Ang Lee pushes the envelope of filmmaking format

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, October 18, 2019
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Director Ang Lee answers media questions after an advanced Cinity system screening of "Gemini Man" held in Beijing on Oct. 12, 2019. [Photo courtesy of Cinity]

Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee has gone from an art-house titan to a new filmmaking technology trailblazer. 

His new film "Gemini Man" was again shot in the new format of 4K high-definition, 3D and 120 frames per second, a territory few directors in the world have attempted. Lee shot his last film "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (2016) this way.

However, it was his Oscar-winning film "Life of Pi," in which a CGI tiger was created, that inspired him to create a human character completely by CGI, which is much more complicated, involving more than two years of work by over 500 top visual effects to make it happen by rendering the CGI character inch by inch.

"Gemini Man," starring Hollywood veteran actor Will Smith, tells the story of a soon-to-retire top assassin who finds himself the target of a younger clone. 

To achieve the desired photorealistic look for the clone, Lee and his team studied all the imagery and films of Smith in his younger years. "We even magnified his images 6,000 times to observe the most delicate details of his appearance. I can't say how much I knew him personally in life, but for his face, I knew better than his mother," the director told a press conference on Oct. 14 in Shanghai.

Will Smith, also at the Shanghai event, said he was in shock and scared by the CGI character based on himself. And it didn't come cheap. "This is the most difficult work in the special effects area, exhausting our budget, energy and hearts," Lee added. "The clone, named Junior, could be the most expensive 'actor' in Hollywood, costing two or three times more than Smith himself!"

The hardest parts of "Gemini Man" are not just the CGI magic, but also how Smith was required to perform. With motion-capture technology, Smith has to play a middle-aged man while also finding the right way, and express feelings, to portray a naive young man at the same time.

"Gemini Man" is also an example of how an ultra-high-definition film looks like and gives the general public a sense of the future. However, shooting a film at a high frame rate also means more information is shown every second. After he was lured into high-definition shooting, Ang Lee became a self-confessed "geek" to study the new cinematography over a period of five years and push the boundaries of filmmaking techniques. 

A modest man with great ambition is hesitant to describe what he has done as a groundbreaking milestone in film history; rather, he said he was just doing it to pave way for future greats in the format.

"I saw great prospects for this filmmaking and film projection," said the director, after a special advanced screening held in Beijing on Oct. 12. He hoped his experiments could inspire more young filmmakers and create more opportunities for them so that this new format could be further improved and polished. 

Lee, though feeling alone in this filmmaking revolutionary adventure, said the high frames-per-second filmmaking gave him fresh sense of the aesthetics involved in digital film, totally different from what he had seen before. 

"This is a beautiful movie experience," he said.

Actor Will Smith and director Ang Lee pose for a photo at Chinese premiere of "Gemini Man" in Shanghai, Oct. 14, 2019. [Photo courtesy of Dark Horse Marketing]

The 4K plus 3D plus 120-frames-per-second format does provide an immersive experience and impressive visuals for the audience, as a reporter observed during the advanced screening. 

China is more innovative and enthusiastic in film and dares to try for novelty in Lee's eyes. Chinese company Huaxia Film Distribution shares the same vision with Lee, and has invested a great deal in building and developing a new movie projection system called the Cinity with Chinese own intellectual property rights, which integrates technologies of 4K, 3D plus 120-frames-per-second standards with high-brightness, high-dynamic range, wide color gamut, and immersive sound.

Now there are 30 screens installed with the Cinity system. And the number is expected to increase to 50 by the end of October and around 100 by the end of 2019, according to Fu Ruoqing, chairman of Huaxia Film.

"We would love to assemble the big film studios, including China Film Group, Huaxia Film, Fosun Pictures, Alibaba Pictures and Chinese film investors to increase our investment and promotion to support director Ang Lee and others to shoot films in the 120-frames-per-second or other high frame rate formats," Fu pledged, "This could push Chinese film industry to another height, and set a standard to define China's film industrial level. This is better than learning from the old formats."

But Lee's efforts are not yet enough to change the world film landscape. "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" flopped in America grossing a mere $1.73 million and receiving mixed reviews. The debut of "Gemini Man" in North America last weekend earned just $20.6 million in its opening weekend while receiving mostly negative reviews from critics. 

It's a pity the beauty of "Gemini Man" in its 4K, 3D and at 120 frames per second version has not yet touched American audiences, as the world's largest film market doesn't even have a cinema to support the high frame rate film projection. 

Lee, however, was cheered back home in China. "Billy Lynn" was unexpectedly supported by Chinese audience back in 2016, grossing $23.76 million -- especially at two theaters respectively in Beijing and Shanghai that can support the 120-frame-per-second version projection format, with movie fans lining up in long queues to get tickets. 

"Gemini Man" will likely repeat the earlier Lee success when it opens on Friday, Oct. 18 in mainland theaters, as it has already achieved presales of more than 22 million yuan ($3.1 million) by Thursday noon. The success here could guarantee the faith of investors in Lee and the future of the new film format.

Lee insists: "Chinese culture is my foundation culture. I can't hide my Eastern ethos and culture even when I make Western films. I feel excited, yet a bit shy, to return to my hometown to present my new film. And, based on the past experience, audience reactions here in China are really great and they embrace my new experiment and adventures."

Ang Lee, who won his first Oscar by his Chinese film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), revealed he would make a Chinese-language film and has started working on the script. He added China has long history and abundant stories to develop, it should develop a new set of motion picture vocabulary to influence the world and inject new vitality to the world film market.

Director Ang Lee, actor Will Smith and film executives behind "Gemini Man" pose for a photo at Chinese premiere held in Shanghai, Oct. 14, 2019. [Photo courtesy of Dark Horse Marketing]

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