Ang Lee’s Whole Shebang

Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is the first feature film ever to be shot at 120 frames per second, overtaking second-placed The Hobbit (48 fps), which had doubled the industry standard 24 fps.  Lee describes the combo of 3D, 4K HD and 120 fps as “The Whole Shebang”.

China has embraced the film, a China-US-UK coproduction, more than any other market, bringing the greatest box office returns, partly due to Lee’s popularity and partly because of a widespread penchant for new technology.  Two of the six theatres worldwide capable of projecting the film in all its glory were in China.  Hollywood executives and US audiences meanwhile, were largely unmoved. 

Critical reaction to the 120 fps has been mixed. Some have called it “too real” or a distraction.  Others have pointed out that the ‘hyper-realism’ it creates exposes the artifice of the performance.  Variety’s Brent Lang delivered a balanced critique, concluding, “[the film] represents both a massive step forward for moviemaking and a painful reminder that innovation comes at a price. It is a beautiful mess.”

At the ICEVE conference at the Beijing Film Academy this month, the movie’s 3D Stereographer & Stereo Supervisor, Demetri Portelli proclaimed on stage, “I want to document this film in history as an important event.”  We caught up with him to find out why.

Ang LeeAng Lee

120 fps “the ultimate solution”

When Ang Lee was looking for an “independent spirit” to help him realise his ambitious new project for under $50m with just 49 days shoot, he came looking for Portelli and digital engineer partner, Ben Gervais.  Following $150m-plus budget 3D projects with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and 47 Ronin, the duo had confounded critics by proving that 3D could be efficient and affordable, delivering the 3D and VFX for Jean Paul Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet for under $2m in an overall project that cost less than $30m.

OZ4A4513Demetri Portelli, 3D Stereographer & Stereo Supervisor of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at the ICEVE conference, Beijing

After Life of Pi, Lee was looking for a crisper image.  Working at 24fps, he encountered a problem with motion and strobing when editing close-ups. “It was an ability to ‘lock in’ your eyes and look at somebody”, says Portelli. “He wanted to go to a high frame rate so that when you look at the face, you can lock in and hold your gaze on an actor’s eyes and stay there.  That’s really important in communicating with the audience and having a true experience.” 

LPLife of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, 2012

Lee also wanted to separate himself from the classic film aesthetic. “Ang said, “I think you guys were all wrong on Hugo.  You got the Alexa and tried to make a digital film look like an old movie.  What’s wrong with taking a digital camera and trying to find new aesthetics that are intrinsic to digital cinema?  We need artists to explore.”

The initial thinking was to shoot at differing frame rates – 24, 48, 60, 120 – which would have required commitment to decisions in principal photography.  Shooting everything at 120 would mean capturing substantially more data – around 7.5 to 10 terabytes a day, roughly 40 times that of a normal 2D film – but would provide high quality images for every shot and ultimate flexibility in post.

In Lee’s office, in a custom-built postproduction unit cooled with powerful air conditioning, Lee exercised that freedom, adjusting the frame rate, depth and resolution to complement and enhance the action. “There are shots at 24 and 60 where he drops the aesthetic down to 2K to give it the old movie feeling,” says Portelli.  “You can ramp scenes from 18 fps to 30 to 48.  Maybe you’re in 2D but then you get into a close-up, and you go to 3D-120.”

The BIG close up shows the technology best. The human face gives all the information.

The big close up shows the 120fps-4K technology best. The human face gives all the information

Ultimately, Portelli believes shooting at 120 fps makes every shot better, even if the frame rate is eventually dropped, “24 is better if you shoot 120 and deliver 24.  The reason is you can control the shutter in postproduction. The hard thing for us in 3D was strobing and judder at 24.  120 is so smooth because you have all those frames, so nothing hurts.”

He continues, “By gathering more information, you’re delivering a better movie for everybody all the way down the line, including 2D, 3D, 24, 60, because you’re controlling the sequence of the frames, and you’re controlling clarity vs. blur.  You’re controlling a cinematic look vs. a hyper real look.”  That flexibility ultimately enables delivery in various different formats to suit any screen.

On set, Lee and Portelli would qualify each shot using a one-to-five “gear system” shorthand.  For what Lee saw as “fantasy” characters like Billy’s love interest, they would go to 2D, a “low gear”.   The fifth gear was reserved for the big half-time show and climactic battle scene. “For Ang”, says Portelli, “the whole shebang meant realism.”

BL_battle2

Early on, the team had thought 120 fps shooting would best lend itself to action scenes due to its strength in capturing motion, but the real revelation was in the close-ups. “The beauty of 120 is that it shows everything, and it shows more.  You start to understand the beauty that’s there in a simple close-up. It shows muscles, it sees through the skin.  You can count the hairs in eyebrows and see the little expressions in someone’s eyes.”

“But,” he warns, “You have to be careful. It’s a very powerful tool.  You can make somebody look very interesting but you can also make someone look a little bit ugly.”

He continues, “It reveals the artifice of filmmaking.  The performance and the direction has to change, because if you see the actor thinking about his lines and looking down at his marks, he gives himself away.”

Portelli says naturalistic subjects are best.  “We’re trying to show the world in a different light.  Ang wanted to be bold, a project that put us in a natural environment in Morocco… and have you look at those little details in the sand and the dust.” 

BL_battle

People call it hyperrealism, but Billy Lynn is really just closer to just being a realistic project.  I think 120 shows the world much closer to how we see it in daily life.”

Portelli calls Billy Lynn “the brightest film you’ve ever seen.” The initial idea was to project at a standard brightness of 14 foot-lamberts, “But before we had calibrated [the projectors], Ang looked at full brightness (28 foot-lamberts) and said, “My god, that’s amazing!  He was trying to make a bold statement.  We’re trying to give you an experience.”

Portelli describes it as a “sensory overload.”  In fact, he says, “There are people who have gone to the film who have had a bit of anxiety because they’re not used to being put in that position as the viewer.” 

Billy Lynn HC

There is room for improvement in the next 120 fps outing.  The first challenge is to create smaller cameras than the hulking F65.  In terms of postproduction, Portelli says, “I think we can do more variations and soften the DI a bit and be a little less heavy handed.”  And of course, for more people to enjoy the experience, many more theatres will need to be capable of screening the full frame rate.

Lee’s next film, ‘Thrilla in Manila’ will be shot at 120 fps.  “Ang does not want to work at lower than 120fps”, says Portelli.  Lee hopes this will be the beginning of a movement.  Whereas James Cameron has called 120fps a storytelling tool, Lee is calling it a format.  “It’s not just a tool, this is a new way to see, so let’s start looking and let’s start talking about that. [Ang] is just beginning to discover a lot of new things.  You will see a lot of change in his next film.  Billy Lynn is just the beginning of what can you do with this.”

 

PIGMAN: Happy New Year!

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ENG

 

What a year!

2016 was a great year for PIG China. We were directly involved in films which garnered over a dozen major awards at festivals worldwide!

The 2015 Dove spot “Chose Beautiful” we locally produced won a Grand Clio at Clio Awards. The spot also won silver and bronze Cannes Lions, and a gold at ROI.

The widely spread and discussed SK-II “Leftover Women” not only made its way to international news headlines, but also garnered Glass, Gold, Silver and Bronze Cannes Lions; a Silver at London International Awards; a Bronze at ROI; and landed Floyd Russ a Silver Young Director Awards in Cannes.

Then our 2 BMW spot landed awards at ROI: BMW7 Visionary Lights for the 7 Series with a Gold Award, and BMW M Series with Silver and Bronze Awards.

BMW 7 Visionary Lights
BMW M Series

And finally, P.I.G. director Nelson Cabrera finished the year with over 20 major international awards for his work on the Saltwater Brewery campaign, including 2 Golds, a silver and a Bronze Cannes Lions; a Gold and 2 Silver Clios; D&AD Impact White Pencil; LIA awards, etc…

INSERT SALTWATER BREWERY FILM (I will ask Nelson for it)

Thank you all for supporting PIG China in 2016, and here’s hoping 2017 will be an even better year!

Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas!

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PIGMAN: Halloween

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Hollywood’s Search for a Chinese Superhero

Can a Chinese hero save Hollywood from cultural irrelevance?

The deluge of Hollywood superhero movies shows no signs of abating, with an estimated 63 comic book adaptations set to hit the big screen by 2020.

A sizeable chunk of the global takings come from China, the world’s second and soon–to-be largest film market. However, Hollywood’s future success in the Middle Kingdom is far from assured. With competition from an improving domestic industry and the massive new audiences outside top tier cities less responsive to English-dialogue driven fare, it is predicted that US films will lose market share as the box office grows.

As Hollywood studios increase their China presence, they are recognizing the need for more localized content. Earlier this year, the Russo brothers, directors of the Captain America franchise, announced they were teaming up with Chinese partners to form development and production studios in LA and Beijing, before unveiling plans for a $230m trilogy of Mandarin superhero movies starring an original Chinese hero.

Russo Brothers by Gage SkidmoreThe Russo Brothers. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Mellow Yellow

The Russos are not the first to see the potential in a Chinese hero. In 2011, former Marvel president Stan Lee co-launched Magic Storm Entertainment with a view to producing superhero movies for Asian markets. The first announced project was an English-language film titled “The Annihilator”, about a Chinese expatriate named Ming, “who must choose between remaining in prison or enlist in a secret U.S. super soldier program”. Slated to star Wang Leehom, the project appears to have stalled in the early stages.

The same fate appears to have befallen his latest project, Realm of the Tiger, this time a Mandarin language co-production with different partners featuring a heroine supposedly set to be played by Li Bingbing.

Stan-Lee-in-2015---Gage-Skidmore1Stan Lee and would-be superhero stars, Wang Leehom & Li Bingbing. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Lee has actually been devising Chinese characters for decades, albeit less heroic ones. In 1965 he co-created The Mandarin, a droopy-mustached throwback to the ‘Yellow Peril’ characters of the 1920s and 30s. Back then a xenophobic fear of the perceived threat from the swarming masses in the east saw Chinese characters presented as either primitive peasants or evil masterminds like Fu Manchu or Ming the Merciless.

Yellow-Perils1Spot the difference: ‘Yellow peril’ inspired super-villains Fu Manchu, Yellow Claw, Ming the Merciless and The Mandarin.  Marvel preceded The Mandarin with Yellow Claw in 1956 and actually bought the rights to Fu Manchu in 1973.

In fairness to Lee, The Mandarin was conceived during the height of the Cold War amid fears of spreading communism and nuclear war. Unsurprisingly when Marvel Studios co-produced Iron Man 3 with DMG Beijing, with an eye on reaping huge rewards from the China market, they chose not to present The Mandarin as an evil Chinese dictator with ambitions of world domination. The arch-villain was instead revealed to be a bumbling junkie actor used as a front for Aldrich Killian’s terrorist organization, provoking the ire of nerds everywhere.

Radioactive-Man1Another Lee co-creation, Chen Lu, China’s leading nuclear physicist who transforms himself into a Radioactive Man, a walking blob of nuclear waste recruited to help his government stop Thor blocking the spread of communism into India.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Whitewashing

American comic creators have been inventing Chinese characters for almost 80 years. Despite the prevailing Yellow Peril mindset, some more positive fictional characters began to emerge in the late ‘30s, like the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato, a character that probably inspired DC’s Wing, a Chinese immigrant working as the driver and sidekick for a wealthy publisher and caped crusader in New York.

Van-Williams-as-the-Green-Hornet-and-Bruce-Lee-as-Kato-from-the-television-program-The-Green-Hornet.The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet TV show (1966-67).  The Green Hornet started life as a radio show in the 1930s
Wing1DC’s Wing, sidekick to the Crimson Avenger (far right).  Following his dignified early appearances in 1938, Wing’s design later descended into a racist stereotype typical of the era.

Chinese portrayals further improved after the US joined World War II and became formal allies with China, ushering in, in 1944 Blazing Comics’ short-lived series starring the Green Turtle, widely believed to be the first Chinese comic book hero, who fights in China alongside local troops against the Japanese.

GT1The Green Turtle – the first Chinese comic book hero?

Attitudes were still far from enlightened. American-Chinese artist Chu Hing supposedly intended to create a Chinese hero but was blocked by publishers who felt an Asian character wouldn’t resonate with a US readership. Chu cunningly kept the Turtle’s ethnicity ambiguous by drawing his eyes obscured and using a surreal shadow of a turtle to represent his hero’s face.GT2

Whitewashing for a US audience endured 30 years later, when white actor David Carradine was cast as the lead in the Kung Fu TV series, in which a half Chinese Shaolin monk fights his way through the American Old West.

David_Carradine_Kung_Fu_1972David Carradine in the Kung Fu TV series (1972-75). Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who travels through the American Old West armed with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts, in search of his half-brother.

Negative though that may appear, the show inspired a martial arts craze in America in the 1970s, leading to more admirable Chinese comic book heroes including ‘The Master of Kung Fu’, Shang Chi. If any US-created Chinese hero is fit for export to modern China it might be Shang. In 2005 he was one of ten characters included in a proposed Marvel Studios slate and, though he never got his movie, there are rumors he may soon appear in the Netflix Iron Fist series, supposedly played by an Asian male that probably isn’t John Cho.

latest-1Shang Chi debuted in 1973, initially as an evil character, the son of Fu Manchu.

It’s unknown whether a Chinese face would attract cinemagoers in China. Would say, a Chinese Superman, fare better than the lukewarm reception for Man of Steel or Batman Vs. Superman. That dream may be closer than we think, after DC recently bestowed the ailing caped crusader’s powers onto Shanghai teen Kenan Kong as part of their Rebirth event.

Kenan-Kong1Kenan Kong, a Chinese Superman

John-D.-and-Catherine-T.-MacArthur-Foundation1Kenan Kong is co-created and co-written by Asian-American artist Gene Yang Luen.  In 2014, Yang also revived The Green Turtle, telling his origin story in “The Shadow Hero”. Image courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

One US created hero that has remained Chinese to the core is Captain China, a Mandarin language series started in 2012 by American-Chinese duo Jim Lai and Chi Wang. Their Cap is a product of Mao Zedong initiative to create a Chinese superhero during the Great Leap Forward, revived after 50 years to demonstrate China’s economic power. Though amusing clashes between Cap’s Maoist anti-American ideology and China’s modern capitalist values ensue, surely no sane studio with designs on China would touch such sensitive subject matter.

Captain-ChinaJim Lai and Chi Wang’s Captain China.  Despite some confusion among netizens, he is not the star of the Russo brothers’ forthcoming movies.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a 16th century Chinese deity?

With 5000 years of history and mythology, it is often said that China already has the raw materials for great movie storytelling. While that forgets the all-important ‘telling’ part, it’s true that filmmakers frequently turn to the perceived box office security of fantasy, dipping into the archives for figures that can be repurposed as quasi-superheroes. League of Gods recently did just this, with the spirits and immortals of 16th century myth Fengshen Yanyi revamped amid spectacular blockbuster effects.

《封神传奇》对决海报横版带-logoCMKY-小League of Gods

US comic creators were riffing on Chinese mythology back in 2004 with Marvel’s Eight Immortals based on the legend of the same name. DC followed in 2006 with the Great Ten, based on the 14th century tale Ten Brothers, about a government-backed posse with excellent names like Accomplished Perfect Physician, Immortal Man-in-Darkness and Mother of Champions.

eightimmortalsMarvel’s Eight Immortals
GreatTen02DC’s Great Ten

Predicting what will work among China’s diverse masses is anyone’s guess. There is no tried and tested formula, though a glance at the most successful movies suggests that Chinese audiences favour escapism, fantasy and humor over the ever darker and more depressing stories told in US hero shows. So far, 2015’s super-silly Jianbing Man is China’s closest successful equivalent to a caped crusader.

Courtesy of Sohu VideoJianbing Man. Courtesy of Sohu Video

If the heroes of the past can teach us anything, it’s that their stories reflect the fears of the society in which they are created. The diverse concerns of China’s cinemagoers are different to those in the US, and transplanting an American genre onto another culture is more complex than simply casting a Mandarin speaking Chinese actor. If Hollywood must keep pushing superheroes, they face an unknown road ahead. Perhaps the most compelling solution is to leave the spandex at home, and focus on learning the true identity of the Chinese audience.

Jessica Sanders Champions Female Filmmaking

Jessica Sanders’ empowering new short film features some of the world’s most talented emerging female film directors, talking about their diverse and accomplished collective body of films.

The two-and-a-half-minute short titled “Fox Directors” celebrates the exceptional work being created by female directors, simultaneously casting a spotlight on shocking statistics about the numbers of women being employed as directors: just 7% of Hollywood films are directed by women – and accounted for only 9% of directors on the top 250 highest-grossing films of 2015 – and only 17% of TV directors are female.

Jessica_Sanders_FOX_GDI

Sanders partnered with fashion and lifestyle media company Refinery29 to create a film for its programming slate ShatterBox Anthology, which profiles some of Fox’s leading female talent.  The resulting film was made in collaboration with Fox’s new Global Directing Initiative, a program that aims to create more opportunities for women and underrepresented filmmakers.  All the directors featured in Fox Directors participated in the initiative, including Sanders herself.

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Jessica Sanders is an Academy Award nominated, Sundance and Cannes Young Director Award-winning director and producer of narrative and documentary films and commercials.  Her credits include the feature documentaries After Innocence (Sundance winner, Academy Award shortlist), Sing (Academy Award nominated) and March of The Living.

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Fox Directors has been widely featured online, including selection as Creativity Online’s ‘Editor’s Pick’. Building awareness and provoking discussion are the first positive steps in a long journey ahead.

*Jessica is represented in China by P.I.G.*

PIGMAN: Happy Mid Autumn Festival

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PIGPEN CINEMA Presents CARTEL LAND

  • Tue. 30 Aug, 2016
  • Doors open 9 | Movie starts 9:30
  • 65 Maoming Bei Lu (Weihai Lu/Yan’an Lu)
  • Drink specials: beer|wine|cocktails
  • Free “Grumpy” movie popcorn
  • Only 35 seats
  • First come first serve policy

With unprecedented access, CARTEL LAND is a riveting, look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy – the violent Knights Templar drug cartel. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the murderous drug cartel. Meanwhile, in Arizona’s Altar Valley – a corridor known as Cocaine Alley – Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across the border.

PIGMAN: Olympics

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