Disruptive technology drive the evolution of cinema

New York, October 2016

Ang Lee’s movie Billy Lynn’s Long halftime walk, has recently been prescreened at New York Film Festival, and the reviews have been mixed, at best. It seems like the marketing parameters of 4k/3D/120 fps/HDR has lead to more confusion than resolve amongst seasoned critics and moviegoers alike. But that is not a good reason to not go and see it.

I had decided to not see the movie, unless I was able to watch it as it was intended to, and in November I finally entered the gates of the Beijing Chao wai you tang Theatre, run by the Dalian Wanda owned chain AMC.

Without saying too much about the film itself, to me the viewing experience was a real game-changer. I have worked with 4k+ material myself since early 2008, but seeing Billy Lynn, made it all make sense.

4k is not necessarily just an incremental evolvement of cinema. It can be a whole new beast. And my personal response to the experience: Running home and finally buy a 4k TV to watch Netflix and whatever 4k material available. Sony should be proud!

Film distribution went digital in 2006. Film-production went digital abruptly, unwillingly and surprisingly to most in the business over a few months from April 2008. Kodak, the market leading film-stock company, ironically the inventor of the digital camera back in 1975, the untouchable godfather of “all things film” and host of the Oscars, filed for bankruptcy in 2012. By 2013, Fuji, the 2nd largest producer of film stock, gave in. ARRI, the market leader in film cameras for almost 100 years, stopped selling cameras almost overnight and its main competitor, Aaton was quickly out of the camera-business.

Almost none of the “business specialists” wanted this change to happen, as they overwhelmingly agreed that “digital would never achieve the filmic characteristics needed for the language of narrative filmmaking”. But digital projection was a reality, and so was RED Digital Cinema Camera, and the film industry and moviemaking will never be exactly the same.

Changes in this business happen incredibly fast. Despite producers like George Lucas working all-digital through the Star Wars reboot for a decade, this transition hit the business like a bomb when it happened. Those positioned for that change survived and prospered.

Technically, film-making has been conceptually the same since the mid 1930’s when colour and sound were introduced. The way we make films has evolved, but the technical constraints have largely remained unchanged. 24 FPS has its limitations as to how you move the camera to get fluid motions, and blurry low-detail images has become a signature of “filmic” look, due to the consequences of the chosen format.

History is rich with examples of movies hated by the critics and connoisseurs, that have become normative technical and aesthetic masterpieces, as the audience has grown to synchronise with the evolution that really happened. My favourite examples are the Stanley Kubrick movies “2001: A space Oddysey”,  “A Clockwork Orange”,  “Barry Lyndon” and “The Shining”. All hated by the reviewers at the time of their release because they each in their way broke “the rules of filmic story-telling”, but each of those films have become influential reference works technically and aesthetically for those film-makers that figured out what they just had seen and they are all by now baked deep into the vocabulary of filmgoers, cinematographers and directors alike.

Film is a language, like music. It needs a bit of getting used to to understand the code and what is “good” or “bad”. To me, it is impossible to comprehend if the Peking Opera performance I go to is an excellent one or a total catastrophe, as I don’t have the language or knowledge to evaluate it. When someone break these established rules, outrage and confusion is usually the result amongst those who have prided themselves of knowing them. Breaking those rules, challenges the reviewers taste, knowledge and competence. But this is also a necessity to nuture the evolution of an artform. Music history would not have been the same, if Igor Stravinskij had accepted defeat when rotten eggs and tomatoes were thrown at the performance of the “Rite of spring”, back in Paris in 1913.

4k/3D/120 fps/HDR. 20+ times the data normally used to display a second of film.

Those are just numbers, and unless you work with and are intimately familiar with these terms and visual implications, the numbers don’t really translate into anything meaningful. Thus it’s kinda strange to see how Billy Lynn is marketed through these parameters and not through a focus on an exceptional story and perspective changing story-telling.

That said, these numbers don’t represent minuscular breaches with what we know as a “filmic expression”. Each and every one of them represent a major deviation from film “as we know it” and how films can be shot and screened.

When the critics see this movie, they naturally rely on the references they have to try to express what they saw, which is sports on TV, video games or “The Hobbit” by Peter Jackson for the frame rates, 4k 3D has simply not been possible and would look catastrophic with the current cinema projection standard, and the “HDR” part of the equation seems to get lost on most: It simply means that for the first time you get to see a colourful contrasty and lively image in 3D, even after putting on the glasses that inherently softens the image and with the silver screens used to project 3D, cuts and dulls the amount of light and colours that hit the eyes in a fourth… at best.

There are some significant differences distancing Billy Lynn from “The Hobbit”. Peter Jackson shot “The Hobbit” exactly as he would shoot 24fps, it was even edited at 24fps and he shot with the same shutter you normally use for a 24p release. The remaining frames were just re-ingested for the final master and projection. But the choice didn’t practically affect the production a lot, outside storage needs.

Ang Lee spent 100 days in prep with full crew to find new concepts for lighting and camera movements, directing and set-building, really: how to explore the new framework they had created and for what it’s worth, James Cameron agrees with Lee. The most successful director of the last few decades, has pledged that high framerates is the future of cinema. But of course, these new boundaries need to be properly explored, to get beyond the scary definition of “unknown”.

What Ang Lee, Studio8, FOSUN and SONY has done, is really to change most of the accepted technical boundaries of film-making that directors have complied to for practical reasons for 90 years, and started an experiment on what these new parameters could mean for film-making and movie-goers. This is something none of us know the answer to at this moment.

Why is this development close to a necessity?
Noone ever complained about Charlie Chaplin? Or Tarkovsky?

Personally I think the tools presented through Billy Lynn will go into the language. You’ll change frame rates within a movie for theatrical screenings, like you change lenses, filters or lighting. Frame rates will become a tool to express a multitude of expressions. If you look closely at a fight-scene in the “Bourne” series, you realise you don’t really see anything for real of the violence that is expressed. Despite the critics unison outrage of technology presented in Billy Lynn, it seems like most of them overlook how the war scenes apparently work well with this new expression, an interesting contradiction in the tech analysis.

Whether Billy Lynn becomes  a success or not, the film is an early iteration of a necessary evolution that production companies and owners of theatres  eventually have to confront, if they want people to still horde to the box-office and create recurring income for studios and theatre owners, instead of watching movies on platforms like Netflix, Amazone Prime, Le TV, their computers or mobile devices. The last few years streaming services has caught up with and in many respects surpassed the technical quality of the digital cinema standard.

In a speech in LA, Wanda – the worlds largest film distributor and builder of one of the world biggest film production studios in Qingdao, Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin stated:

“An average American goes to the theatre four times a year, while in China the average is less than one time per year in 2015. However, in 10 years, if China’s cinema attendance rate reaches that of the U.S. or slightly less, China’s box office will still be 3 times as big as the current level in North America.”

That statement comes after a year where both Chinese and US box-offices have declined. In second quarter, there was even a year-over-year decline of 5% in China, compared to a 49% growth in 2015. The Wanda statement is only true, if the theatres still have content that makes it worthwhile to leave the living-room and get that total, social and immersive experience a movie in a theatre can be, compared to what people can see in the comfort of their own sofas. If you want people to fill theatres, you must give them exclusive and great content to see. If the Cinema experience does not evolve, it risks getting dated and left behind like a few other popular cultural relics of the 20th century.

It is easy to forget that cinema is the youngest of the art forms, and I believe it has the potential to evolve with the time it exists in. Music, art and theatre have a multitude of genres that all manage to draw audiences to their public performances. At the moment, we all have a too well defined idea of what makes a “good movie”. If we compare that to music, we know that some love Mozart, others love Xenakis, while there is still room for a billion or so to actually love Sex Pistols. Art is diversity.

This inevitable evolvement of the genre, translates to huge investments in new production techniques and not least in theatres and screening technology to secure an experience not allowed for in your home, with glasses, on a computer screen or an UHD TV.

Film as entertainment is a huge business, but unless the producers and the theatre owners are aware of the realities in the technical evolution they are part of, many more will experience the same fortune as Kodak and Fuji.

Companies like FOSUN, SONY and Studio8 who have invested in forward thinking IP for these new techniques , can look at a hefty return on investment, no matter if Billy Lynn ends up only being displayed the way it was intended to at the 5 theatres around the globe ready for the technology at this stage. The tech can be implemented in a number of other settings, and keep people happy and out of the sofa, no matter what happens to movie-theatres. The future of collective movie-going, could be in additional yet unknown formats to the established ones.

Ang Lee has a long-term deal with Studio 8 and FOSUN is said to be there for keeps, he will direct the biographical movie about Mohammed Ali, which is rumoured to take on even larger technical achievements than Billy Lynn, what can we expect from that?

This is of course highly speculative, but let’s say for a moment that Billy Lynn is taking cinema as far as is possible within the parameters known for a 100 years. It is high framerate, that can still evolve, but won’t significantly change the format, it’s 3D, but that still requires the audience to sit at a fixed point and look at a flat screen and has been worked on since the 1890’ies, and it’s full of details, that can get even richer, like the 8k Japanese NHK TV, and finally fidelity is getting acceptable for 3D screenings, still there is a limit to how far you want to take that.  All these technical changes of boundaries are still within the idea of “more of the same”.

Taken that, that Ang Lee wants to create even more immersive experiences and the claim that he wants to “Take the viewers inside the ring”, all of that hints at a new way to see a narrative movie.

VR has a bit of that, but VR is thus far currently limited by the viewers point of view and the limitations of what the cameras “see” and the glasses. It is possible, though to imagine a bright new immersive world for narrative filmmaking based in VR and other emerging tech. And as it happens, this is a problem many are currently exploring and researching. With a thought set like this, it is imaginable to really “Take the viewers inside the ring” while still keeping the audience in theatres.

And this is actually what Billy Lynn is all about. It’s a way to take the current concept of filmmaking as far as it goes, and through that open up to an unknown evolvement of the format of “filmic experience” beyond what anyone currently can imagine.

It takes a man like Ang Lee to be brave enough to go there.

Gunleik Groven

  • Cinematographer and Director
  • Member of the technical board of the European Association Of Cinematographer (IMAGO)
  • Teaching tech at the Norwegian Film School
  • Inventor of tools for advanced modern workflows and film-sets