James Cameron Disagrees With Ang Lee About the Future of High Frame Rate Filmmaking

Zack Sharf

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The careers of James Cameron and Ang Lee have been defined by breakthroughs in technological filmmaking, but one area where the visionary auteurs do not see eye to eye is the use of high frame rate technology. Lee shot and released his last two movies at 120 frames per second: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “Gemini Man.” Both films were box office bombs (“Gemini Man” is projected to lose Paramount nearly $70 million this fall) that earned critical backlash for the video game look of the high frame rate technology. Speaking to Collider, Cameron cleared up a rumor about his upcoming “Avatar” sequels and said they will not be released at 120fps because he does not believe the technology should be used in all aspects of a movie.

“I have a personal philosophy around high frame rate, which is that it is a specific solution to specific problems having to do with 3D,” Cameron said. “And when you get the strobing and the jutter of certain shots that pan or certain lateral movement across frame, it’s distracting in 3D. And to me, [high frame rate is] just a solution for those shots. I don’t think it’s a format. That’s just me personally. I know Ang sees it that way. I don’t think it’s like the next 70 millimetres or the next big thing. I think it’s a tool to be used to solve problems in 3D projection.”

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Cameron said that he only shot select scenes of his “Avatar” sequels at 120 frames per second so that he could smooth out some of the 3D. Unlike “Gemini Man,” the “Avatar” sequels were not entirely filmed at 120 frames per second. Part of the reason Lee’s use of high frame rate filmmaking has failed is because the image is so clear it distracts from establishing shots and sequences where characters are just talking (which was the majority of “Billy Lynn”). Most critics agreed that Lee’s high frame rate used in “Gemini Man” worked best during the action scenes.

“Well, this is the thing. The more mundane the subject, two people talking in the kitchen, the worse it works, because you feel like you’re in a set of a kitchen with actors in make up,” Cameron told Collider. “That’s how real it is, you know? But I think when you’ve got extraordinary subjects that are being shot for real, or even through CG, that hyper-reality actually works in your favour. So to me, it’s a wand that you wave in certain moments and use when you need it. It’s an authoring tool.”

Lee has been outspoken about viewing high frame rate as a full-blown format with which to shoot and exhibit movies. In an interview with IndieWire earlier this month, Lee maintained that his experiments with high frame rate are the result of embracing digital filmmaking, which he says the film industry still uses as if it were celluloid. For Lee, drawing out the strengths of high frame rate technology is capitalizing on “the promise of digital cinema.”

“They are trying to make digital look like film,” Lee said. “It’s a different media with different perception, different requirements. 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.”

Cameron’s first “Avatar” sequel will open in theaters (not at 120 frames per second) December 17, 2021 from Disney.

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