies created by the high frame rate process, for all the painstaking struggles undertaken the end result is kind of disengaging and cold.  Whereas I was fully invested in many of the director’s prior works, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk mostly proceeded without me and what was intended to come off as a real emotional crusher just kind of ended on a whimper.  At the end of the day, the film was in deep trouble the moment it was decided the high frame rate process would be such a centralized aspect of it.  I’m glad Mr. Lee tried it out and still am hopeful for the format’s future, but let’s not do that again anytime soon.

- Andrew Kotwicki