Instead of seeing a scene from just one angle in one moment and another the next, you can now witness the same moment from multiple perspectives.
As a result, you can watch the hero not just dodge bullets, but dodge them in style and slow-motion.
At the time, this was a huge innovation. Now, the movie is 20 years old, and others have taken the concept a lot further, like Wonder Woman, Resident Evil, and X-Men. Today, the effect is standard practice in hundreds of movies, which makes it, well, just another visual effect.
At the same time, it’s still not your average action flick gimmick.
When you’re watching a movie, the moment bullet time triggers, you’re taken three levels deeper into the experience. Instantly. Time slows down. You look around. You get to see all aspects of a scene, not just the one the director deemed most relevant.
Suddenly, you’re more invested into everything that happens. Because you’re a bigger part of it. That’s why bullet time was such a brilliant invention and one of the reasons why the movie has become a piece of film history.
So how did they pull it off? How do you shoot a bullet time scene?
As the making of explains, the film crew built a special-purpose camera rig with over 120 cameras. They arranged them in a circle and built a system to trigger them at certain frame rates and in a certain sequence.
Each camera was height-adjustable, allowing the viewer’s perspective to follow a path of any shape. An s-curve. A stoop from above. A downward spiral. All in slow motion. Now that’s some commitment to the viewer.
Despite its action-packed disguise, however, The Matrix is a philosophical movie. At the end of the day, it explores fundamental issues of technology, culture, society, and religion. It’s not easy to digest. It takes a while to sink in. And every element of the film somehow connects to these themes.
Bullet time is no exception. There are two lessons from this cinematographic innovation that transcend great filmmaking and instead instruct us on — I think — how to live a great life.
1. If you want to live deeper, you have to slow down
Bullet time is the movie-equivalent of stopping your walk, looking around, and embracing the moment. Where are you right now? What is it like?
In order to experience something, you have to be there. Not just physically, but mentally too. You have to allow your senses to take in the scene. Not only parts of it. Everything.
Like the creation of a bullet time scene, that takes time. As John Gaeta, the Visual Effects Supervisor of the film, said: “It takes some pretty heavy thinking to get it together.” For some final results, they had to shoot the same scene dozens of times and then blend together individual cuts, as well as interpolate and digitally extend what you ultimately see on the screen.
Taking time to ‘be there’ in your life, to really experience what’s going on around you, is also a matter of effort and intent, but it yields the same result the effect does in the movie: you’re more invested in everything that happens.
The only way to be all-in on life is to savor every moment.
You can’t do that when you’re rushing through. You have to slow down. Thankfully, the film technique also provides instructions on how to do that.
2. The way you slow down is by observing
In physics, there is something called the quantum zeno effect. It says that if you continuously measure and observe a system of quantum particles, that system freezes in its state.
As the ancient philosopher Zeno, to whom the effect owes its name, poses in a paradox: If a flying arrow appears to be at rest in any particular instant of its flight, doesn’t that actually makes it motionless? It’s a fascinating question.
The real-life equivalent is staring at a stranger on the far side of the street until they stop and turn around — they felt you looking at them. Maybe you feel it’s hard to get work done or perform a certain task when someone’s watching you. That too is the quantum zeno effect. It’s not necessarily that a system can’t change while you’re watching it — it’s just harder for it to do so.
A corollary of all this is that the more time we spend seeing, noticing, examining the world and its events, the more alive we’ll feel.
The more we observe what goes on around us, the slower time passes.
With bullet time, it took 120 cameras taking thousands of pictures to film a scene that ultimately happened in seconds. Only by greatly increasing the number and perspectives of the things they captured could the producers make the scene feel slower to the viewer.
In our lives, intentional observation leads to a similar outcome: we get more out of our time.
The Matrix sends countless messages and will be the subject of analyses for decades to come. But its most universal one, transmitted both through its plot and the way the film itself came together, is that everything has something beneath its surface.
With bullet time, John Gaeta knew it would change how movies are made:
“It’s all baby steps towards something much larger that won’t be commonplace really for a few years, but there are people around the world scratching their heads about a new way to photograph things. It’ll be as revolutionary as when cameras came off sticks and went to a crane, when they came off cranes and went to steadicams. We’re talking about cameras that are now broken from the subject matter, that are virtual. So that’s the next phase.”
I don’t know what exactly lies beneath the surface of your life, but I know there’s an ocean of emotion, experience, and insight, waiting to be explored.
In order to do so, to find something, to reveal the truth, we must go deeper. Descending to these depths takes time and can only be accomplished through intent and careful observation. But if we take responsibility for those tasks, we can expect to live true to ourselves, to really enjoy our time, and to be fully engaged in life.
So go ahead. Hit the button. Trigger bullet time.
If you let us know what you find, you might even cause a revolution.