Editing: <i>Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk</i>
Issue: December 1, 2016

Editing: Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the latest from director Ang Lee ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life of Pi) about a 19-year-old private who is brought home for a victory tour after a harrowing Iraq battle and tells the story of what really happened to his squad through a series of flashbacks, has certainly been recognized, if nothing else, for its innovative and experimental shooting style. While typically most films are at 24 fps, Lee pushed the possibilities for visual storytelling with a unique approach, shooting in 3D at 4K resolution and 120 frames per second. DP John Toll worked closely with Lee, shooting the film on a Sony CineAlta F65 camera, while Tim Squyres ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life of Pi; Hulk; Sense and Sensibility), who has a long-standing working relationship with Lee, edited the film.

Here, Squyres speaks exclusively with Post just days before the film’s opening, about the editing challenges Billy Lynn presented in the cutting room.

What was expected of you from director Ang Lee for Billy Lynn? Any specific direction or idea of what he was looking for in the editing style?

“Editing style is always determined by the shooting style. You don’t take footage and impose some style on it. You see what is appropriate for what they shot. In this case, he and I have done a lot of films together, we didn’t talk about what was expected of me, it was that I’d cut the film in a way that I’d get the most out of the footage.”

How would you describe the shooting/editing style on this film?

“With my films, you want some variation in pace. You don’t want it to be the same thing throughout. So with each scene, which is the case with any film and not just this one because of the technology, when you have a single shot that can play for a long time, why not? That’s a great way to play a scene. On the other hand, if it’s more effective when you go in and cut around, that can work too.

“One of the real constraints on this film was the shooting schedule — it was pretty quick. And on this film, there were a bunch of scenes with a lot of people in them. Shooting in 3D is slower than shooting in 2D, so it’s harder and takes more time. So going in we knew we wouldn’t be ale to get as much coverage as usual. Given that constraint, we had to think, particularly about how to block the scenes and to have the scene look good with less coverage than you would normally like for a scene. Sometimes you can just go out and shoot a bunch of coverage and let the editor figure it out, we still kind of did that but the coverage was much more carefully thought out and well planned — it constrained him a lot in terms of where to place people. A lot of the scenes are told through Billy’s point of view, our lead character, it’s very much a film following him, in the first person, but some of these scenes he doesn’t really say much, he’s more observing than leading. So you really have to think about where to put him so you don’t have to keep cutting to him for his reaction. To keep the scene focused on him and yet not have to cut all over the place to do that, to see what you’re seeing and see him seeing it, so those are some of the constraints in blocking. Once I got the footage, I just had to do what made sense.”

You mentioned a short shooting schedule — what was the schedule?

“We were scheduled at 47 days, and we went one day over, so 48 … and in 2D on a good day, you might pick up 20 set ups, in 3D you’re lucky if you get eight.”

Let’s talk about Ang Lee’s experimental approach to storytelling in this film, shooting in 3D at 4K resolution and 120 frames per second.

“What we discovered doing Life of Pi, which was done in 3D at 24 fps, the strobing you get from shooting in 24 is something that’s there, we’re used to it, DP’s know that there are certain speeds of pans that aren’t good to avoid strobing. But in 3D, strobing is more noticeable and more annoying than it is in 24. To compensate for that, what directors often do is open up the shutter angle and shoot with a 300-degree shutter instead of 180, so that smooth’s out the strobing. But what happens when you do that is that you get more motion blur because it’s a longer exposure, and there are some scenes in Life of Pi where our lead character is on a raft, floating up and down in rough water and there’s so much motion blur on his face, that you start to lose his performance. We had to do some artificial sharpening — take his eyes from someplace else and replace them and a bunch of things so we didn’t feel like we were losing his performance. That’s a limitation of 24, in particular in 3D.

“When Ang was thinking about his next movie that he wanted to do, a boxing movie and thought about boxers moving in the ring and trying to avoid getting punched, they move around a lot. So we thought, ‘this is going to be a problem.’ We shot some tests and sure enough a lot of their performances are lost in motion blur if they’re behaving like real boxers. The solution to that is to get a faster shutter speed, but to do that you have to go to a higher frame rate without making the strobing unbearable. You can close your shutter angle but then it just gets really hard to look at, particularly in 3D. So, if you go a faster shutter speed, then you get a smaller, shorter exposure — so less motion blur, but in order to get a smooth movement, you have to go to a higher frame rate. We shot a bunch of tests with boxers and what we found, at 60, that a boxer coming in, as long as they were lit properly, you can see their performance, you can see their intention and you can see what they were thinking no matter how fast they were moving. That was a real revelation. We thought, ‘this technology is great.’

“We thought about it some more and realized almost certainly you’re going to have 24 frame deliverable and in order to make a 24 version of a film that you shoot at 60 is not easy. But if you shoot at 120, it is easy, because it’s 24 x 5. And if you shoot with a 360-degree shutter angle (always recording), to make it 24, you can take three frames, sew them together and there’s nothing missing because of the shutter angle and then throw away the other two frames and you just flash that frame five times, which is what projectors do anyway – it’ll look exactly like you shot it at 24. But within a program that’s running at 120, you can create all kinds of different looks. Normally, when you shoot a film, you’re shooting frames and you’re projecting those frames. Here, it’s more like we’re gathering data, and with that data we can create footage that looks like it was shot at 24 or 30 or 40 or 60 or 120.

Photo, right: Tim Squyres

“Initially, we weren’t thinking we were going to show the film at 120 anywhere. We were thinking we would shoot at 120 to hopefully as our main release, release at 60, because most theaters can do 3D at 60 but by shooting at 120, we not only created a 24 frame deliverable if we need it but we can also create, when we create a 60 frame 3D, we can give that 60 frame per second version we give the footage different looks. We can make some of the footage look like it was shot at 60, some look like it was shot at 24. So that was our original thought, to vary the frame rate, the apparent frame rate, throughout. The projector’s still flashing at 120, but sometimes some of the footage would look more normal and some of it would have this more enhanced look. And that was appropriate to the story. Some soldiers were having flashbacks — having some PTSD effects. What we discovered though, when you change that look — because it’s not subtle, the difference between 24 and 60 is quite noticeable — if you start the film with something that looks normal and then you go up to this higher frame rate, it takes a little while to get used to. You’re aware of it and at first it looks a little strange but then you get used to it. And then you go back to normal, but it doesn’t look normal anymore, now it looks bad, cause your eyes got used to the higher frame rate and you have to get used to that all over again. So, in fact, it was more distracting. The original idea was to do more of that, but as it turned out, we did a little bit of that but in much more subtle ways than it was originally planned.”

What are the visual benefits to the viewer? More visual clarity? Depth of Field?

“There’s not more depth of field. In fact, there’s probably a little less. When you shoot at that high frame rate, it’s a faster shutter speed, and so you either need more light or you need to open up the lens, giving you less depth of field. That’s one of the limitations. With these digital cameras, you can increase the sensitivity of the ISO of the sensor, which gives you a noisier image. However, if you’re projecting at 120, the grain goes by so fast that your brain doesn’t perceive it so you can get away with the noisy images. For some of the stuff we’re doing at 60, we’re combining frames, we’re blending frames together and that averages out the noise and we can afford to increase the sensitivity of the sensor to the point where if we were projecting exactly the same frames that we shot, it would look like a noisy image but because of the way we’re processing the images after the fact, we can get rid of a lot of that noise. It either becomes imperceptible by going by so fast or we blend it out. So that was one issue with shooting that way.

“Also, a lot of the film was shot inside the Georgia dome where we didn’t have a lot of control over the lighting so we were stuck with wider apertures than we might have liked. But seeing it at those high frame rates gives you a kind of clarity and immediacy, especially doing it in 3D, that you’re not used to.

“It’s funny, because this is the case not just in fast motion where you would think you’d see the biggest difference but even in a close up of a person just sitting and talking, there’s an immediacy and sense of reality that you’re not used to. This is not a fantasy or science fiction film. This is real people on real sets, behaving normally, so we don’t have the issue of everything looking like people on sets because they’re just looking like normal people. In fact, we hardly used any makeup because you could see it. The only character in the film who wears makeup is a cheerleader, who is supposed to be wearing makeup, it’s part of her character.

“There are some places in the film where Steve Martin, for example, walks into a big close up and it’s supposed to be intimidated … and it is! You get a sense of him in your space. And that’s not as much that sense as you would get in virtual reality, but it’s more than you’re used to in a movie theater and it can be a little uncomfortable. Some of the ways some people have responded is that they’re not sure they want to get that close.

“The film looks different from what you’re used to. If you like movies, by definition what you like is 24, except for the Hobbit movies, that’s what every movie has ever been. That’s what cinematographers have been working with and doing great work for a century now. But what we find with Billy Lynn, where we’re trying to show people something different that we recognize is something tricky, for the first few minutes, it looks strange to them. But over time, they get used to it. There’s a smoothness, a fluidity and a motion that you’re not used to in movies.” 

How did this impact your role as the editor? What kind of challenges did you have?

“When we were doing Life Of Pi, I had never done 3D before. Some people, when they cut 3D, they cut in 2D and then watch it in 3D. I decided I wouldn’t do that. I would just cut in 3D all the time. That way, I wouldn’t be second-guessing myself about what the aesthetic effects of 3D were going to be. If I were just in the room experiencing it that way all the time, I would be making the right decisions automatically without having to second guess what the technology would be. Now here, with the higher frame rate, there is an aesthetic impact to it. It’s not just a technical thing. I knew I didn’t want to cut the film at 24; I wanted to cut it as high as I could, which turned out to be 60. I was editing in Avid, but at the time, you couldn’t cut at 60 in any released version. They were just coming up with the 60 frames support in beta software, so we cut the whole film in beta.  We were the only film cutting at 60 in 3D, so we discovered a lot of things that were specific to our workflow. But in our cutting room — my edit monitor was a 12-foot screen with a cinema projector — the goal was to watch it and experience it ourselves as close to how an audience would. Because we had never worked in as high a frame rate before, we couldn’t just in our heads know how what we were seeing would translate to a big screen. So we got as close to the real theatrical experience as we could in editing.

“We worked at a pretty low compression, high quality image, in 3D but there were a lot of technical complications with that. To keep everything running smoothly was a big, big job. We had a bunch of people in editorial who were doing things no one had to do before. We did the DI in my editing room on my screen. In the cutting room, initially, we had a 2K Christie cinema projector and then we swapped that out for two Christie Mirages. My cutting room was the most capable screening room in the world for a while there. We were able to watch the film in its full 120 4K 3D. We did everything in-house and had to work up a lot of new procedures.”

Do movie theaters have the capability to show the film in the manner in which it’s meant to be shown?

“Right now, there are five rooms in the world that can show it the way it’s meant to be shown, in its fullest format. When we originally started shooting, we weren’t thinking that anybody would be able to show it that way. It’s an expensive set up and you can’t make a DCP, which is the format you send out to theaters, that runs at 3D 120, so that was always going to be a very limited, if it happened at all, distribution. Most projectors in theaters can do either 60 2K 3D or 120 2K 2D. Those were the intended formats. And the 120 2D is great — it’s actually pretty amazing for people who don’t like 3D — it’s a really interesting look. China wanted 3D 24 — the deliverables on this film are pretty intimidating.”

Are you happy with how the film came out? What about reactions during the early screenings?

“There have been screenings in a bunch of different formats and the studio is very interested in the audiences’ perceptions of these formats. People have a perception of what kind of movie deserves to be a 3D movie – some spectacle or action or something that needs to have a hook to make 3D make sense. This film is a drama — it doesn’t have those characteristics that make it obvious it should be 3D. That’s a challenging thing for audiences and for distributors alike. 

“I think if you asked Ang why he shot this film in 3D, he’d say, ‘why shoot it in color?’ Your eyes see color and your eyes see 3D and 3D gives you something you don’t normally see — it gives you something extra and whether audiences embrace that remains to be seen. We are trying something new and I hope people respond well to it. I’m happy with how it turned out and I’m curious to see what the world thinks!”