Do we really need the immersion? HFR cinema and ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’


Everyone knows that to watch a movie and enjoy it, you have to surrender yourself a little. The old “suspension of disbelief”. Of course, it can’t entirely fall to the moviegoer - movies must, to varying degrees, come with scripts, performances or visuals that meet the viewer somewhere in the middle.

The movie becomes a kind of argument - can a viewer be persuaded that the events in the film make sense, at least within the “rules” of that movie? This even applies to films with the most whacked-out concepts; audiences will accept a living tree-creature like Groot in a space adventure like Guardians of the Galaxy, but if he turned up unannounced in an otherwise normal romantic comedy, it’s a sign that something’s gone sideways.

The issue that inevitably follows is when we accidentally equate the suspension of disbelief with realism. Surely (production companies are thinking) the best way to overcome any lingering lack of faith in a movie is to be plunged into the most lifelike film worlds possible? If the viewer feels like they’re in the movie, won’t they accept everything put in front of them?

As filmmaking tech advances year over year, a myth persists that you can’t really feel like you’re there with the characters unless some fancy production method or theatrical experience helps you out. This extends to all sorts of products and experiences: IMAX enhanced with laser projection, 3D glasses, HDR televisions, or 4D theatre seats...also known as torture chairs.

Lynn's sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) objects to the war and looks for a way to get him out.
Lynn's sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) objects to the war and looks for a way to get him out.

Each of these contributes differently to the movie (for my money, laser IMAX is the best of the bunch). But then there’s high frame rate (HFR) movies. Compared to the others, HFR is deployed in a very limited way. So far, the only mainstream movies it’s been applied to have been Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy and just last month, Ang Lee’s drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (James Cameron has announced that his Avatar sequels will also use the format). To make matters more confusing, it’s variously marketed as “high frame rate”, “HFR” or in the case of Billy Lynn screenings here in Canada, “Immersive Cinema” - whatever that is. Something tells me the people pushing the format could use a Don Draper pep talk.

If you’ve never seen a movie in a high frame rate, it truly is unlike anything you’ve seen on the big screen. The details in the images are all incredibly crisp. Actors look hyper-real, as if they were in the venue with you, moving around a giant theatre stage just beyond the frame of the screen.

Bizarrely, this extra “reality” comes with extra fakery. Standard cinematic tricks like lighting, makeup and digital effects look glaringly obvious. You’re never not aware of the camera - even simple movements or edits scream out at you, when they wouldn’t have in a traditionally-shot movie. And at least for me, it’s not the right kind of attention-grabbing: the effect is strange and almost makes you think Lee and his team are making basic framing mistakes, when the rational part of your brain knows they're not.

When I first tried out HFR with The Hobbit, I thought that the misgivings I had about the format had more to do with the genre than the technology. Since fantasy movies like Jackson’s trilogy require so much production design and CGI, I reasoned that HFR wasn’t a good fit - it actually made it harder to suspend disbelief because it exposed so many flaws.

Maybe the polar opposite of an effects-heavy film set in Middle-earth is a drama with simple dialogue scenes between characters living in a world just like our own. Which is exactly what we find in Billy Lynn. For the uninitiated, the movie tells the story of a young soldier (Joe Alwyn) serving in the Iraq conflict who has become a national hero due to an act of bravery captured on a videojournalist’s camera. Lynn is paraded around the country on a two-week tour with his squad, culminating in an appearance during the half-time show at the Super Bowl. In the midst of the excitement, Lynn begins to have doubts about his future in the military, and must decide whether he’s cut out for the life of a soldier.

Sections of the script are rather compelling, and there’s strong performances to be found from Kristen Stewart (as Lynn’s older sister), Garrett Hedlund (as Lynn’s commanding officer) and Vin Diesel (as his sergeant in Iraq). But it’s awfully hard to focus on any of them with all the extra frames flying at your eyes.

Joe Alwyn and director Ang Lee with one of the special cameras used for the HFR capture.
Joe Alwyn and director Ang Lee with one of the special cameras used for the HFR capture.

Now, you can make the argument that the film should be judged based on how well it works as a story, not how the fancy tech affects it. But it’s always been Lee’s intention for people to see the film in HFR, and so I believe the two are inseparable. To see the film as the director intended means getting a profoundly mixed experience for any moviegoer not equipped with (and actively using) a 120 Hz TV at home.

So with these kinds of results for HFR, what’s to be said about the tech in the long run? Is it the future of cinema? A gimmick? I say neither - it’s merely a tool being used incorrectly. Instead of a treatment for an entire film, the promise of HFR lies in limited use in individual scenes, particularly ones where filmmakers want to grab the viewer by the eyeballs all of a sudden, like a dream sequence or a flashback.

Just in the way Lee himself played with aspect ratio in certain scenes in his previous film Life of Pi, HFR is a technique that is a little too obvious to use constantly. For the same reason that a movie shot entirely with a drone would likely have a cold, overly distanced feel to the cinematography, so too a wall-to-wall HFR feature is led astray by the availability of a new process. You can’t blame Ang Lee for trying - he wants his audience to live in his movie, but forgets that we don’t go to the movies to live somewhere; most of us prefer to visit.

What do you think about the emergence of high-frame-rate cinema? Is it something all filmmakers will eventually adopt? Or is it a movie technology that is too niche to go mainstream? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!