I dare say bullet time in the Matrix is the most singular cinematographic innovation brought to screen. Color, Cinemascope, 3D, none of these emerged so mature and iconic as bullet time. Even Steadicam first appeared rough around the edges. There was plenty of wobble in those early Steadicam oners. It would take Kubrick and Lucas to fully exploit what Garret Brown’s invention was capable of..
Most shooters know the gist of how bullet time was accomplished, but not the details. It was all on green screen, and the effect is as much VFX as practical photography. To make the transition between normal cinematography and bullet time, the rig starts and ends with a conventional high-speed camera. This lets conventional slow motion at 120 to 360 fps, ease the audience in and out of the bullet time. To further smooth the handoff between each of the 100+ still cameras, the crew pioneered digital frame interpolation. Virtual frames and transitions are algorithmically created to even out the subtle differences in perspective. Green screen facilitates all of this. It lets the camera move easily across the 180 line. It reduces the amount of data that needs to be interpolated, and removes all limitations of space and time on-location. High-speed, green screen, interpolation and wires, all help sell the effect. A contrarian might say “oh but it’s a one trick pony, that only worked in the Matrix,” but such a point misses the broader reality..
John Gaeta hits the nail on the head “we’re talking about cameras that are now broken from the subject matter, that are virtual.” This is the profound and invisible legacy of bullet time. Almost every modern blockbuster utilizes virtual camera techniques descended from the work that went into The Matrix. No other technique has so inspired its audience. And few have pushed technology so far, so iconically, and narratively justified all of it so well. Because in the end, bullet time isn’t a gimmick. It is an essential storytelling tool for the tale of Neo’s messianic journey. This is why it inspires me so much. It is the apex of technology and art joined together to write history.
[CLOSE UP] Rock and roll with @mr.cinematography "Don Jon" (2013) Cinematography by Thomas Kloss
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