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?