NAB: Immersive Films Present Possibilities, Face Challenges

When Ang Lee was asked about his opinion of VR, at the conclusion of a panel at the NAB Show focused on the technical aspects of making “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” he demurred that he was still very focused on making his way through the highly experimental process of creating a movie that combines 3D stereoscopy with 4K and 120 fps. The result, as seen in an 11-minute clip, is so immersive that some viewers compared it to VR. Lee didn’t dismiss VR, and believes it might eventually encompass theatrical experiences.

Theatrical VR experiences, he mused, would either come from those working in VR or from the traditional filmmaker side. But he clearly has a prejudice for his own highly honed talents for guiding viewers on the narrative journey, hence his half-joking observation that his VR is better than the ordinary viewer’s.

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Variety editor David Cohen moderated a panel that included Sony Pictures Entertainment vice president of production technology Scott Barbour, stereographer Demetri Portelli, editor Tim Squyres and production system supervisor Ben Gervais.

“It’s rare that a filmmaker comes to us with so many technical challenges,” said Barbour. “It became a very exciting proposition for us.” Portelli agreed the film was “a massive opportunity to explore areas where we’ve had to be very conservative onset and operate out of fear and anticipation.”

“This project we were able to open up the 3D and discuss the shape the IO, the space and how it functions and feels,” Portelli said. “For me, it’s the most physiological comfortable experience I’ve had watching a film.” Squyres agreed, adding that the high frame rate allows the 3D to be “more pleasing and comfortable.”

Cohen said that, “one second of [Lee’s new film] has 40 times the data of a standard movie.” “I know data storage is cheap but you still have to move it around… How did you handle that?” he asked. Gervais noted, “that’s one of the efficiencies we get from having everyone in the same location.”

“We had to build a pipeline just to generate dailies,” he said. “We do everything in parallel as much as possible, and we quickly found out which tools held up and which didn’t.” But, he admitted, “it’s duct tape and twine at this point.”

Panelists noted the help they got from manufacturers, all of which were eager to be involved in the project. “It was an industry-wide effort that you rarely see,” said Barbour. “Everyone was very enthusiastic to be involved.”

Barbour explained that, from the studio perspective, “it was a balancing act of bringing to bear as many resources as we could, working closely together to mitigate costs.” “Ben and I spent millions of hours together on constant collaboration and building our own pipelines,” he said.

Is 3D, 4K and 120 fps too much? “How much is enough is a question for neuroscientists and opthamologists,” suggested Squyres, who noted the incredible variety of looks that can be created from the raw material. In fact, part of Lee’s goal in shooting in 3D 4K at 120 fps was to be able to create compelling experiences for all platforms, from the silver screen to the iPhone.

Note to manufacturers, said Gervais, “if you’re working on a design, be careful when you say X is enough. There’s always someone who’ll want to push it a little further.”

Lee’s final assessment was one that many who saw clips from the movie would confirm. “This is a new language in filmmakers’ hands,” he said. “I have a very positive feeling about this. There are things you just have to go along with and see the wonders of what it can do for you. It’s not just the lenses or cameras but how our mind works. That’s what we’re exploring.”