Ang Lee has never been one for keeping still. Over his nearly three-decade career, the director has bounced around from the costume drama (Sense and Sensibility) to the sensual spy thriller (Lust, Caution) to the wuxia actioner (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to the superhero film (Hulk), along the way winning Best Director honors at the Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi. A through line for the director is constant experimentation. That extends not just to genre but to technology, an area in which Lee has proven himself a pioneer. In 2012’s Life of Pi, he took 3-D to new heights. In 2016, he did the same thing—albeit to a less rapturous critical reception—with high frame rate in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, shot (and, in a select number of theaters, projected) in 120 frames per second.
Lee continues to push boundaries in his latest. In Gemini Man, out October 11 from Paramount Pictures, Will Smith plays a hit man being hunted down by a younger clone of himself, also played by Smith. (A particularly fun bit of marketing saw a trailer begin with an introduction by Fresh Prince–era Smith, complete with camcorder artifacts and a JULY 25, 1989, time stamp: “So this is for myself like 30 years in the future. You should come back to Philly a lot, y’know, visit people. But also you should do a movie, like, called Gemini Man, and you should, like, release the trailer so people can see it. So that’s my advice for the future me.”)
“More realism” was “a requirement” in making Smith into his younger self, Lee explains. “To make a young Will Smith that is Will Smith. Not casting another actor or hiring his son to do it or changing his hairstyle and makeup. So we have a different approach. A digital approach, that is.”
Lee’s dedication to the cutting-edge in filmmaking was put on display at this year’s CinemaCon, where he was on hand to help launch the Cinity Cinema System. A joint venture between Christie Digital Systems, GDC Technology Limited, and the China-based Huaxia Film Distribution Co., Cinity was designed to provide a new standard in digital projection for advanced-format movies. Officially introduced to the world—or at least lucky attendees at Huaxia’s late-August Beijing event—with an advanced-format trailer for Gemini Man, Cinity is capable of projecting the film the way Lee, with cinematographer Dion Beebe, shot it: 120FOPS, 4K, 3-D. Lee serves as a consultant in the creation of the Cinity Film Lab, which will facilitate experimentation in the area of advanced-format filmmaking.
Speaking over the phone, Lee went into more depth about his digital philosophy, as it pertains to both filmmaking and showing the art of film to the world.
You shot using high frame rate in Billy Lynn, and now again with Gemini Man. It’s only been a few years between the two films, but technology can move pretty fast. How has digital filmmaking evolved for you in that time?
Well, I’ve found it’s a new language since I did Life of Pi. In Life of Pi, I used a very small amount of 3-D. It was kind of flat. It was 3-D, but not 3-D as I think it ought to be. Because when I tried that, it was very strobe-y. You cannot watch it. Things looked strange to me. Lighting. Acting. Everything about the movie feels a little strange. So I began to ponder: The movie I believed in since childhood—what happened to it? I started to ask questions I never asked before. Ten years later, I’m still searching.
It’s a new type of language, a new expression, a new way of absorbing dramatic events. I’m in the process of that. I learned that around a hundred frames per second, the strobe left, and I could stare at 3-D comfortably. But I found many questions. So I started to strip off a lot of artifice that comes along with moviemaking and movie viewing. And that’s a strange place.
I found a unique story, which is Billy Lynn’s story [in which a soldier returns from war to participate in a football half-time show]. You take the war and compare it to the half-time show. That was the idea. Apparently, people would rather watch the half-time show. They didn’t want to go to war! That was that experience. A quite precious experience. I was very proud. Everybody who worked with me jumped in and took a huge leap.
So here comes Gemini Man, which is a genre film. And you have a big movie star. I tried to make it look different than [if it had been shot on] film. Last time I was imitating life, and this time I try to make it pretty. This time I jumped to the opposite direction and tried to find an aesthetic I think digital filmmaking ought to have. That’s the experiment. That’s a test. It’s a leap of faith. We took many things on. One big thing is young Will Smith, of course, which [is the sort of thing that] has never really been done before. And we’ll just see if people like the look this time.
When I got into [Gemini Man], it was really humbling. A lot of what I know doesn’t really work. Some works. Some doesn’t. I have to make believe. How do I bring people into this story, into this situation? It’s not just adding a [third] dimension—the whole rules of the game have to change somehow.
Whether you’re looking at something like Gemini Man and Life of Pi or something less technically advanced, like The Ice Storm or Lust, Caution, your films are always real visual experiences.
People say “Story, story, story.” I don’t quite buy that. I think cinema can do a lot more than just storytelling. It’s a precious experience. Whether you’re making it or people are watching that story, they go through something. How you connect with the media, how they experience the movie at the moment, and how it changes your life afterwards. I think it all counts. It’s more than just telling a story or portraying a theme. It’s an experience only a movie can express. You cannot write about it. It’s a provocation. It should make you feel. I think that’s very important.
It’s using image to evoke emotion in the minds of moviegoers.
The viewer is creating their story, their experience. I rather think it’s a mystery, that we never know what we’re doing. I do have this superstition—we’re not supposed to know!
With characters that are—at least in part—digital creations, how do you balance hyper-realism with the emotion of the performances?
[Digital technology is] a tool for your expression. I think it’s wrong [if only realism] is the goal. I think [being] high-tech can allow you to go to even more abstract, if you know how to use it. And I would like to see digital cinema go there someday. I think you can go to your subconsciousness or something more abstract [and] make more wonders with digital effects. And visual effects can become like visual art.
The goal is to make your heart feel and your head think. It’s a provocation.
In August, a Gemini Man trailer screened in Cinity Cinema. Have you gotten to see the film in Cinitiy yet?
No. I was about to see it this Friday, but then we had some technical issue. I have to do it next week. I have not seen it! I saw like 15 minutes of a test two weeks ago, three weeks ago. Nobody really has seen the whole movie yet.
From what I understand, the specs of how Cinity will screen Gemini Man matches how you filmed it—so this would be the best way to see the movie, no?
Cinity is close to what I think digital cinema should be. It’s strobe-free. It looks brighter, so you don’t have to worry about bulb lighting. It’s digital. It’s more accurate, so your eyes can agree with each other and you can start doing dimensionalized filmmaking. We’re not ready for it yet. But I think that should be the standard. Last time I tried. This time I think we should have a little bit more high dynamic range. Cinity has all that. Huaxia, investing in Christie, they’ve created this new projector that has [all the basics of what I want from a digital projector].
I think you can have a good taste at at 60[fps] and 2K in a regular theater, which is how we’re going to release the film. In 3-D we only provide 60 frames, which was blended down from 120 as we shot it. It comes down from 4K to 2K. And we’ll provide whatever illuminance they have in the theater. Dolby Vision can show 120[fps], high dynamic range, and at 14 footlamberts. A regular 3-D theater can show seven footlamberts. [With those], we will only provide 60 frames per second, which we call 60 plus, or 3-D plus. It’s smoother than 60, because we blend two frames to one.
With that, you have a really good taste of it. But, of course, Cinity is more perfect. That’s what we shot.
So will any theaters in North America be equipped for the whole thing—4K, 3-D, 120fps?
No. Only in China. Since [Huaxia] invested in it, they’re only putting it in Chinese theaters.
Gemini Man was your first time working with a new cinematographer—Dion Beebe [Memoirs of a Geisha, Collateral, Chicago].
Yes. I’m very lucky. He was willing to put aside everything he knows and try something different. I think most cinematographers will not do that. He knows so much about cinematography, and whether we use [his knowledge] and twist it or do something else, he is there to experiment, to discuss, to learn. The focus puller didn’t know how to [set focus for the shots]. The first shot, I said “See what I told you? I’ve been telling you for two months!”
How long was the pre-production?
About two years. The post was one year. We shot for a pretty regular amount, 80 days. We had three months of tests.
So that’s just trying a bunch of things out, seeing what looks good and what maybe looks too uncanny valley?
Yeah. We, quote unquote, wasted a lot of money, at least as far as the investor is concerned. We shot in February. In October we did tech scouts. And then we did three months of tests. And that’s all costly.
It’s great that Paramount didn’t try to nickel and dime you out of doing that.
Yeah. In some ways I wish we could do even more. But it’s costly. I’m very thankful that the studio supported it this far.
I guess at some point you do have to shoot the movie.
Absolutely. It’s not a lab!