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Ang Lee:

Cinema Keeps Telling Me It is About to Change


Cinema Keeps Telling Me It is About to Change


Already at the top of the film world, why does director Ang Lee still insist on doing things others won’t? As the first to adopt the 3D, 4K, 120fps format, what sort of experience will he give the audience?



Cinema Keeps Telling Me It is About to Change

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 606 )

Ang Lee is getting radical this time.

Behind the genteel smile and soft voice is a man who is determined to use his name and talent to provoke the world’s moviemakers and viewers.

For director Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a film that takes advantage of groundbreaking technology to depict how the dawning of new cinema in the new age should look.

Both a master and a student of film, Lee alternates between two roles. The passion he shows and the dedication he exerts can make observers anxious yet deeply inspired.

Clad in a simple T-shirt in his New York studio, his hair sprinkled with gray, Lee gave us an overview of the ideas behind 3D movies. His patient tone failed to cover an underlying anxiousness. Such an advanced movie format and the effects and experiences it delivers is so new and impactful as to defy easy description. Moments before the interview, watching a 22-minute clip in Lee’s viewing room, the experience was like being drawn into the scene, sans movie screen to witness the mortar cannon in front of me blow the retaining wall to my left to smithereens, while the comrade to my right broke out in sweat, veins bulging in his face.

A Soldier on the Cinematic Battlefield

If the movie theater is a battlefield, a major international director like Ang Lee is a general with the power to move heaven and earth. Yet Lee describes himself as a soldier in the trenches who has to dodge artillery fire while looking after his brothers in arms. Still, no matter how chaotic it gets, he must put his mind to work and expend physical energy to progress toward his goals.

The last time Ang Lee consented to such an extensive interview with CommonWealth was 2008, on the occasion of our commemorative four-hundredth issue under the special theme of “Growth.”

At the age of 31, Ang Lee’s master’s thesis at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, entitled Fine Line, earned him New York University Film Festival’s top two awards for Best Film and Best Director. Having already packed up in preparation for returning to Taiwan, this led to his fateful decision to remain in the United States to have a go at a career in filmmaking.

At the age of 41, Ang Lee once again made a splash on the international cinema scene with Sense and Sensibility, becoming the only director to win the Golden Bear (the festival’s highest honor) twice (Lee had first won the award in 1993 for The Wedding Banquet) at the Berlin Film Festival.

At the age of 51, his film Brokeback Mountain garnered 71 awards at various film festivals, as well as sweeping the Oscars, making Lee the first Asian and Chinese director to earn the Academy Award for Best Director.

Looking to try more groundbreaking approaches of cinematic expression in Hollywood, Ang Lee expresses sincerity through authenticity in hopes of giving audiences different means of stimulation and inspiration.

Now 61, Ang Lee stands atop the foundation of success established four years ago by the global box office hit Life of Pi with a new film made with the most advanced technology in cinema history, shot at 120 frames per second. In one move, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk throws down the gauntlet for the new filmmaking and presentation of the next generation.

Ang Lee has never wasted a single decade. The experience, interpersonal relations, reputation, and force of will accumulated over that time have enticed Hollywood’s most advanced film crews to work side-by-side with him.

Suffering from a week-long bout of tonsillitis, Lee looked somewhat forlorn during our interview at his studio. Nevertheless, he answered every question posed to him, never acting like a big-time Hollywood director. He discussed the merits of different projection formats with his lighting director, fielded calls from his movie distributor and the New York Times, and took a few bites of a sandwich when he was hungry, acting like the busy man he is with a seemingly endless stack of tasks on his plate.

 “Is there pressure on this film to win an Oscar?” came the inevitable and unavoidable question. “As long as people get to see it, and you tell others about it, then I’ll be happy. I can’t tell how people will respond to something new, or wonder which format members of the Academy should watch. I’d rather not think about these things for now,” he chuckles.

The following are edited excerpts of our exclusive interview with Ang Lee:

CommonWealth (CW): Why did you choose to make Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk your follow-up picture to Life of Pi? And why did you decide to make it with such groundbreaking technologies as 3D and 4K format at 120 frames per second? (Motion pictures are traditionally projected at 24 frames per second).

Ang Lee (Lee): I had originally wanted to follow up Life of Pi with a boxing movie. While shooting Pi, I felt that the most basic requirements for 3D movies are that they must be clear, and have sufficient light. So I was thinking at the time about the 60 frames per second (fps) format, since I had seen James Cameron’s tests with it.

Ang Lee’s New York studio is really more like a laboratory.

Thanks to this frame rate, we have never seen a movie more clearly than this one. And since it was shot in 3D, the two perspectives have to match so closely– similar to the perspective structure of our two eyes – it is very demanding. In addition, our eyes are also less forgiving of imperfections in such aspects as brightness, so I aimed for higher specs.

But there were many difficulties with the boxing movie, and when I was approached to consider Billy Lynn, after reading the original novel it was based on, I thought if we could tie the Super Bowl halftime show together with battlefield action, it would make for some interesting contrasts.

Highest Specs the Future’s Lowest Bar

Once people become accustomed to it, the high specs I’m using right now will no longer require any justification; it’s just that we’re in a transitional period at the moment, so I need to give people reasons, and present them with the work. The very act of placing such an emotionally intense sensation as a battle inside the halftime show of an American Football game, or into everyday life, is actually quite ironic.

The situation of soldiers on the front line is different from that of regular people at home, because the soldiers’ lives are constantly in danger. This gives them a different experience and perception of their environs, making them afraid, nervous, and fearful. So when soldiers come home from fighting a war, they might not see us so-called “normal people” as normal due to the after-effects of the war, something like post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). But they might be able to see clearly certain things we do not often notice, like seeing in new high definition cinema technology. And this is why I think it is so appropriate to shoot this subject in this fashion.

The advanced format I’m using today will one day be the minimum standard. I think this is how we should look at digital cinema. Of course, there is a long transitional period still yet to come. Two-dimensional cinema is a very mature, invaluable artistic medium, but I feel that the time is ripe now to develop a new form of media.

In the studio, staff often have to optimize projector settings for different production formats.

3D cinema and 2D cinema are like football and baseball. True, you can watch both sports on ESPN, and see them in the sports section of the paper, but they are not quite the same thing; both are visual, both are dramas, but they play by different rules. What I want to tell everyone is that we feel that the movies of the future start here. Although I don’t yet have enough experience with 3D movies, at least I’m willing to start trying.

CW: What does this advanced format mean for the audience?

Lee: We shot Life of Pi at 24 fps, because I didn’t understand anything but 24 fps at the time. I think the best explanation of this high-performance format is that you can imagine it’s as clear as in slow motion, but you are not playing it in slow motion. In other words, it has the clarity of slow motion at regular playback speed. The higher the frame rate, the greater the clarity. The documentary of a shark eating a seal was shot at 1000 fps, making it clear beyond belief, and thus so convincingly real at the same time. By frame rate that is what I’m talking about.

4K is a resolution spec, and then you add 3D on top of it. Both perspectives are swept into our visual information and enter our brains. In fact, humans really see with our brains, not our eyes. The eyes are really just lenses; how the information is put together once it reaches the brain determines what we see.

New frame rates, new clarity, new definition, and luminance… this information is all interpreted in the audience’s brains differently. You become smarter, demand more, and your feelings become richer… this is something I have only just come to realize.

The fundamental difference between 3D and 2D is enormous, and has to do with the connection made between the viewer and the screen, and the plot or action shown on it.

Digital cinema lets us work in three dimensions, and as a result digital cinema lets the viewers choose to come into the movie, resulting in a sense of identification and participation. In the past, movie viewers were like voyeurs, looking in at what others are doing, which produced a certain voyeuristic excitement. But now, you can step into the movie if you want to, not as a performer but as if you were right there.

CW: You are a lover of movies made on celluloid or film. What impact do you foresee on the movie industry given the digital cinema technology available to us now?

Lee: I think the cinema of the past has reached its maturity. There have been very few changes in the technology and basic language of cinema since the 1970s. I’m not saying that there haven’t been good pictures, but, in terms of technical knowledge, sensory expression and such, only incremental improvements have been made. Since nothing fundamentally changed, it comes down to artistic expression.

New Cinematic Language

To me, whether you are a fan of the digital revolution or not, it has ushered in creative possibilities, along with different audience perception, a feeling of participation, and involvement in the storyline. It is a different ballgame, and one worth pursuing.

When I was shooting Life of Pi I heard that James Cameron and Peter Jackson were proponents of the 48 fps format. My first reaction was that of course it makes sense. It’s a smart, sensible thing to speed up the frame rate.

I became aware of this while shooting Pi, although I wasn’t quite sure what it really meant – just that there was something beckoning to me, and that it wouldn’t be easy to achieve since it required so many resources.

I make some films not because I think in a certain way, but perhaps I am more qualified to do it. People may say you are making art, not technology, and that it doesn’t have to cost so much money (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not exactly a small budget production by Hollywood standards). If it costs that much money, there have to be commercial considerations.

However, my perspective is that dramas should be shot in 3D. This is not an expensive work, yet I am able to achieve the desired effects.

CW: Previously many felt that 3D movies had to be science fiction, action, or big budget productions. Why do you, on the other hand, believe that dramas should be shot in 3D?

Lee: 3D technology is mainly used in shooting action films these days; or people treat it as a spectacle and associate it with science fiction or outer space. My personal feeling is that the biggest advantage of 3D technology is being able to see people’s faces, and the intimacy that offers. You can see their complexion, feel their emotions… so for me, the “close-up” effect is the greatest advancement.

Consequently, I’m even afraid to use makeup for my new movies, and I am still unsure how to tell the actors to “act.” Because the minute you start acting it looks like acting – the actor has to feel in the moment to bring out the performance. For me, this is a new point of departure in art, and I feel that dramas should be shot in 3D.

I’d like everyone to give 3D a chance – don’t distort or corrupt it before it is even here. First, let’s admit that we still don’t understand it and investigate together what to do. I’m sure that in the future digital cinema will give us a lot of room for the imagination, give our imaginations so much to do, and open up so many future possibilities.

When we watched bad 3D cinema, we had to work so hard to resist those dim, blurry, sloppy, nauseating productions. But the higher specs have changed viewer habits. You should be able to watch any movie, because it’s good, and so much information reaches your brain. Watching a good 3D movie should be easy – the more information, the more beautiful and pleasant the movie is. But, after watching it you may have a pleasant feeling of release, that means, you are actually relaxed and concentrated at the same time during the movie.

CW: You have described the filmmaking process, from shooting to post-production, as “terrifying and exciting,” and said that most of the time you have no idea what everyone is doing. In the face of so much uncertainty, and no guarantees of success, how do you lead your film crew forward?

Lee: Commitment. And sometimes you have to alternate between flattery, encouragement, and intimidation. That’s just the way it is. You have a goal and you go for it, with no turning back. That’s how filmmaking works; you set a goal, and you keep shooting. Like when I was shooting Pi, I said I wanted to do it in 3D, and when the equipment arrived nothing seemed to go right. But you just have to keep shooting and come up with solutions. A lot of times it just won’t come to you if you don’t push yourself hard enough, and you end up doing a lot of head scratching.

CW: Did you consider projection issues with the movie when you were making it? After all, most cinemas are not equipped to show such advanced format pictures.

Lee: I know, but I wanted to shoot first and ask questions later. When it comes time to face those questions, you ask yourself why you insisted on doing it that way. But then again, if you have so many considerations you’ll never get far. You’re like an idiot doing things – if you were smart, you’d know about all the perils out there, and you would be afraid to do anything.

I believe in movies. When I see something and learn about something, I have to find the answer. I cannot feign ignorance – no way. I have to find the answer, because I want to believe in it.

Now I have seen something, and I believe in it. Maybe there will be smarter formats, more amazing ways to present movies in the future, and maybe ultimately we won’t need 3D glasses.

As for distribution, there can be several different releases, such as 3D, 2D, 4K, 2K, 60 fps, or 24 fps. Every mix-and-match combination is a new creation for me, requiring a lot of time to achieve its own look. Since the original image capture was made at such a high spec, the visual quality remains excellent even after downsampling. So it is a very flexible enterprise.

CW: Being so far ahead, how do you assuage the fears and misgivings of your film crew, your investors and the like?

Lee: I rely on my name and reputation to prop me up. I wanted to shoot this film, and of course, I wondered how long I can keep falling back on my reputation – I need positive reception from everyone, too. So naturally it’s quite challenging to keep it up.

But we all need to start with a dream before thinking about how to make it come true, and how to solve issues. If you don’t even have a picture in your mind of that dream, and just fill your days with busy tasks, it’s really not much of an existence.

Dream, then Do

I’m always genuinely curious how a movie is going to end up. I can’t see it while I’m still shooting it, but now I finally have a rough idea of what it is. In spite of all the hardships and obstacles, I refuse to believe that if you go through all the effort in pursuit of something it will all come to nothing. As long as you do everything you can, explain things to people, and think of ways to show it, I feel that a good reception will surely follow.

CW: Where do you get such a strong sense of mission, when you could easily get by playing it safe?

Lee: It’s true I could make a ton of money and not have to work so hard, but I often feel that I only have middling talent, so why should I be the one to do those things? I’m just a normal person, so why do I do what I do? Honestly, it takes a sense of mission.

I actually feel like I’m just starting to fight another battle. Because it’s not just about this picture, but a new beginning for movies as we stand at a new point of departure.

From the time I was working on Life of Pi I started to feel that cinema keeps telling me it is about to change. It was already an accomplishment just to survive with a movie like that, and luck played a part, of course. But then Pi surprisingly started gaining momentum and succeeding. So I felt like this new medium chose me as a guinea pig. It requires tremendous effort and a sense of mission. I feel all sorts of emotions about it, but I can’t allow myself to slack off – I have to keep moving forward.

Anyone who has achieved something will have a sense of mission, and want to pave the way for tomorrow’s young people. The biggest pressure on me is not what will happen to my own movies, but if this film is not a success people will sigh and say, “This medium (the new format) is no good.”

So I want everyone to know that, whether you like this movie or not, now you’ve seen this medium. And such things as how to approach it in the future, how to proceed conceptually… you need to give it a try, and the people waiting in the wings will be ready to take up the mantle. This is my unavoidable sense of obligation. It came upon me naturally, and apart from my own sense of curiosity, I have to take a lot of things into consideration.

In filmmaking you cannot just shut the door, hole yourself up and work in isolation. You have to connect with the audience, interact with the entire cast and crew shooting the movie… it is a relationship based on culture and exchange, so it depends to a large degree on how everyone responds.

Having gotten to this point in cinema, I know I’m still green. From new equipment and new approaches to new aesthetic concepts, it seems the entire movie industry is about to move forward. Let’s take it slow, and the audience must also gradually give us feedback so we can continue to support each other as we move along.

CW: You have often said that making movies is about wearing your heart on your sleeve and connecting with the audience. What is it you would like to communicate to the audience with this particular picture?

Lee: I’d like to communicate a sort of resignation that I feel. What I mean by that is, taking the example of a soldier in a war, for better or worse that is his fate – a soldier has no choice but to go into battle. Making movies is the same for me.

There is a halftime show in this movie. Everyone projects himself psychologically onto this hero, projecting his own emotions onto these soldiers. But the actual experience of these soldiers is very different from the way people imagine them.

In filmmaking, people I know often project their imagined lives onto me, like seeing their dreams in me or something.

I am more like a grunt fighting in the trenches trying to survive, hoping not to get shot and looking after my brothers in the foxhole. We will do anything for each other. And we have a true sense of shared life and honor together. Sometimes what we think of as real life is a little bit invented in any case.

Both Stage and Battlefield

Some things only your comrade next to you knows about, including things you can’t even explain to your family. I’m sure people in all walks of life experience this sort of feeling in their lives all the time, so I wanted to share this half-stage, half-battlefield clash with everyone.

It’s really all about telling a story, the emotional highs and lows, and sharing intimacy with everyone. Sometimes it’s hard for us to distinguish between what’s real and what’s made up in life. Yet through unusual circumstances, dramatic structure, or unique situations in life, you come to understand why you are here, why you’re alive. That sort of feeling is what I’d like to express.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Additional Reading

Love Education from Asia's Leading Actress-Director
♦ Ya-che Yang(楊雅喆)– 'It’s Not Our Revenge, But Our Quiet Wishes For Them.'
Ang Lee(李安)Cinema Keeps Telling Me It is About to Change
♦ Fany-Yi-Sheu(許芳宜) 'In Respect of My Body, My Best Toner Is My Sweat'
♦ Empowering Local Communities and Culture
♦ A Chinese Brand Formed by Shared Values
♦ ‘We Can Do Without Cloud Gate, but We Must Have Eslite’