Ang Lee: A Visionary Director Comes Face-To-Face With 3D’s Dimming Prospects

EXCLUSIVE: Disappointment was written all over the face of filmmaker Ang Lee last week as he walked through a Los Angeles restaurant peering into the dimly lit corners in search of his waiting audience. The audience, in this case, was an interviewer eager talk to the three-time Oscar winner about his latest project, Gemini Man, the Paramount Pictures and Skydance Media production that opens Thursday with ambitions that go beyond the usual box-office imperatives.

With his 13th feature film, Ang Lee is trying to save 3D and reinvent it at the same time. Most directors have passion projects but Lee is a visionary pursuing a passion projection. It’s a pursuit that began with his brilliant Life of Pi (2012), continued with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), and probably won’t stop with Gemini Man.

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The quest has been fascinating at times but frustrating throughout. The latest frustration arrived in a batch of new reviews for Gemini Man, which explains the disappointment that accompanied Lee to the dinner table.

The filmmaker explained that making 3D movies at their full potential should be approached as a different medium, not as aesthetic afterthought. Lee took that bolder approach with Gemini Man and with some reviewers he’s been taking it on the chin for that choice.

Lee understands the reasons but it doesn’t make it easier to read a few of the more barbed critiques. Playing it safe isn’t really an option, however, because Lee also hears the ticking clock of time.

“What we’re chasing is the next medium, should we take baby steps or take the risk of a giant leap? For me the answer is that I’m not getting younger, I’m a little rushed, probably,” said Lee, who celebrates his 65th birthday the week before Halloween.  “If you wait for this to develop gradually I think it will take a very long time. I would rather go through the pain and the disillusionment of taking the leap and making something that snaps the audience into [the realization] that this is something fundamentally different.”

Gemini Man is cutting edge in its technology but as a screen story it is actually a taut throwback to action films of past decades. In fact, with Lee’s embrace of genre rhythms, it feels at some points like the $138 million production aspires to be most tricked-out low-budget thriller of all time. The genre aesthetic makes Gemini Man a total departure from the Taiwan native’s most recent works but, of course, that’s a signature hallmark of Lee’s filmography. His career credits are almost stubbornly eclectic with entries like The Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, Hulk, Sense and Sensibility, Ride with the Devil, and The Wedding Banquet.

The script for Gemini Man (produced by Skydance Media, Alibaba Pictures, Forsun Pictures, and Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and distributed by Paramount) dates back to 1997 and a long history of fizzled attempts to bring it to the screen with various big names attached along the way (including Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, and Mel Gibson) who were smitten by the project’s killer premise: A retiring NSA assassin isn’t just haunted by his past he’s stalked by it when the agency sends his own secret clone to kill him.

Lee was drawn to Gemini Man more by its characteristics than its characters. With the clone concept, the stunt/spectacle potential, and the commercial upsides of the genre, Gemini Man presented an ideal popcorn forum for Lee to follow his pioneer urges for 3D filmmaking.

Like Lee’s previous film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016),  Gemini Man was shot digitally at a hyperactively high rate of 120 frames per second, which is almost five times faster than the standard 24 frames per second. Lee has come to the view that the extraordinary digital detail and enhanced brightness represented by the film are essential to any serious pursuit of 3D’s possibilities. Anything less at this point is like watching a Blu-ray on a black-and-white television.

“Again, this is a new, different medium,” Lee said. “This is not the 3D treatment of a 2D movie. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that a movie has be done in a certain way, that [the filmmaker] has to talk in a certain logic and a certain visual language. This is something else. I know it’s painful for people…”

Some of those pained people, it turns out, are movie critics. More than a few reviewers find the crystal clarity too distracting, off-putting, or clinical, which smothers the escapist traditions of “movie magic.” Some European reviewers, for instance, have framed Gemini Man as the triumph of un-romantic technology over the fading magic of auteur art. The pixel, they seem to say, has replaced the pixie dust.

Hollywood has always been at the intersection of art and science, however, and its greatest successes have embraced both. To Lee’s mind, the jarring visual issues that naysayers describe may be a failing of technique not an inherent flaw of the technology. For Gemini Man the fundamental differences necessitated by 3D and by high frame rate were addressed by Lee with a start-from-scratch approach to lighting, camera angles, lens choices, and dozens of other choices.

For action sequences, for instance, Lee slowed everything down to allow the audience to grasp the extraordinary details on the screen. In the movie’s intense motorcycle chase sequence, for instance, the camera lingers on Smith’s character, Harry Brogan, so the audience can follow his gaze down to his rearview mirror and see what the aging hitman sees – the reflection of his clone rival darting across a rooftop over Brogan’s right shoulder.

“In principle, I staged all of that quite differently than I would have for a regular film,” Lee said. “The impact is you’re riding there on the bike with him, taking in what he sees. People say everything is moving so fast but it’s actually slowed down to fill in a lot of details. It’s the detail then that makes it feel real and that realness makes it seem faster.”

Next year is the 20th anniversary of Lee’s martial arts fantasy masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , which won him the first Oscar of his career with a trophy in the best foreign language category. Lee is proud of the film but has a nagging dissatisfaction about the fight scenes.

“It’s a problem thats bothered every since Crouching Tiger: How do you alter the fighting choreography so it doesn’t feel like dancing. We did it with Gemini Man. We used animation to introduce messy fighting to make it more visceral. We broke up the rhythm a little bit, too, because the [stunt team] are counting beats in a fight — that’s how they don’t hit each other — but that feeling of math comes through in the fight rhythm.”

The authenticity of details opens up new challenges — explosions, for instance, were especially vexing due to an emptiness of impact —  but it provides new opportunities, too. “We like information. That’s my opinion. We like detail. Our mind can handle it and wants it. There’s a comfort in it. A different kind of comfort than we are used to with movies. But I believe it will lead to great things.”

And in the meantime? “We are the Guinea pig,” the affable filmmaker said with a weary chuckle. It goes without saying that in most laboratory settings things don’t usually end well for Guinea pigs.

A more specific issue for critics of Gemini Man is Smith’s digital doppelgänger, a.k.a. “Junior” on the set, which is a three-part hybrid of Smith’s performance; the on-set physical performance by actor Victor Hugo (yes that’s his real name); and the digital miracles of Weta, the same visual effects house that brought the world a ring-bearer called Gollum, an rebel ape named Cesar, and a singing bear called Baloo. The finished product of Junior is a incredible achievement but it’s not a perfect one.

In some scenes, Junior’s face is contorted with emotion but the shape and cadence of the performance is balky. It doesn’t help that Junior’s approximated face is sharing the same screen as real faces rendered with skin-pore level digital details. Fans also have watched Smith on a screen for decades, it’s a face they know well.

“Ninety percent of the time on screen it’s miracles,” Lee said. “I look at what we accomplished and I am so proud. It looked like Will. And that person on the screen was alive to me. He looked real. That  is the hardest thing. Will was very proud and excited, too. So it’s hard. We have a long way to go with that. It evolves. But in the meantime…”

Lee knows there’s little bank in a filmmaker trying to debate his reviews but when pressed on the topic the filmmaker admits he is irked by critics who don’t understand the screen achievement represented by Junior.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is being hailed as a masterpiece but it has also taken some hits for de-aging sequences with Robert DeNiro. The challenge facing any synthetic creation of a human face are the phenomenally astute powers of observation that audience members bring into the theater with them. When faces look close to real people but somehow fall just shy of the mark it has an unsettling effect on viewers and their empathy shifts to revulsion. The perceptive gap is called the valley of the uncanny which is why clowns, Cabbage Patch Dolls, and the early-days CG characters from The Polar Express give people the willies.

Lee was prepared for the downfalls of the theoretical valley but admits that he assumed critics would give him points for risk-taking in the name of innovation. Some have actually done the opposite, reacting with exasperation that Gemini Man is coloring outside the lines in the first place.

“It’s very strange to me,” Lee said. “I spoke to Scorsese once and he said that in the 1970s they would consider what you were trying to do and then criticize you from there. They start with what your goal was and then judge you against that. They would judge you be what it’s supposed to be, not by whatever it is that they want to see. what you’re doing by what they want to see. Back then they were different. But the last thing I want to do is to sound like I’m saying something about critics.”

CG work with facial expressions was a also major hurdle for James Cameron during his notoriously long labors on Avatar (2009), the mega-hit movie that also resuscitated Hollywood’s use of 3D and marked a milestone in visual effects. Applying stereoscopic technology to create the illusion of depth dates back the off-world spectacle of Avatar gave moviegoers a new regard for the format which, no surprise, Hollywood studios promptly exploited.

The alluring price-point of a 3D theater ticket inspired a slew of slapdash 3D conversions that made a muddled mess of movies like (infamously) Clash of the Titans. Cameron had spent the better part of a decade getting a bead on the dimensions of Avatar but his imitators were converting movies in weeks and days.

There were some filmmakers, however, who had watched Cameron’s approach and wondered what else 3D could do if it was actually incorporated inside the DNA from the start of a project, not tattooed on its backside as a creative afterthought. Lee was among them and he embraced that baked-in approach for Life of Pi throughout pre-production, principal photography, and post-production. The result? Lee’s second Oscar as a director (following Brokeback Mountain) and overnight inclusion in Hollywood’s new 3D vanguard. That was a source of pride at the start of the decade but now it just makes Lee feel lonely.

“The list isn’t growing,” Lee said. “When I did Pi I was glad that at least one movie was getting people interested in 3D. There was Avatar and then there was Hugo and in between there were a lot of bad movies. After Hugo, a year later was Pi. Then there was the space movie, um, Gravity. And then…?”

Lee cannot produce the name of any other filmmakers or films that have “moved the ball further down the field,” as Cameron has often described the individual efforts that advance the overall quest for next-gen breakthroughs. After mulling it over: “There’s nobody,” Lee finally said, flatly.

For a decade now Hollywood has churned out a steady supply of 3D knock-offs that promise extra depth but use a shallow approach to achieve it. The effect? Consumers and the industry itself have entrenched judgments about the limitations of 3D and, in Lee’s opinion, they are neither accurate nor fair.

The conventional mindset in Hollywood now regards 3D as an enhancement of questionable merit that can be added to the moviemaking process so consumers have an upgrade option. If Hollywood was a car wash, 3D would be the air freshener option and, yes, it makes money even though it usually stinks.

Gemini Man

Lee would like to change that. Over the course of the interview he became more and more emphatic about staging a summit of sorts for filmmakers. As Lee envisions it, there would be a free screening of Gemini Man and then a presentation on the applied technologies and a some sort of group dialogue about the problems and possibilities of the future.

Sounding quite serious, Lee said he would mull over the ideal venue and timing for the event. He sounded genuinely flummoxed, too, by the lack of urgency or interest by young filmmakers in the technologies that set Gemini Man apart from past. With a sad shrug he asked, “Where are they? I don’t see anyone. I’m not out there with surveys, filling them in, but I don’t hear about anybody.”

When his interviewer referred to Lee’s “expertise” with visual effects and 3D the filmmaker blanched at the notion. “Oh, no, that’s not me, I turn to people who understand it, I just want to use it,” Lee said. “I’m an idiot with technology.” Despite the trajectory of his recent career, Lee insists that he isn’t (and never will be) a “technology guy” like, say, Cameron or George Lucas. Lee leans more toward poet than engineer. The possibilities of storytelling are what propel him to work with state-of-the-art gear, not the gizmos themselves.

And what about Lee’s next project? The nine-time Oscar nominee has a project in mind but declined to mention specifics. He did say that he is intrigued by exploring the use of 3D in drama. Most of Hollywood thinks of aliens, superheroes, and robots as the natural cinema constituencies for the 3D format but the man who (somehow) managed to direct both Hulk and Sense and Sensibility said that, hands down, the human face remains the most fascinating image to explore with next-gen filmmaking. And he didn’t mean green faces.

“Right now you still need an excuse to use these technologies so we do genre, where people expect the visual effects and they are open to them.  But at the end of the day, I thin we need to use these things in drama. So we can study human faces in 3D, in detail. We’re not there yet. But what challenge to actors it will be. Can you still say those movie lines, the wisecracks or the lines that make people cry? You can do that in the movie world we know now. But in the next?”

Ninety minutes into the interview, Lee smiles broadly for the first time, caught up in the first-man opportunities of tomorrow instead of the second-guessing sniping that filled much of his day. As he gets ready to leave he mentions again his plan to gather filmmakers in Los Angeles to rally them to his quest. Few people like to go to the movies alone and, listening to Lee’s yearning for peer collaboration and healthy rivalry, it sounded as if that instinct to seek community applies to the makers of films, too.

“I just wish more filmmaker would just try,” Lee said. “That’s something I would like to see. If other people were trying I would feel better. Right now, if you try something it’s a lonely thing. You try something and you just get beaten for it. Trying something new right now means competing with traditional filmmaking which people have been doing for a hundred years. This new medium will be great in a hundred years but I have that much time to wait.”

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