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A Bullet-Time World

computer-generated wizardry and you

It's summertime, and that means the annual onslaught of exciting, high-concept movies all vying for blockbusterhood. It's shaping up to be one of the biggest summers in recent memory, probably a result of the country's gradual ability to "have fun again" rather than stocking up on duct tape and eying their powdery mail with suspicion. It's also one of the sequeliest summers in a long while, which has the potential to deliver results as powerful as X2: X-Men United or as dismal as Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Summertime is also the haven of that slipperiest and youngest of film genres: the visual effects movie.

Now, most movies are more than just visual effects movies, or so their producers would have you believe. There's a plot and characters and whatever. But there's no question that today's audiences have a building insatiability for dazzling fantastic visuals, and that every step forward in terms of technological sophistication on the filmmaking end is met with a giant leap in terms of the viewers' sophistication and hunger for more. (I don't, of course, mean "sophistication" in the monocle-and-ascot sense, but moviegoers – numbskulled as they may be – are more and more savvy in terms of their ability to detect the method behind visual effects wizardry and their demand for realism continues to skyrocket.) In part, this is due to the bombardment of visual stimuli that goes on every day. In this "MTV culture," for want of a less hackneyed phrase, audiences are pelted with varying approaches at visual trickery with a climbing frequency. It makes sense that with so much to evaluate, they would begin to grow more proficient at separating the realistic images from the bogus ones. Images like Ray Harryhausen's original Mighty Joe Young or the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz are seen by today's toddlers as ridiculously fake.

So, there is a legacy of effects accomplishment that's steadily increased its pace over the last fifteen years. (I'll address the digital evolution primarily, but certainly other tricks have been developing as well. Indeed, it is the wise filmmaker who gets the most bang for his buck by combining mechanical effects [those performed live before the camera] with traditional optical effects [at the lab] and newer digital capabilities to achieve a more rounded feel and blur the line. Audiences have become so accustomed to digital trickery that if you throw in a remote-controlled animatron here and there it tends to slip by their defenses and increase the overall perception of realism.) You can trace the milestones like points on a map – and in fact some of the films were subtly marketed based on their achievement of the next evolutionary step. Willow gave us "morphing." Terminator 2: Judgment Day brought computer-generated characters that interacted with a live-action world. Jurassic Park added CGI (computer generated imagery) creatures that looked and moved like real animals, with skeletons and flesh. The Mighty Joe Young remake was the first to deliver believable fur. (Somewhere in there, digital stuntmen began to appear. While certainly not the first, Batman Forever was among the earliest to capitalize on this approach.) Titanic catapulted motion capture technology into the spotlight. (This is the process by which a performance is recorded into a computer in three dimensions by special cameras, and the movements are used to animate a digital character. It gained further notoriety – and spawned a very silly controversy – due to its widespread use in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.) And, in 1999, we got: Bullet Time.

Bullet Time is a somewhat silly and rather inaccurate descriptive term for the effect in The Matrix where the camera appears to move around subjects which have been frozen in time or are slowed down considerably. "Bullet Time" would more appropriately refer to the little ripples the bullets cause in the air, since the effect is used in some scenes which incorporate no bullets but, as usual, the nickname made it into the popular parlance before anybody bothered to ask me. There are different ways to achieve it, and nobody on The Matrix actually pioneered this, but they did take the most effective approach and use it elegantly and powerfully. The cheap way, which we saw on TV in a Gap ad and on screen in 1998's Lost In Space, involves capturing the action from one or two perspectives, mapping those views onto a 3D computer simulation of the scene, and then rotating the virtual camera across that. In the Gap commercial, it was pretty interesting; in Lost In Space, pretty gay. The way The Matrix does it is more intensive and delivers a more seamless effect. They set up hundreds of still cameras along a pre-determined path and fire them either simultaneously or very close together (depending on whether they want frozen time or very slow time, respectively). Projecting those still images in sequence gives the effect of a motion picture camera moving through that path. (If you set the cameras to fire 1/24 of a second apart, it would just look like a dolly shot.) In actuality, the physical size of the cameras prohibited the filmmakers from using only the images they captured, but by capturing so many, they were able to interpolate more seamlessly than the Gap ad. And, because they wanted to make loops around the action rather than just an arc on one side of it, they did the entire thing on a green screen and composited the resulting footage onto an intricate 3D digital background created using still photographs of the set, in order to avoid the concern of getting the many cameras in the shot.

Well, as a result of The Matrix's sleeper hit status and awe-inspiring visual impact, Bullet Time became a very hot commodity and started appearing everywhere. The real version and the cheap version and the extremely cheap version (Shrek was entirely computer-generated, so an effect like Bullet Time is as easy as any other; however, the shortsighted, lazy creators of Shrek – like those of Austin Powers in Goldmember – saw no problem in unnecessarily dating their film by incorporating a passing craze). The thinking appeared to be, "audiences love a fresh, creative approach they've never seen before – so let's duplicate that exactly!" Fortunately for all of us, the Wachowski brothers were as exasperated by the copycatting as I. They had incorporated Bullet Time because it appealed to a certain sense of storytelling that they were trying to communicate, and because it fit within the realm of Matrix-bending abilities with which Neo was experimenting. Followers just co-opted it because it was cool. (Not that any use of an existing technology – old or new – is necessarily inappropriate. Jumanji featured stampedes of digital animals after Jurassic Park did it, but they had a story with stampedes of animals. Fight scenes don't require Bullet Time to depict their action in a unique and compelling way, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved.) So, the brothers W decided to do something about it. They decided to create something for The Matrix Reloaded that would be inimitable. (Now certainly imitating the effects will not be completely impossible, but their aim was to achieve something so unique and so labor-intensive that the decision to commit the time and resources to copying it would have to be more considered than "Dude... awesome.") I'm not sure if it will be the freeway chase or the fight between Neo and a hundred-odd Agent Smiths or something the trailer doesn't even prepare us for, but I'm sure it will be incredible and it will once again elevate the standards of visual effects.

Which is fun, because the visual effects domain is among the most creative and collaborative pursuits in an art form that is defined by its creative collaborations. So many people are working to come up with new and better solutions to the same problems. Whether it's a team effort on one project or separate groups on separate films tackling the same goal (2002 brought us two films in which actors' faces were digitally grafted onto surfing doubles: effectively in Die Another Day and, in Blue Crush, not) it's a massive brainstorming and hands-on effort to push the boundaries ever upward. And downward as well. For every mind-bending spectacular effect, there are dozens and dozens so subtle that you never notice them. Wire removal has become so ubiquitous that the big companies don't even do it any more and kids in their basements on their fathers' iBooks are subcontracting the work. (I foresee the day when there are wire removal shots in everything, right down to Palmolive ads and the nightly news.) But it goes beyond stunt work. The genre of "visual effects film" is blurring to the point of non-existence. (Of course, the argument could be made that every film is in fact a visual effects film, achieving the effect of making thousands of still images appear to move and tell a story.) But even if we include CG image processing in our definition of a visual effects movie, there are few films left that don't have at least a little. Removing an errant boom mic, flipping an image or altering a costume for continuity, adding more extras where the budget wouldn't allow, everybody's doing it!

So, already we're learning not to trust what we see. Every image is potentially manipulated, so why should we trust it? (This has advanced to the point of fevered paranoia: a magazine cover last month showed Jim Carrey in an unusual pose in which he didn't entirely look like himself; readers' outcry spawned a controversy over whether Carrey had undergone plastic surgery or the magazine editors had used Photoshop to alter his appearance. The guy was just making a funny face! [And anyone who thought he looked like Keanu Reeves was just too dumb to remember the name Chris Klein.]) What intrigues me is, where is the upper bound? I highly doubt digital technology will advance to the point where actors are usurped, as some predict. Final Fantasy and The Final Flight of the Osiris look great, but they look great in a wispy, synthetic way. I wonder if, instead, viewers will get to a point where the realism they demand is so advanced that moviemakers will be forced to return to the old days of doing things for real! In the meantime, as our images become less and less truthful, it kind of feels as though perhaps we are already beginning to get our feet wet in a world of simulation that could turn out to be somewhat like... say, The Matrix.