20 years ago, the Wachowski siblings released The Matrix.
Take a minute to feel your age.
Right, moving on.
The film not only had the effect of making everyone question reality, but it also expertly executed a particular special effect that The Telegraph argues is the most significant in the history of cinema.
That effect is called ‘bullet time’ and it’s the magic behind that iconic bullet-dodging scene.
In what is arguably The Matrix’s most memorable scene – from a film overflowing with them – Lana and Lilly Wachowski demonstrated an apparent ability to bend the fabric of space and time. High up on a rooftop, Keanu Reeves’s Neo faces down an inevitable onslaught of bullets from a sentient program in the body of an agent.
Let’s relive that moment:
The slow-motion effect of the shot is nothing special. That had become commonplace in cinema by 1969.
But what happens next is a little more unusual: the viewer’s perspective, which is behind Neo as the first bullet sails towards him, begins to shift. In fact, it rotates.
While Neo starts to turn his shoulder away from the bullet’s trajectory, the camera travels around him, watching the flight of the bullet from every angle. His coat billowing beneath him, Neo’s body folds like his bones have jumped ship, the bullets missing his head and skimming his clothes. All the while, we circle him, undulating so that the bullets seem to be flying above us, beneath us, and past our very ears. It is, in two words, incredibly cool.
According to Bruce Isaacs, senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Sydney, this is no ordinary effect.
“Bullet time breaks the common rules of perception. How can a film freeze-frame and then move during a still image? The entire visual frame rotates on an axis. How is that even possible in a narrative film?”
It turns out ‘bullet time’ actually has a pretty long history.
Its genesis as a technology lies, arguably, in the 19th century and pre-dates cinema itself: Eadweard Muybridge photographed galloping horses with a series of still cameras placed next to one another, thus conveying the visual illusion of movement by altering the viewer’s perspective on a moving subject.
…The effect – or a variation on the effect – is said to have been deployed in a 1962 film Zotz!; the title sequence of a 1966 Japanese anime series Speed Racer; the 1981 action film Kill and Kill Again; and a 1985 music video Midnight Mover.
But, wrote David Edelstein in this piece for Vulture, “Everyone agrees that the first major use of the effect was in a Gap commercial called Khaki Swing,”. That advert aired in 1998, the year before The Matrix.
You can see that ad here:
The Matrix, thanks to special effects designer John Gaeta, takes it to a new level.
On the set of The Matrix, Gaeta and his team installed 120 cameras to take a series of photographs in quick succession, like Muybridge had done a century beforehand – except they weren’t photographing a speeding horse, they were photographing a flailing Keanu Reeves.
Gaeta and co. didn’t set their cameras to fire at the same time but fractions of a second after one another, creating super-slow-motion. “A 3D simulation was used to position the cameras and trigger their exposures,” wrote Green, “and because, in most of the sequences, the cameras circle the subject almost completely, computer technology was used to ‘paint out’ the cameras that appeared in shot on the other side.”
A full explanation would be way more complex, but you get the idea.
Today you can see homages to ‘bullet time’ everywhere from films to memes.
It has also been endlessly parodied.
20 years on, and it’s the gift that just keeps on giving.
[imagesource:here] A gang of 10 carrying guns broke the windows of a jewellery shop at ...
[imagesource: Dental Care] Now that wearing a face mask in public indoor spaces is no l...
[imagesource: Dave Hurwitz] Researchers have spent years documenting the gradual disapp...
It’s the end of term and school is out! It’s time for a well-earned break, but how ...
[imagesource:here] Before we check out this samurai-inspired superyacht, who is Larry E...