Ang Lee follows his eyes and his heart.
Born in Taiwan, but schooled alongside Spike Lee at NYU’s prestigious film program, the director embarked on a directing career with a series of family dramas (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) before bouncing to nearly every genre imaginable. He’s done a period drama (Sense and Sensibility), a Western (Ride with the Devil), a comic book movie (Hulk), a wuxia (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). He’s picked up two Oscars, for directing the pastoral love story Brokeback Mountain and the CG-enhanced fairy tale Life of Pi, but never allowed any success story to box him. As Lee puts it, he’s lured by images and human emotions, and whatever technological advancements will help him better tell a story.
The latter half of this decade introduced the artistic nomad to the wonders of high-frame-rate photography and projection. He stands mostly alone. James Cameron experimented with the style behind closed doors. Peter Jackson employed 48 fps visuals for his Hobbit trilogy, and polarized audiences. But Lee is all in: His new film, Gemini Man, stars Will Smith and a fully digital, de-aged Will Smith clone in a cat and mouse thriller that, if shown to the director’s specifications, whips by at 120 frames per second. The reactions are already mixed, but that isn’t stopping Lee from championing the technological leap. This is how he sees movies now. He hopes audiences will open their eyes and hearts, too, and join him on the other side.
Polygon spoke to Lee days before the release of Gemini Man to talk about the action blockbuster, his pivot to high-frame photography, and a few of the frustrations that shaped his pursuits over the years.
Polygon: Are you chasing realism by shooting Gemini Man at 120 frames per second? Or if not, what’s the goal?
Ang Lee: I think that’s the first step. I think we can go to fantasy and do all kinds of things once we know how to use it. I think we can go even more abstract because it’s digital. It has more freedom to move around. But right now, it has a sharper look, or [the audience] has a shaper mind to absorb the look, just by the nature of 3D and the sufficient information in there, and it seems more realistic.
I don’t believe realism is the goal. I think for right now we say it looks real, so then we try to make it look real. But once we know how to play with it, and not only the filmmakers, but the audience ... I think it’ll take some time before we start playing with it. But right now that it looks real seems to be their requirement, like what your eyes see in life.
How would you describe the look you’re trying to achieve by shooting films this way?
I think it’s its own thing. It’s unlike anything. It looks a lot like a movie we used to see. But it seems to feel more like life. It’s more immersive. It feel like you’re more experiencing it, living that life. But it’s not like life either because life doesn’t have camera angles. You don’t have close-ups, you don’t have a narrative line — anything can happen. It’s not like stage either, even though it’s played by real people and is three-dimensional. There’s more of an artifice. It creates an elusive world. It’s not like sculpture either. It’s not like art installation. So I don’t know what it looks like. I think it’s its own thing.
[Shooting in high frame rate] just occurred to me while I was making a movie. I was making 3D movies and it was stroby. I could get more information so that it’s not stroby. Then I felt I need more of this, more of that, and it indicated me to go in the direction of a different kind of image processing. It seems like a different activity. Very much like a movie, but not quite.
So your passion for high-frame-rate photography was born out of frustration?
In Life of Pi, because it was so stroby and I was working on a floating movie, I was in trouble. Very quickly I learned that if you don’t give too much 3D, if you flatten it out a little bit, you can still feel that the dimension but you don’t feel the strobe as much. And I opened up the shadow to reduce the strobiness, but then I take took in more blur. I knew 24 [frames per second] was not sufficient. It’s very troublesome.
Do you see Life of Pi as a flawed film? You won an Oscar for directing it.
I know, but I made it very much like 2D! I think we have a clean picture. There are parts, like in the ocean, that are full CG and where I didn’t have that trouble. But if there’s live picture, I really minimized how much 3D I used. So people tune into it quite easily. They’re watching a 3D movie, but they’re still watching a movie. The Illusion hasn’t broken, so to speak. Not in a bad way — the nature of movie-watching hasn’t changed. Plus the lighting, the performance, the story, the narrative was all very much like what we know about movies. So they play along quite well. It’s also about an Indian boy. There’s a foreignness to it. And it’s a fantasy, because he’s somebody telling a story. It’s a wonderful tale, but I felt I need another dimension. So when the older Pi examined the value of the first story, I needed at least some other kind of a dimension to separate from the story we’re telling. That’s why I thought of 3D, even though I didn’t know what 3D was all about.
And then making that movie, I began to learn, and I also learned the insufficient way we were making them. So after Life of Pi, though it was a success, I tried to find a way to increase the 3D to where it ought to be. Then somebody showed me James Cameron’s demo. He was promoting 60 frames, from 40 to 60, and he explained why it should be 60.
That opened up a lot to me, and then I went to a pioneer of a higher frame rate, Doug Trumbull. He went through a lot of things for me and I started doing my own experiments. I found many things: performance needed to be changed, lighting needed to be changed, just the way how your eyes process things. Once you get used to it, it’s not high frame rate. What you used to know becomes kind of a low frame rate. The eyes change. It’s really hard for you. For years I was gradually changing. So all of a sudden they show the audience, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Some people take it in right away, some people are all over the map.
When you watch traditional 24 fps films...
It bothers me now. Whatever they do in that frame rate to compensate really started bothering me. I’ve come to terms with it, but for like roughly five years I had a terrible time. I love movies more than anything — it’s like a religion. Then the whole world was turned upside down. Where was the anchor? It’s not like I can just reject [24 fps photography]. I’m a filmmaker. That’s what I do. But everything looked kind of strange. For me, I wanted to understand it. I’m not going to say “straighten things out” or that we’re on the wrong path or whatever. Movies are still the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me or to many people. People apply so much art and heart and beauty to it, that wouldn’t ever change it. Just when I see that it looks strange now.
How would you compare what you’re doing now to the potential of cinema that grabbed you in the early ’90s when you were making smaller dramas?
I’m a human being. I’m curious about human conditions and expressions. I don’t think that ever changed. I think when the day I stop making movies, I’m too old, I’ll still appreciate that beauty.
Ironically, when I get to this media, the biggest impression is the biggest gain. It’s all about studying faces. It seems like I can see through them, but unlike life it has close-ups. I was very precious about it. But people associate technology with something like action and spectacles. It’ll take awhile before you get into drama.
Is there a close-up from one of your films that sticks in your mind?
I only film close-ups [laughs]. Every movie has my favorite close-up. They’re all beautiful to me. You can’t have enough close-ups. My friend [screenwriter] James Schamus will laugh at me like, “The last shot of the scene can’t be a close-up, you have so many close-ups!”
What’s amazing is when I saw Joe Alwyn’s close-ups in Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, in the battlefield, it’s just mesmerizing. It sucks you in. There are some in this movie, too. It might not be even a significant moment, but it sucks you into that person. You feel he’s got reflection, you read the thoughts in the eyes’ slight movements. It seems to be more lively.
Your interest in the eyes makes using an all-digital version of Will Smith to play his younger self a fascinating choice: Weta artists have always said the key to these CG characters is in the eyes, and in Gemini Man, you’re shooting in a way that puts that work under a microscope. Were you especially particular about directing the animation of Junior’s eyes?
We went over and over it for years. You cannot even do that with actors. With actors, you tell them, then you shoot it. Now with this, you have months with 500 people trying to find “the thing.” Of course, it’s very expensive. There’s huge data running each time they run a test. Maybe they budgeted for 15 times rendering [the footage]. But maybe it would go ... five times more? 10 times more? We just kept trying.
For a filmmaker, if you’re not paying for it, it is a luxury to study, micro-study, how emotion works, how you read into people. The little nuances from the microscopic study of emotion and muscle relation. The skin of the eyes, the way it reacts to every little movement in relation to light. It’s a scientific study more so than impressionism. Like how light comes to play with this thing other than physics, textures. Why does a certain movement make you think he’s thinking something? It’s really fascinating. If people don’t buy that, of course it hurts.
You’ve mentioned that part of your interest in shooting Gemini Man at 120 fps was to stage the most realistic fist fights possible, with random fight videos on YouTube as the bar to pass. When and how did that become a pursuit for you?
From my first fight movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of course, I had the best action choreographer, the great Yuen Woo-Ping. But I’ve been trying to pursue this. It wasn’t possible. You would hurt people. Then I realized movie fighting is dancing. It’s the opposite of physics and intention from real fights, from a YouTube fight. But a YouTube fight is ugly and it ends very shortly. It doesn’t last four minutes. It doesn’t fascinate you. So how do you do that? I never found a way for 20 years until we had to actually have digital doubles made. It’s free! You have to do it anyway. So here comes my chance. I grabbed it. I been thinking that for a long time. I’ve tried different ways. I’ve hurt people and I didn’t want to hurt them anymore.
How did you try to make Crouching Tiger more realistic? The wuxia filmmaking tradition basks in fantasy.
I couldn’t. I gave up. I totally went along with what it was. And not only in the fights, but even in the drama. It’s supposed to a B-movie. It came from pulpy fiction. So it’s supposed to be kind of trashy, and then you get to the fantasy world and you sort of reveal the real desire. The hidden dragon, so to speak. But then I got historically accurate. Then I graded it to make it look exquisite. And people’s behaviors ... the acting was more serious than in most of the serious Chinese dramas. It was like Sense and Sensibility all over again, Chinese style. I got into it, but halfway through, I really got into trouble. I didn’t know how they should be speaking that sounds natural to Chinese. Ten years later, people love that movie, but when it first came out in China, I ran into trouble. But in a foreign place, like in the West, it was a huge hit.
Chinese audiences thought you put lipstick on a pig.
Sometimes it goes the other way. Billy Lynn really hit in China. Lust, Caution was a cultural phenomenon in Asia, but it couldn’t play here. It’s very strange. I’m pretty good at guessing what people like, but I can also really get lost. I’m surprised when it’s like, “Oh, the French are going to love this, but it’s the opposite of the Japanese, they’re gonna hate it.” I was just so surprised by Crouching Tiger. I was making something for Asia, you know, then it hit the other way. I was surprised how people reacted to high frame rate 3D here, but then when I got depressed, in Asia, Taiwan, China it was high praise. I don’t know what it is.
You mentioned the cost of shooting high-frame rate—
It will be cheaper.
Because you’ve basically done the R&D for others.
I’ve done the R&D, although it’s not like I just paved the way for the others — I want to see myself. And I have seen something. If it’s all pain, I wouldn’t keep doing it. I think there’s the beauty there and we want to share it.
But does it feel like a gamble in terms of your career? Considering the industry, will there always be a way for you to make the movies you want to make?
I think the real risk is on the investors. To us, it’s a risk, but the words is you follow your fate. Yeah. The process is pretty exciting. It’s painful, but it’s very exciting. The excitement when we make those movies, when we overcome something. When you find something that’s working, even to our eyes, it keeps you very much alive.
You’ve never really been a gun for hire. You make the movies you want to make, even if they’re big blockbusters like Hulk or Gemini Man.
Ironically, the two times I felt like I was working for hire were Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain. But it never felt like I was doing a job.
There are clicking moments. Like this movie belongs to me, and I belong to this movie, and this will be the next two years, three years of my life. It’s part of your fate. It mostly is the ingredients, for me, not even the texture. Oh, that’ll keep me busy, my mind busy, because of the characters, the situation or the look, the technology, whatever.
After my first three movies, I pretty much didn’t know what to do. But I was attracted to the [scripts]. I grew up in Taiwan — what do I know about gay cowboys in Wyoming? But I was crying when I read the story. At one point I was just sobbing [...] They chased for nearly 20 years and all they got is Brokeback! “We could have had a good life.” I just broke up.
The dialogue scenes in Gemini Man are some of the most interesting. Would you want to return to a movie like Brokeback using high frame rate technology? Do you have a next project lined up?
I have a few choices, a few things I’ve been thinking. But also I think this picture’s so beautiful. There are some shots in Gemini Man, I’m sorry, they’re just really beautiful. When Will walks across the bridge in the beginning. The underwater shots. The night shots. They’re so pretty.
I’m still chasing pretty pictures. I’m still chasing dramatic moments. I think action is fascinating because it can be territory we’ve never seen before. We can dramatize them. This isn’t high frame rate to me, it’s normal frame rate.