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How ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ DP John Toll Helped Execute The ‘Whole Shebang’

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The winner of two Oscars—for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart—and the recipient of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, cinematographer John Toll added Ang Lee to his long list of distinguished collaborators with Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk. Certainly, Toll was well qualified for the job—his third Oscar nomination came in 1999, for Terence Malick’s iconic war film The Thin Red Line. Meeting Lee, Toll was intrigued by the extent of the project’s ambitions.

With a 48-day shooting schedule, Lee would attempt to employ a never-before-seen camera technology that would provide an immersive cinematic experience unlike any other. Dubbed by Lee as “The Whole Shebang,” the format consisted of 4K footage shot in native 3D, at 120 frames per second—five times the frames shot on the average film. Speaking with Deadline, Toll breaks down the challenges every department confronted in tackling a new technology, the film’s warm response in China, and takeaways from the reception of the film stateside.

Prior to this film, you’d never worked with Ang Lee. How did you come to shoot Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk?

I received a call from Ang Lee’s office asking if I was interested in doing an interview with him, because he was preparing to do research on the technology they used on Billy Lynn, the high frame rate 3D. He was doing some initial testing. I’d never worked with him, I’d never met him.

I have great respect for his work, and I thought it’d be a great opportunity to, if nothing else, have a chance to speak with Ang. We did a Skype interview and based on that, I was asked to do this initial test with him. At that point, the film itself had not been green lit, so he was just doing initial testing, trying to determine specific equipment that might be used, which particular cameras, which 3D rates. Stuff like that.

What are your thoughts on the applications of 3D formats in filmic storytelling? Ang Lee is someone who seems to take a different tack when it comes to employing 3D.

Obviously, I don’t speak for Ang, but what I believe is that he was really interested in technology as a storytelling device, and he thought there was incredible potential for the combination of 3D and high frame rate that could really bring something to the whole process. The idea was not that it was just a visual technique that was used, in terms of trying to create spectacle, as much as something that could be used, especially in the service of artistic expression, to enhance storytelling technique.

It was really Ang’s idea that using this technology would go a long way towards developing a new technique, essentially in the service of story and drama. He felt that the story actually lent itself particularly well with emotion and intensity that this technology could enhance, in ways that were new and exciting.

When Ang Lee speaks about “The Whole Shebang”—the combination of formats used in shooting the movie—what exactly is he referring to?

The optimum format, and the one that basically was the goal, was 120 frames per second, high frame rate, 4K, 3D format. That was basically the technical challenge, because it had never been used before in a theatrical feature film. That was our goal, but we were being very realistic about it because at this point in time, especially two years ago, when we first began developing the process, there were no commercial theaters in the U.S. capable of projecting high frame rate, 4K, 3D. We knew there would be limited theatrical release venues, and because we’re essentially making a commercial feature film for a major studio, there had to be other ways to release the film other than that one specific format.

The film was shot in a way that could be easily converted to both 60 frames per second, 3D format, 24 frames, 3D format, or more conventional 24 frames, 2D format. That was basically just, without getting too technical about it, something that all happened in post-production. But all the original photography, we created essentially what we call a master. All the other formats could be derived from the optimum.

Sometimes, filmmakers become disillusioned when films are displayed in formats other than those intended. That wasn’t the case here?

No, because we were being responsible to the studio that was financing this, and I think we all felt that we had to start somewhere, and there needed to be a demonstration of what this new technology could accomplish. It’s like the chicken and the egg… No one’s going to start building projectors that are capable of high frame rate 3D without a demonstration of what could be accomplished with this technology.

It was incredibly courageous of Ang, especially because he was the driving force behind all of this. Of course, we all supported him as much as we could, but it was very courageous of him to even attempt this with a major studio. Getting it organized was not easy, getting it approved was not easy, but it’s like, you need to start somewhere, and it’s any great vision. Somebody has an idea, somebody has a vision, and something as practical as filmmaking, you just need to get out and essentially demonstrate that you can do it. I guess it’s like the first people who invented motion pictures. Nobody could believe it until they saw it, so you can only talk about it for so long before you need a practical demonstration of what you’re actually talking about.

Can you explain the unique challenges presented in working in this new format? I understand that you approached lighting quite differently, for one.

Photographically, the two major challenges were the levels of illumination—basically, the amount of light you needed—because high frame rate requires more light than the normal frame rate. 120 requires five times more, just because essentially the images are exposed to light for a shorter period of time, because the camera’s running at a faster rate. Just as a rule of thumb, five times the level was what we were dealing with.

Our primary challenge was just camera mobility, because we become very accustomed to using devices like steadicam or handheld cameras to move cameras around, just because the camera has become smaller and lighter weight and more portable in the last 30 years. But because with 3D cameras, you need two cameras shooting simultaneously, mounted in a rig for native 3D, basically the size and weight of the camera units, there’s more mass involved. It’s bigger and it’s heavier, so the devices like steadicam or even handheld cameras were not practical because of the size and weight of the camera.

How did you go about your collaboration with other department heads—in makeup, for example—who also had to adjust their process to accommodate The Whole Shebang?

Every single department was affected by the essence of the new technology, because there’s more detail. That was one aspect that was desirable, because there’s more clarity to the image. You actually see into the image with greater clarity than you do with conventional 24-frame images. It wasn’t just makeup, but it was every single department on the film had to be much more aware of how this affects our choices.

Everyone on the film was basically very experienced veterans—they’ve been around and we’ve all learned how to approach 24-frame, 2D photography, so we’ve just had to adapt and be incredibly sensitive to the idea that we are going to see more, in greater detail, than we’ve ever seen before. Every single department really was tuned into this, and it was an incredibly collaborative experience, with every single department. Ang knew this going in. He emphasized this very early, so everybody was tuned into it, but we learned as we went because we’d never seen this before. We’d pay very close attention to dailies, and every day was a new learning experience.

How did you confront the problematic aspect of depth of field—the fact that if anything, anywhere in the frame is off, people may notice?

Depth of field was a primary consideration because we wanted to see not only more detail, but have it in focus. Sometimes we had to build the light levels even higher than we normally would just to maintain more depth of field, because depth of field is completely dependent on levels of exposure. In order to get more depth of field on the camera, you need to increase the level of illumination, which was being enhanced to begin with. [Laughs] We were working with quite a bit more light than we would’ve been in conventional 24-frame photography.

Supposedly, you shot in few takes because the process was quite expensive. Was there a thorough process of choreography to circumvent these challenges?

Yes. It wasn’t a rehearsal process, as much as a preparation process. Again, I have to tell you how great Ang was with this. What we did in pre-production was try to stage and develop a shooting plan for as many sequences as possible. This was the most carefully planned film I’ve ever worked on, in terms of pre-production planning, because Ang is the kind of director who is incredibly organized; he’s incredibly accomplished, both as a technical director and in terms of being able to work with actors and performance.

All the stuff that takes place in the football stadium, the halftime show, as well as the battle scene in Morocco were as carefully planned as any film I’ve ever worked on. We knew at least what 75 percent of the specific angles and the numbers of shots for every sequence. That’s a great idea on any film, but for this particular film, because it was not a long shooting schedule—it was only a 48-day shooting schedule—and essentially a medium-level budget. Everything had to be really tight, but what contradicted this was the technology was not the most conducive to a fast and loose approach. The complexity of the technology completely eliminated that kind of approach.

What were the takeaways from this project, in terms of the shoot and the public’s response to this technology to date?

I think it’s a great tool. I think that we need to give it a chance—I don’t believe in the U.S. the film was given the chance it should’ve had. I think a lot of people jumped on it, in terms of critique, that sometimes made sense, sometimes didn’t. I think there was a carryover from other films that were shot in high frame rates that were not as successful, but this technology that we used is not the same as the technology that’s been used before. I think that it did not receive quite the support that it should have from a couple of different sources. I think there’s great, great potential in it. I think Billy Lynn is an incredible demonstration of the potential with this.

Do you have hope that theaters will come around in the near future and adapt technologically to formats such as this, driven forward by the artistic vanguard?

I would hope so, and I know that commercial theaters are driven more by commerce than art. That’s OK—that’s the nature of our business. The film is doing incredibly well in China in the high frame rate 3D. Obviously, the Chinese audience is a different audience, but I think people are actually lining up to the see the film in that format, and I think it definitely is something to look forward to in the future.

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