This past week, while wasting too much time on Twitter and Facebook, I noticed posts from two different colleagues who review Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, praising the gorgeous video on the new Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. Both of them came to the same overall conclusion: Although the film itself is, well, less than good, enthusiasts must pick up a copy for the reference-quality HDR video.
I, too, received a review copy of this disc but had not yet watched it. These rave reviews were too enticing to ignore; and, since I was right in the middle of reviewing Sony's flagship HDR-capable XBR-65Z9D UHD TV, it seemed like the perfect time to audition a potentially new demo disc.
Indeed, this film looks unlike anything you've seen. It takes full advantage of new Ultra HD Blu-ray format, with amazing HDR and enhanced color and bit depth. The level of detail is exceptional, and the Sony flagship TV did an exceptional job with all of those elements. All that being said, I still wanted to turn it off after about five minutes.
Why? Well, the dialogue and acting certainly had something to do with it, but mostly it was the film's frame rate.
The movie was directed by Ang Lee, and we all know how much he loves to produce visually unique treats. Even if you hate 3D, the Life of Pi 3D Blu-ray disc is mesmerizing and another of my reference discs. Lee filmed Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 4K stereoscopic 3D at 120 frames per second. As John Sciacca explains in his review for Residential Systems, this is the highest fame rate ever used in a film, and only six theaters in the world actually had the equipment to play it as intended.
As you may already know, Ultra HD Blu-ray does not support 3D, so the UHD disc is presented in 2D at 60 frames per second. That's much higher than the typical 24fps rate of most films ... and higher than the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit. I never saw The Hobbit in theaters, but I know that reactions to the higher frame rate were mixed. Some people liked it; others found it quite off-putting. I suspect that I would've fallen into the latter category.
If you haven't seen a film shot at a higher frame rate, the obvious difference is in the quality of the motion. It's much smoother and more fluid, less choppy or "juddery"--which is especially noticeable in camera pans. If you own a 120Hz (or higher) TV, it's the same effect you get when you switch on the "motion interpolation" or "motion estimation/motion compensation (MEMC)" mode designed to reduce motion blur and film judder by creating brand new frames. At least Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk starts with more frames, so you don't get the potential artifacts that come from making up new frames through MEMC, but the style of motion is the same.
Over two years ago, I discussed the MEMC process in a story called What Is the Soap Opera Effect (and How to Make It Go Away). I said it then, and I'll say it now: I'm perfectly satisfied with the look of 24fps film, both in the theater and on TV. I'm sure my preference is a product of conditioning, but I find the smoother motion of MEMC to look very artificial, distracting, and on a big screen even nauseating. And I felt the same way watching Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk with its 60fps rate.
The Soap Opera Effect story generated a lot of interesting discussion. Peruse the comments, and you'll see that it's a polarizing topic. People seem to either love it or hate it, and valid points were made on both sides. People who like it feel that it's more clean and realistic, and a lot of them pointed to gaming as a model. One commenter wrote, "PC gamers spend money on GPU upgrades to get the highest possible frame rates. We like smooth games. 24fps looks like a slideshow to us." Of course detractors immediately pointed out that film and gaming are two completely different viewing experiences. Words like artificial, cartoonish, and fake were tossed around. One commenter responded to the above gaming comments with, "While I can see its application for the purposely fake and stylized worlds of gaming, if progress means taking a film with beautiful, thoughtful cinematography and making it look cheap and cheesy as though it was shot in a parking lot with some kid's Flip Camera from 2008, then I will skip this 'progress.'"
That response rings true to me. (For the record, I'm not a gamer.) As I made my way through Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, it really felt like I was watching an amateur home movie or student film shot with a handheld video camera. Again, in this particular case, the amateur acting and dialogue, as well as the awkward direction--perhaps to accentuate the 3D effect that we don't get to see in the UHD disc--only exacerbated the problem. Perhaps if the movie had been better, I would've spent less time thinking about the technology behind it.
Beyond the motion itself, though, everything just had an artificial quality to it. The sticker on the disc case says, "Most Hyper-Real Lifelike Picture Ever." Well, which is it: hyper-real or lifelike? If Ang Lee was going for a hyper-real video-game quality, then he succeeded. If he was going for lifelike, then I think he failed, even if I can't quite pinpoint or articulate why.
Perhaps the problem goes deeper than just the higher frame rate on its own. I came across this interesting 2013 story from The Guardian talking about what Peter Jackson intended to do differently with the second installment of The Hobbit to address some of the negative reactions that people had to the 48fps original ... and none of it had to do with the frame rate itself. According to the story, Jackson "came to the conclusion that the film's image was sharper than viewers were used to in cinemas. 'So what I did is work that in reverse,' he said. 'When I did the color timing this year, the color grading, I spent a lot of time experimenting with ways we could soften the image and make it look a bit more filmic. Not more like 35mm film necessarily, but just to take the HD quality away from it, which I think I did reasonably successfully. The film speed and the look of the picture are [now] almost, kind of, two different things.'"
Much like the transition from SD to HD, where things like makeup and lighting and other elements had to evolve to suit the new look, directors who choose to embrace a higher frame rate have to consider adjusting the complete package of detail, color, and shooting style to transition audiences into this new era.
On a side note...
There's one other issue I want to discuss regarding this film's 4K/60p frame rate. If you have an earlier generation UHD TV that doesn't support full 4K/60 at higher bit depths through its HDMI inputs, you won't even be able to watch the movie in its native format. Of course, those early TVs don't support HDR or Wide Color Gamut technologies either, so they really won't highlight any of this movie's reference-quality attributes.
For those who own a newer UHD TV with HDR and WCG, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is certainly something you need to see. The best summation I can offer is that the film is visually captivating, although not always in a good way.
• What's the Difference Between Frame Rate and Refresh Rate? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Read John Sciacca's Residential Systems review here.
• Check out Reference Home Theater's review here.