Evaluating High Frame Rates: Billy Lynn's 60fps Walk

Before the era of sound movies the frame rates for silent films varied considerably due to the hand-cranked cameras of the time. When picture and sound became the future of movies in the late 1920s, however, the industry settled on 24Hz (24 frames per second) for both production and display standards. But 24fps alone would have produced significant jitter. For acceptably smooth motion, each film frame was flashed on the screen twice, using a two-bladed shutter in the projector (or, more rarely, three times with a triple blade shutter). This rate was also chosen, rather than an even higher one, to keep film costs manageable.

Even though the digital bits that now convey our films from the studio to the screen are far cheaper than celluloid, 24fps still dominates the films we see in both the multiplex and at home. But occasional efforts have tried to break the mold. Director and film innovator Doug Trumbull developed a process he called Showscan in the late 70s, shooting on 65mm film stock at 60fps. But Showscan was ultimately used mainly in theme parks, not feature films. I still vividly recall seeing it in an Egyptian-themed ride at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas some years back (but don’t look for it; it’s no longer there).

A long hiatus followed until a few years ago, when Peter Jackson released his Hobbit films in 48fps. But only few theaters were equipped to show them that way.

Then, late last year, director Ang Lee released a film shot in 4K 3D at 120fps. Once again, most theaters could only project them in standard 24fps mode, but the reactions of critics, some of whom were able to see the it in its full 120Hz form, were brutal.

That film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is now available on UHD Blu-ray in 4K at 60fps. While there’s no 3D on the UHD disc (the UHD format can’t yet do 3D and/or 120fps), the boxed set also includes two conventional HD Blu-ray discs, one 2D and the other 3D. The street price for the set is quite reasonable for what you get. If, that is, you like what you get.

While this set will be reviewed by David Vaughn in an upcoming issue, a blog offers more space for a deeper, more timely take. I’ll be digging mainly into the 4K, 60fps version here, with emphasis on the video (the UHD disc does offer a reportedly good Atmos soundtrack).

First of all, not all UHD displays and players will accommodate this format. It worked for me on the 2016 Samsung UN65KS9800 LCD/LED UHD set—or at least the Oppo UDP-203 player’s Info screen tells me it’s sending everything the set needs for the full experience: 4K, BT.2020, 60Hz, HDR, YCbCr 4:2:2, 12-bits. And the set indicates it’s receiving HDR. But input from the ISF suggests that you might want to check that your player and display both have all of their latest firmware updates if you get less positive results. Some displays might offer only a slice of UHD features, such as 60fps in 4K, but in SDR (standard dynamic range) with less than the full color gamut available from UHD.

So how did the movie look on the Samsung display? A mixed bag. I hate the soap opera effect as seen on most sets with frame interpolation turned on. And what I saw here, while not precisely the same thing (a genuinely higher frame rate will always be superior to a frame interpolated one), it wasn’t all that much different from interpolation. But frame interpolation, in our experience, can always be turned off. On this UHD disc, the glossy, soap-opera, video-like look can’t be defeated. The only way to watch the film without it is to remove the UHD disc from the player and replace it with the 2D, 1080p, SDR Blu-ray.

Not that the high frame rate is all bad. Motion blur is greatly reduced. The images are crisper and more detailed than I’ve seen on any other UHD disc. The colors are rich and generally true, with one exception. Billy Lynn’s makeup is too obvious; particularly his overly reddish lips. Yes, lip makeup is sometimes used even on men in the movies, but here I found it a frequent distraction. Other critics have also complained about the prominence of makeup from the format’s enhanced detail, but this is the only place I noticed it (perhaps other aspects of it are more evident on a big theater screen). But according to director Ang Lee, no makeup was used on any of the male actors. While it could have been something in my display, I didn't notice this on any of the other actors.

Despite these issues I recommend this UHD disc to videophiles with the equipment to play it on, simply because it’s such a unique video experience. But like me you might find the overtly smooth motion so distracting that wild horses won’t drag you back to watch it again. You might, however, watch bits and pieces of it, perhaps to show off what your system can do or, in my case, as a reference for color and resolution (the disc’s HDR, while appropriate for the subject, wasn’t overwhelming).

I certainly won’t return to it for the story or the acting. The movie just didn’t work for me, except in spurts. Vin Diesel, as the unit’s lead NCO, is hampered along with the rest of the cast by often stilted dialogue. Perhaps it sounded artificial to me because the film’s all too photorealistic look (in comparison to what we normally see from movies) also sets a higher bar for the dialogue than the screenplay delivered.

While I haven’t read the book on which the film is based, numerous book reviews suggest that it was intended as satire, a Catch 22 for today. There is, in fact, satire surrounding the entire concept—a promotional tour for an army unit that had experienced a harrowing but short of Medal of Honor-level engagement in Iraq. Not the least of the satire is a ridiculously over-the-top halftime show, out of place in anything but a Super Bowl. Yes, it’s the key audio/video treat in the film—if you can stomach how it’s staged. But while it supposedly honors the soldiers, it merely uses them as props, a Backup Band of Brothers for a tacky pop concert. To make matters worse, the soldiers were clearly thrown into the event with no advance preparation whatsoever.

But when the film attempts to be serious, as it often does, the drama clashes crudely with the satire. It also drags out all of the on-the-nose stereotypes Hollywood is so fond of: rowdy soldiers, a mustache-twirling tycoon (but definitely not movie studio head—to risky to make fun of them!), and Texans. All of this suggests that Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, who normally can be relied on to deliver big time (we’ll also forgive him for Hulk!) either needs to get around the country more or was preoccupied with getting the cutting-edge technology right. Perhaps both.

nathan_h's picture

The thing about a failed experiment is that it is still successful: We have now learned a way NOT to do something. Or at least that is how I feel about the tech behind this movie. Maybe one day high frame rate will feel more immersive, but this is another reminder that no one has figured out how to do it yet.

That said, even at 24p, this is not a compelling movie. It's way too modest to work as a satire. And it's way too meek to work as a drama.

I'm not sure we can blame Ang Lee completely for the movie's content. Look at Brokeback Mountain. He clearly got the tone and setting of rural America right in that movie. The places and characters felt like real people. So he understands America and Americana.

But the script just didn't work. Anyone looking for a good satire of war should pick up War Dogs, or M*A*S*H. Billy Lynn's script feels like it was written by someone that didn't decide they wanted it to be a satire until they were finished and realized the drama was weak.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
Admittedly there's motion blur in 24fps if it's used carelessly. Over the years filmmakers have learned to avoid certain types of camera motion. There's a scene in Billy Lynn, for example, where the camera pans across a cemetery. On the 60 fps UHD version there's little blur. On the 24fps HD disc it's clearly blurred and definitely unpleasant. But in a conventional film the director might have done a jump cut there rather than a pan.

As you likely know, film is never displayed directly at 24fps; each frame is repeated at least two or three times to minimize judder. No, this can't eliminate motion blur, but blur can also be present at a higher frame rate as well (it is, after all, still a string of still images). Blur and judder are only disturbing to most viewers when it's used incorrectly. And moving to 60fps doesn't necessarily free the filmmaker to shoot scenes any way he or she wants; it offers its own set of problems, as this movie vividly demonstrates.

If by High Fidelity in film you mean as close of a representation of reality as possible then you'd be right. But film has its own look and language. This may admittedly have grown out of necessity, but we've come to expect it to look a certain way. If we were to use the term High Fidelity to movies, it might mean reproduction as close as possible to the filmmaker's intent. That's what we aim for in home theater and, one would hope, in the movie theater as well.

If we were to adapt to HFR as the new paradigm, what would that do to the way we experience the thousands of existing films ? Will we only be able to enjoy them if we employ frame interpolation?!