Three things you might not have known about Bullet Time

The Matrix VFX

Jupiter Ascending could have been a lot different

This week marks the 20th anniversary of The Matrix from the Wachowskis. Among a slew of impressive visual effects, The Matrix is perhaps most well-known for Bullet Time, an effect that not only simply looked cool but also heralded the popular arrival of virtual cinematography, virtual reality, and immersive experiences.

Much has been written about how the effect was achieved (including via an array of still cameras, photogrammetry backgrounds, and interpolation techniques) but there are a few Bullet Time factoids that may not be so widely known. befores & afters sat down with Matrix visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, now SVP Creative Strategy, Magic Leap, to look back at Bullet Time’s heavy influence.

1. Bullet Time was, of course, all about virtual reality from the very start

Bullet Time concept by Steve Skroce
Bullet Time concept by Steve Skroce. Source: The Art of the Matrix.

John Gaeta: When the Wachowskis came they started with these comic book drawing images and they said, ‘This can only happen in virtual reality cause you’re cheating time and space. We’ve talked to everyone in Hollywood and no one can figure out how to move the camera fast enough without exploding it.’ The answer was, well, don’t move one camera, just have all the cameras in place at one time. It’s a hack. It’s not real. It’s actually what it portends to be, but it was a hack, and it worked. We started also experimenting with bursting frames and so we got multiple moments in time and so you really could go backwards, forwards, and you’re suddenly, ‘Oh, you can really start doing weird shit here.’

2. Innovations in visualizing camera moves at Trumbull Company helped inspire Bullet Time

The Trumbull Company's overhead motion control gantry
The Trumbull Company’s overhead motion control gantry. Image courtesy Terrence Masson.

John Gaeta: I was at Doug Trumbull’s company in the early ‘90s and started using the CAD computer system to visualize camera moves. I learned that I could understand any position of a camera in space because Doug Trumbull had built the world’s most sophisticated overhead motion-controlled gantry system. It could shoot in real-time, it was a phenomenal thing. I started experimenting with it and we started to become accustomed to the fact that you had limitless understanding of a perspective at any one time. It was just because we were working in visualization. Visualisation was like a light turned on. Virtual sets and immersive stuff – it all goes back to there.

3. There was nearly a new type of Bullet Time developed for Jupiter Ascending

Still from Jupiter Ascending
Still from Jupiter Ascending. © 2015 Warner Bros.

John Gaeta: Kim Libreri (now CTO of Epic Games, and a major contributor to the original Bullet Time effect) and I were going to create a new form of Bullet Time around Jupiter Ascending, but the studio didn’t want to back the cost of some of the tests. We were going to use motion tracking and Sony digital cameras at the time. They were going to be 4K cameras running at high speed, and tracking 16 X-Games sport-type of events with motion sensors, with special LED lighting systems that were also being programmed to control lighting so that they could be put into virtual environments. It would have been some very, very serious kind of captures.

John Gaeta and Kim Libreri will be in conversation in Stuttgart at FMX on Wednesday May 1st for Matrix Past > Matrix Future – A discussion about imagination, innovation and transformation.

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