Slow Down Sunday: Bullet Time

Life lessons from a technique that revolutionized cinematography

The movie The Matrix revolutionized the film industry in many ways. One of them was the introduction of bullet time. It’s a visual effect that allows the viewer to transcend time and space. You can use it to, for example, dodge bullets in style.

The movie is 20 years old and today, hundreds of movies use the same effect, which makes it easy to look at it as a common action flick gimmick - but it’s not.

When you’re watching a movie, the moment bullet time triggers, you’re instantly taken three levels deeper into the experience. Time slows down. You look around. You get to see all aspects of a scene, not just the one the director deemed most relevant.

Immediately, 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 why the movie has become an absolute classic. 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 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.

Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in The Matrix (1999)

At the end of the day, The Matrix is a movie about philosophy. Despite its action-packed disguise, it fundamentally explores 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. I see two big lessons that transcend this innovation of cinematography and directly apply to our lives:

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. In order to experience something, you have to be there. Not just physically, mentally.

You have to allow your senses to take in the scene. Not just parts of it. Everything. That takes time, but it also makes you more invested in everything that happens.

The only way to be all-in on life is to savor every moment.

And how do you do that? That’s the second lesson:

The way you slow down is through observation.

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.

As ancient Greek philosopher Zeno, to whom the effect owes its name, poses in one of his paradoxes: 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 more intent we are on observing what goes on around us, the slower time passes.

With bullet time, it took 120 cameras taking thousands of pictures of a scene that happened in seconds. Only by greatly increasing the number and perspectives of the things the producers captured could they make the scene feel slower to the viewer.

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.

In order to see that something, in order to reveal the truth, we must go deeper. Descending to these depths takes time and can be accomplished only through intent and careful observation.

So go ahead. Hit the button. Trigger bullet time.

If you let the world know what you find, you just might cause a revolution.

-Nik


About Slow Down Sunday: Life is fast. If we don’t stop and turn around once in a while, we might miss it. So on Sunday, let’s stop and turn around.

Let’s slow down so we can experience all of life - not just parts of it.


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