God help me, I watched Ang Lee’s Gemini Man twice. The first time I saw the film, I was wowed by its action set pieces, in particular a wild motorcycle chase through the streets of Cartagena in which 51-year-old assassin Will Smith is relentlessly pursued by a deadly 23-year-old clone of himself nicknamed Junior. The chase was dizzyingly fast — dazzlingly, disorientingly so — and I do believe I winced and yelped audibly at one point when Junior whacked his older self with the rear of his bike.
A couple of days later, however, I saw the film again. This time, the same chase felt flat, lifeless, phony. Suddenly, I could tell that Junior was largely a digital creation. His movements seemed fake and cartoonish. The bike stunts felt like, well, stunts. Will Smith’s anguished, breathless responses were programmed and unconvincing, as if he’d suddenly forgotten how to act.
Oddly enough, this second time, I was watching Gemini Man in the director’s preferred viewing format. Like his previous feature, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee shot Gemini Man using allegedly-revolutionary-but-mostly-confounding high-frame-rate technology — in this case, filming at 120 frames per second instead of the traditional 24 frames per second, which is what pretty much all movies have been shot at since the dawn of the sound era. When I saw Gemini Man for the first time at 24fps, as a regular old movie in a regular old movie theater without any fancy new technology, it actually worked okay. At a higher frame rate, though, the grandeur of the big screen suddenly evaporated, and the whole thing seemed … if I may use a scientific word, dinky. Even the explosions felt weirdly small and inconsequential.
To be fair, not all that many people saw Gemini Man at 120fps — that is, if they bothered to see it at all — since only 14 theaters in the U.S. were apparently even capable of showing it at that frame rate. Many screens — more than a thousand of them, in fact — did show it at 60fps, which is still a high frame rate, though not quite as high as Lee intended. None of it worked, business-wise: The film has proved to be a massive flop, and seems set to lose its studio $75 million.
It would be silly to blame the film’s failure on the technology, but I’m going to go ahead and blame the technology.
Proponents of high frame rates (like Ang Lee and Peter Jackson, who shot the Hobbit prequels at 48fps, and James Cameron, who was once reportedly intending to shoot the Avatar sequels at 120fps) believe that this provides clearer, smoother, more realistic images, particularly when it comes to depicting fast movements, adding a level of detail that 24fps struggles to capture. So, Gemini Man is filled with scenes designed to showcase this technology; besides the Cartagena motorcycle chase, there’s also a dimly lit fight in the catacombs of Budapest, as well as a final melee involving a mysterious masked super-soldier doing crazy, rapid-fire kung fu.
There’s no denying that there is something impressive about being able to see all sorts of tiny details in such sequences. And a high frame rate does make for a more realistic image; studies have shown that when processing higher frame rates, the brain starts to lose its ability to tell the difference between real motion (a.k.a. real life) and the illusion of motion (a.k.a. movies). But in this case, realistic does not always mean better. It’s the same thing that happened with Billy Lynn. The hyperreality of the image had the countervailing effect of making everything else seem phony: the acting, the makeup, the sets, even the stunts and the CGI.
The thing is, movies aren’t real, and when we try to make them real, we realize just how not-real they are. Our suspension of disbelief — the very thing that we need for the art form to work — dissipates. The smoothness and clarity of the image doesn’t make us feel like we’re sitting in a room with the characters from Gemini Man, it makes us feel like we’re suddenly sitting on the set with the actors from Gemini Man, watching them struggle through their lines. Yes, we notice more details, but we don’t necessarily notice the right details; some of my friends who saw Gemini Man at 120fps complained of the film’s awkward product placement, such as its perfectly lit cans of Coke; at 24fps, I didn’t notice these. More distressingly, the high frame rate also undermines the film’s other great innovation: the creation of a digital, younger version of Will Smith to play Junior. At 120fps, we can clearly see the character’s limited range of expression.
It turns out the not-entirely-real frame rate of 24fps provides a necessary filter — a cognitive distance — between the audience and the image, and that slightly dreamy, unreal quality may well be essential to conjuring the illusion of what we call cinema. A whole vernacular has developed around the classic frame rate. Without it, the cinematic enterprise falls apart. Earlier this year, for an article on motion smoothing, I interviewed David Niles, an engineer and pioneer in HDTV technology. (Motion smoothing and high frame rates are different issues — and different controversies — and I’m not about to get into that here, but I think it’s fair to say that, in its ideal state, a motion-smoothed image would look like a high-frame-rate image.) Niles told me of tests he’d done showing the same footage at different frame rates to viewers. “We would take a scene between a couple of actors, shoot it at 60 frames per second, or even 30 frames, and then shoot it at 24 and put it in front of audiences to see how they interpreted it,” he told me. “With 24 frames, people liked the actors better — they felt the performances were better.” In effect, this was the same experiment I carried out with myself when I saw Gemini Man twice.
Here’s the weird thing: Ang Lee knows all this. He understands that high frame rates actually require a different approach to cinematic language. “It’s a different media with different perception, different requirements,” he recently told IndieWire. “Digital doesn’t want to be film, it wants to be something else. I think we need to get past that and discover what it is.” But Ang Lee, with his sober, classical film style, his fondness for long takes and elegant close-ups — the very things that I would argue make him such an essential artist of our time — is possibly the major director least suited to trying to make high frame rates work. For all of Gemini Man’s exciting action scenes, by and large it’s a traditional drama, shot in a traditional manner, acted traditionally. It’s an Ang Lee film! It has no business being shot or shown at high frame rates.
There is a potential model for how high-frame-rate cinema might work. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, before high-definition cameras became commonplace in motion-picture production, a lot of independent films and documentaries were shot on high-end digital video cameras, which were often running at slightly higher frame rates — in the U.S., NTSC video ran around 30fps, whereas in Europe, PAL video was around 25fps. Filmmakers were aware that these images did not look like celluloid. The resolution was lower, and the frame rate gave the images a decidedly un-film-like look, even when you had the resources to transfer your footage to 35mm and project it at 24fps.
With those early digital-video movies, if you opted for a traditional shooting style, your footage started to look like a soap opera. People got around this problem of video by developing a more vérité style, relying on handheld images, fast-cutting, and extreme, often fragmented close-ups. (The Dogme 95 movement, with its slightly-tongue-in-cheek “vows of chastity” for production methods, also helped influence this aesthetic.) Video sometimes allowed for a greater intimacy onscreen as well, so elements of performance began to change; the so-called “mumblecore” movement dates to this period as well. As does, interestingly, the “shaky cam” aesthetic used in many mainstream studio movies. Two of my favorite films of this era, Michael Mann’s Collateral and Miami Vice — shot, by the way, by Dion Beebe, the cinematographer of Gemini Man — exploit both the you-are-there intimacy and the agitated fragmentation of digital video.
This was also roughly the period when found-footage horror also emerged, fueled by the success of films like The Blair Witch Project (a handheld, video-shot film par excellence) and, a few years later, Paranormal Activity (which didn’t use handheld style at all, instead opting for a surveillance-camera aesthetic to deal with its video-ness). Again, these films weren’t projected at high frame rates, but the fact that they had been shot on cheaper video cameras provided a look and feel that had some of the same qualities as later high-frame-rate experiments. (In fact, I’ve been surprised that none of today’s supposed visionaries have tried to make a horror film using high frame rates; the hyperrealism of the imagery might actually benefit that genre, as it did with Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. But maybe the technology is currently too expensive to justify anything other than big-budget spectaculars. Maybe, much as with 3-D, things will get interesting when independent, fringe, and experimental filmmakers get their hands on it.)
Audiences did eventually get tired of the hypervérité style in narrative movies. The approach fell out of fashion partly due to the increased availability of high-definition cameras that ran at 24fps, which meant filmmakers no longer had to develop aesthetic strategies to get around the electric edge of video; they could finally start treating it like film.
Some have said that this is all just conditioning: that we’ve gotten used to seeing movies in 24fps for decades and are simply hanging on to outdated notions of what we feel film motion should look like, when in fact we now have vastly superior technology to those old movie cameras. They contend that a high frame rate, much like the development of sound, or color, or even widescreen, is the future. And maybe they’re right. Maybe when Avatar 2 comes out, we’ll all be so blown away by high frame rate that everything will suddenly be shown in that manner, and studios will go crazy trying to motion-smooth the likes of Casablanca and Bambi in time for their 100th anniversaries, just as they once went wild retrofitting classics to 3-D in the wake of Avatar’s success*. (I’m buying some cyanide pills, just in case.) But also consider this: Maybe new isn’t always better. Maybe, just maybe, a technology that’s advanced isn’t always a technology that’s superior. Maybe some things work for a reason.
*Update: Having seen the light of day, James Cameron has announced that he no longer intends to release the Avatar sequels at high frame rates.