B is for Bullet Time

by Graham Edwards

B is for Bullet-TimeIn the VFX ABC, the letter “B” stands for “Bullet Time”.

Bullet time famously hit the big screen in The Matrix. It was the technique behind the movie’s iconic slow motion shots, like the famous one where the camera spins around Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving as they grapple while floating in mid-air.

This dramatic and stylised effect was created using an array of over one hundred still cameras mounted on a curved rail surrounding the actors, both of whom were suspended on wires. The cameras were triggered simultaneously to produce a sequence of frames, with each individual image taken from a slightly different viewpoint. This sequence was then comped into a separate background.

Bullet time is the epitome of the “magic camera” move – that moment in a film where the director breaks the laws of physics by putting the camera through a ballet routine even Nijinsky would be hard-pushed to replicate. In The Matrix, the bullet time moves are justified by the central story point that Neo and his nemesis, Agent Smith, are capable of, well, breaking the laws of physics. So the extreme camera moves – as well as looking awesome – are fair.

Whether or not a camera move is fair has always been open to debate. Take the 1941 classic Citizen Kane. You won’t see Orson Welles dodging bullets in ultra slo-mo, but you will find a wealth of magic camera moments. At the start of the “El Rancho” scene, for instance, the camera makes an impossible flight over a (miniature) rooftop, passing right through the middle of a neon sign before dropping (by way of a nifty lap dissolve) through the solid glass of a rain-spattered window to enter the nightclub below. Is that move motivated, or is it just Welles showing off? You tell me.

Broadly speaking, the rules of motivation (as much as there are any rules) say that if you’re going to move the camera, you’d better have a damn good reason. That reason might be straightforward: pan left to follow your hero down the street. It might be dramatic: go hand-held for gritty running action when said hero takes to his heels. It could be psychological: the instant Chief Brody spots the giant shark chomping down on poor little Alex Kintner … unleash the dolly zoom! Bottom line is: if the camera move takes you out of the movie, you made the wrong choice.

For a long time, the rules were based on what a real camera can or can’t do. That’s because, until recently, all films were shot with real cameras. However, visual and special effects techniques have now reached the point where the camera – or its virtual counterpart – can go anywhere and do anything (watch the first seventeen minutes of Alfonso Cuarón’ Gravity and tell me it ain’t so).

Now, camera movement is clearly an integral part of filmmaking process. Which leads us to an interesting question, namely: “To what degree do developments in visual effects influence the fundamental language of cinema?”

Well, I’d argue that visual effects have always advanced both the art and craft of filmmaking. As long as there have been directors asking, “Can we do this?” there have been effects artists answering, “Let me try something.” I’d also argue that The Matrix – in particular, bullet time – marks a turning point, a key moment in time where a camera move was employed that not only advanced the discipline and enhanced the story, but also captured the audience’s imagination.

That last part is the crucial bit. Classy camera moves might impress the film buffs, but most audiences don’t even notice them. When the Wachowski Brothers hurled it on to the big screen in The Matrix, bullet time proved itself as a visual effect that could sit centre-stage without disrupting the flow of the movie. Motivated, cool and clever, bullet time still stands as my ultimate magic camera move.

So now it’s over to you. Do you have a favourite magic camera moment?

8 thoughts on “B is for Bullet Time

  1. My favorite magic camera moment is in the movie “Highlander”. Connor Macleod (Christopher Lambert) is sitting on his couch sharpening his sword as he hears his friend’s voice in memory. He smiles and looks off into the large fishtank over his shoulder and the camera pushes in to the fishtank, seemingly breaks the surface of the water and surfaces in Scotland near a rowboat. In the commentary track it is revealed that the water in the loch in Scotland was so dark that it allowed for a perfect ‘garbage matte’ for the reveal to the surface. Blending the two shots together was a convenient accident of sorts. Brilliant!

  2. Going on a tangent here. I never liked digital shots that defy the laws of physics. For example, in The Two Towers, Saruman gives a speech from the balcony in Orthanc. The camera pulls out, flying at a high speed, seemingly through the spears, to show us the amount of troops amassed before Saruman.

    That camera move always takes me out of the movie making me very aware of the digital nature of the shot. The speed and obstacles the camera encounters must be somewhat realistic.

    I had the same feeling about the jumping burning Denethor shot of the third LOTR movie.

    I quite like subtle effects and would like some more restraint from some directors. Even when digital, the camera must obey some basic rules.

  3. Alejandro Amenabar’s movie Agora, has an interesting long shot with an amazing and slow approach to a window of a building from the surface of the earth. The VFX was made by – el Ranchito – in Madrid, if I’m right.

  4. I love a nice camera move as much as the next guy, maybe even more, but it has to have at least some function within what your trying to tell.
    Like mentioned above, I love The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The miniatures, combined with cgi make for stunning visuals and Jackson weaves his camera through the world to make it seem more real.

    But a shot like at the end of Return of the King, where the camera travels from a close-up of Gollum THROUGH the ring, completely takes me out of the movie. Any viewer must feel the impossibility of that camera move.
    This is also what I dislike about The Hobbit, the move to complete cgi vfx makes for less immersion in the world. The camera is constantly zooming around where it cannot go.

    Something that modern filmmakers tend to forget: imperfections sell reality in vfx shots. Cgi with it’s perfection and symmetry will subconsciesly trigger that feeling of fakery. Give me any model shot from the 80’s. Almost any shot from the original Star Wars trilogy looks better than their counterpart in the prequels…

    But anyway, favorite cameramove: long steadicam shots in general. For example how the camera moves through the spaceship in “Serenity” and introduces all of the characters.

  5. I confess I’m a sucker for Jackson’s sweeping camera moves in “The Lord of the Rings” but, yes, the through-the-ring shot does feel contrived.

    But here’s a thought: if the story has magic in it – LOTR, Harry Potter, take your pick – doesn’t that justify complete camera freedom? According to the rules of the fantasy world, all you need do is hire a fairy as camera operator, or sprinkle a little magic dust on the Arri Alexa, and presto – a REAL magic camera!

    • I would argue that no, movies involving magic aren’t immune. There may be certain cases where the magical POV is justified, but otherwise, any shot in which the viewer becomes acutely aware of the camera is a failed shot. Sci-fi, fantasy, and animation already suffers from the misapprehension that you can just do anything because it’s sci-fi/fantasy/animation, when in reality they must adhere even more stringently to common sense in order to maintain SOME sense of reality against their wilder aspects. CGI camera moves are most effective when used to create “invisible” effects – shots that would be otherwise difficult or impossible but when rendered in what appears to be a conventional manner of shooting, no one notices the CGI. The problem with this is that when rendered in what appears to be a conventional manner of shooting, no one notices the CGI.

      • “… any shot in which the viewer becomes acutely aware of the camera is a failed shot.”

        Amen to that, Mike. Ultimately that’s the acid test for any camera move – unless it’s a found footage film, perhaps. Still, any ‘legitimate’ camera move has to take account of its environment. So a street scene justifies a rolling dolly. An underwater scene – or a scene in zero-g – justifies a floating camera able to move in all directions. But how about a movie like “Fantastic Voyage” or “Innerspace”? How do you decide what a teeny-tiny camera can really do inside the human body? (As I recall, with “Innerspace”, VFX supe Dennis Muren took the view that it was a teeny-tiny but otherwise conventional camera under the control of teeny-tiny human operators, subject to all the constraints with which any self-respecting microscopic camera crew would be forced to comply.) As for magic – I guess it’s a case of deciding just how much of that fairy dust has leaked into the controls.

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