When James Cameron released “Avatar” in 2009, it heralded a new era of cinema, in which 3D would become the de facto format for any tentpole flick looking to make a fortune at the box office.
In the initial rush of enthusiasm, some studios resorted to gimmickry, hastily converting movies that had originally been shot in 2D, but a few filmmakers began to explore the full potential of the format.
Ang Lee was one of them. The Taiwanese director had already won Oscars for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) when he took on the task of adapting Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” a magical realist novel about a teenage boy who gets stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The resulting film, released internationally in 2012, was a technological marvel, shot in 3D and using immersive visual effects to bring the book’s dream-like imagery to life.
Even Cameron was impressed, saying at the time that the movie “breaks the paradigm” of what a 3D film could be. But as the decade wore on, Lee found himself playing the lonely evangelist for a style of filmmaking that is still waiting to have its moment.
Although you’ll find plenty of movies screening in 3D at your local multiplex, only a smattering of them are actually shot in the format — which requires a complete rethink of everything from cinematography and lighting to the way actors perform. Compared to the years immediately after “Avatar,” the number of “native 3D” productions has actually gone down.
“Yeah, I’m very frustrated,” Lee says during a promotional trip to Japan, when asked why more of his colleagues aren’t going all-in on that extra dimension. “And we’re way into (the age of) digital cinema now — how come we’re still imitating film? We have the chance to do 3D, because digital allows that. A space opened up! How come people insist on doing something flat?”
Lee pushes the technological envelope even further with his latest film, “Gemini Man,” which hits Japanese cinemas on Oct. 25. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the mogul responsible for “Top Gun” (1986) and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series (ongoing), it stars Will Smith as Henry Brogan, an aging hitman who has to do battle with a younger clone. The script had been knocking around Hollywood since the 1990s, but it has taken this long for the digital wizardry to catch up.
In Lee’s film, the 23-year-old version of Henry, simply called “Junior,” is a fully digital creation, distinct from the de-aging effects seen in this year’s “Captain Marvel” and “The Irishman.” While Smith performed the scenes himself, what we see on screen is a digital mask, created based on footage of the actor around the time he was filming his breakout TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96).
Lee says the challenge of making Junior convincing was part of what drew him to the project.
“I believe in movies, more than anything,” he says. “Can you digitally create a character? And no, it has to be driven by the genuineness of Will’s performance. But can you make believe, at that level? That’s pretty attractive.”
Like his previous movie, the Iraq War drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2016), “Gemini Man” was shot in 3D and 4K resolution at 120 frames per second. That’s five times the conventional 24 fps rate used for pretty much every film you’ve ever seen — and as anyone who remembers Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” (2012-14) series will recall, messing with frame rate is no trivial matter.
The 24-fps standard has been in place since the introduction of sound to film in the 1920s, and it’s so embedded in our experience of movies that we equate it with that distinctive “cinematic” look. At higher frame rates, motion becomes smoother and more realistic, which is ideal for live sports broadcasts or video games, but tends to give films an uncanny, hyperreal quality.
In “Gemini Man,” there are a few action sequences — notably a motorcycle chase through the streets of Cartagena, Colombia — that fully justify Lee’s confidence in the technology. At other times, the combination of 3D and high frame rate seem to be putting too much on display: It can feel like watching a film being made, rather than just watching a film.
Lee would be the first to admit that movies created this way look different, but he sees this as something to work with, rather than reject out of hand.
“I don’t think I’m crazy,” he says. “Because it’s real, to me, once my eyes tune into it. And I have people working with me, we all see the beauty of it.” (It doesn’t help that few theaters have the technology to screen “Gemini Man” in its intended format. In Japan, just three cinemas will be showing it at the full 120 fps.)
Lee’s pursuit of 3D filmmaking has drawn a certain amount of exasperation from critics who fell in love with his earlier work. After studying theater and film production in the United States, he became the most prominent of Taiwan’s so-called Second New Wave during the early 1990s, building his reputation with beautifully observed family dramas, including “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994).
When he transitioned to Hollywood, he quickly demonstrated that he could pull off almost anything: a Jane Austen adaptation (“Sense and Sensibility,” 1995); a pitch-perfect depiction of 1970s U.S. suburbia (“The Ice Storm,” 1997); an American Civil War epic (“Ride with the Devil,” 1999). But over time, his priorities shifted.
“I started out shooting dramas, because that’s how I was trained,” he says, “and as the years went by, I got more and more attracted to what cinema requires us to do, which is sight and sound. It’s something pure, and it’s not about meaning and content, it’s just the experience of seeing something.”
Lee says that he’s now more interested in exploring this world of “pure cinema.”
“But drama is still my backbone,” he says. “When I don’t know what to do, or what makes sense, I fall back on storytelling. That’s almost like a safety net for me, rather than an adventure.”
The adventure that began with “Life of Pi” has required Lee to take a wholly different approach to his craft. He explains that he was once allergic to what’s called pre-visualization, the process of visually mapping out a film before principal photography starts. However, given the expense and complexity of shooting in 3D — especially for movies that require extensive visual effects — he realized this had become a necessity.
“I wasn’t trained that way — I wasn’t even sure if I’m talented that way,” he says with a laugh. “There are people that can just see before anybody sees it; it’s like it’s so solid, they can draw it out. They have a vision first. I wasn’t like that, but I’m gradually tuning in to that kind of movie-making.”
Speaking just a few days before his 65th birthday, Lee jokes that he should probably have started trying to master this new medium at an earlier point in his career: “I wish I was 20 years younger,” he says.
That he’s conducting these experiments within the context of a big-budget action movie is partly a matter of convenience. Even if he wanted to use the technology for something more in the vein of “Brokeback Mountain,” the financing probably wouldn’t be there.
“It’s expensive, even to get things off the ground,” he says. “The industry doesn’t really support it yet. I know they want to, but it’s not a business yet, so it’ll be difficult. And I cannot do it cheaply: It’s cumbersome and it’s costly, because it’s not really developed yet.”
Has Lee never felt tempted to go in the opposite direction — to follow the example of Steven Soderbergh and shoot an entire movie on an iPhone?
“I’ve never really given that a thought, to be honest,” he says, after a long pause, and then laughs. “Maybe I like movie-making to be really difficult. The more difficult, the better!”
“Gemini Man” opens in cinemas nationwide on Oct. 25. For more information, visit geminiman.jp.