Tim Squyres on Editing Ang Lee’s Groundbreaking Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Tim Squyres has been director Ang Lee’s go-to film editor for years. The pair first worked together in the early 1990s when Lee was shooting his debut film, Pushing Hands. “They would have liked an editor who spoke Mandarin, but they couldn’t find one,” says Squyres, who remembers editing that feature in a closet off of a noisy production office.

Times have certainly changed since then. Squyres now performs his cinematic magic in a fully equipped, high-tech editing studio in New York City, and there are no language barriers to be found. He and Lee have collaborated on all of the award-winning director’s films but one: Brokeback Mountain. On November 11, their latest undertaking, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, hits theaters. The film is based on the acclaimed novel and centers on an Iraq War hero who returns to the United States with other members of his squad and is sent on a victory tour by the government. One major stop is a professional football game in Dallas, where the squad makes a guest appearance during the halftime show. 

While the film—which stars Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin and newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn—packs a dramatic punch, it is the technology behind the production that already has made headlines and provided Squyres with one of his most challenging projects to date. The movie was shot in 3D at 4K resolution and 120 frames per second (24 frames is the norm), rendering a superlative clarity and a much more immersive experience for audiences. Lee presented a short sequence from the film at the Future of Cinema Conference in Las Vegas this past April to much celebration and applause. 

Squyres, who has received Oscar nominations for editing for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi, and who also has worked with other respected directors including Jonathan Demme and Robert Altman, was still finishing Billy Lynn when The Credits caught up with him in late August. Edited excerpts from the interview follow. 

Ang Lee has taken a unique approach to shooting this film: 3D, 4k resolution and 120 frames per second as opposed to the traditional 24. What is the typical resolution, by the way? 

A typical movie is 2K rather than 4K… So compared to a 2K, 2D, 24 frames-per-second movie, we have 40 times as much visual information. 

This gives the film a virtual-reality feel. Is this correct? 

No, I would not call it virtual reality. Virtual reality is a whole different thing, and especially most virtual reality that people have seen is actually quite low resolution. This is something different. There’s a clarity and an immediacy that looks very different, but it’s quite distinct from virtual reality. 

Why did Ang Lee choose to go in this direction?

Audiences have a sense that certain kinds of movies are suited for 3D. Ang does not really feel that way. What we discovered on this film is between the high resolution and the high frame rate and the 3D, what’s most striking is not the action scenes, and there are some, it’s the close-ups. Close-ups of actors’ faces talking are really stunning when you can see that level of clarity. It’s really striking and his hope is to get the world thinking that 3D is actually best for drama. This is not an action film. I mean there is some action, there is some spectacle, but if you have to give it one word, you’d call it a drama. 

Is it accurate to say that this is the clearest image ever to appear on film or is that overstating it?

Yeah, I think that is actually fair to say. Now, not every theater is going to be able to show it at 120, 4K, 3D. In fact, almost none will.

Yes, in an article I read it said that showing this film in this format requires a dual-projector setup, which most movie theaters don’t have. So why would you go to that length if it’s not going to be able to be seen? 

The way we’re used to thinking about shooting is you go out and shoot a bunch of frames and then you go into a theater and you project those frames, but here the paradigm was different. It’s really more that in shooting you’re collecting a lot of data and you can use that data to generate many different looks. We can project this film now in a way that it looks like it was shot at 24, we can make it look like it was shot at 60, we can make it look like it was shot at 30, or 40, and we can mix all those different looks in the same show. They’re all the same edits, they’re all the same cuts, but you have to prepare them differently. 

Tell me about the editing process using this format. What challenges did it present to you? 

With this movie…I needed to cut it in 3D and I needed to cut in as high a frame rate as I could, which it turned out to be 60. There’s no hardware or software that will really support 120, but I could do 60. It was mostly beta software for most of the show. 

The other real complication is, usually when you’re doing the movie, if you’re doing screenings you go to a screening room. If you’re doing visual effects and your lab work, you go somewhere else to do the lab work. There’s an entire film infrastructure in New York and we couldn’t really use it because they weren’t set up for us. We had to create our own lab. We’ve had to do everything ourselves and invent a lot of procedures ourselves. No one has ever attempted this and there have been a lot of complications that we’ve had to deal with. 

How has your relationship with Ang Lee evolved over the years? Do you have a shorthand?

Oh yeah. I learned to edit in a way by editing his footage and he learned to direct with me editing his footage. So we kind of learned how to do this together. So yeah, I have a very good sense of his tastes and his sensibilities. You know, we don’t agree on everything. If we did, I wouldn’t be much help to him. We push each other and we listen to each other and we respect each other’s opinions. 

I imagine that the different genres keep things interesting also.

Yeah, oh yeah, it’s been great to edit a martial arts film and a Jane Austen film and all the other ones with the same director. It’s really nice not to do the same movie over and over again. 

Is film editing essentially a solo art? Does there come a time toward the end after shooting where you’re working side by side with the director? 

At some point, a week or two after they finish shooting, we sit down and watch the movie. We watch the whole movie, and watch it like a movie, and that’s called the editor’s assembly. It’s the cut that I’ve put together. The director has not seen it. He’s seen the individual scenes, but usually not even the same version that’s actually in the assembly. So we sit down and watch it. Now that version, it’s every scripted line, every scene in the order that it was scripted. I don’t change anything, I don’t drop anything, I don’t move things around for that…That version is usually pretty long, but it’s got sound effects, it’s got music. Then after that, then we sit down together and basically work side by side in the same room until we’re done. 

Do you ever see your films and get an idea for a scene that makes you wish you had cut it differently?

Not really. Usually by the time the film comes out, we’ve spent a long time on it. The one thing is sometimes when a film comes out and you’re screening it—now suddenly big audiences are seeing it—sometimes you find humor in places. You find out that things are funnier than you realized they were. It’s rare though that that would happen where I’d want to change something. On a bunch of films, like with Crouching Tiger or Life of Pi, it’s that when you’re watching the movie with an audience you discover that things work so much better than you realized.