It’s known today as “frozen moment,” “dead time,” “time slice,” “the big freeze,” “flow motion” or “bullet time,” but the technique of using a group of still cameras to freeze motion is older than cinema. It actually dates back to 19th-century experiments by Eadweard Muybridge, who analyzed the motion of a galloping horse by using a line of cameras to photograph the animal as it ran past.
A variation on the technique came into fashion in the mid-1990s, first in a series of commercials to sell products for Gap and Lexus, and then in feature films such as “Lost in Space” and, most famously, in last year’s F/X Oscar winner “The Matrix.”
In all cases, the camera seems to move past a subject that is either completely still or moving very slowly, making it appear frozen in time. “It’s a very simple idea — you’re just capturing images from a lot of points of view in a very narrow time frame,” says George Murphy, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. “I guess the big conceptual leap that the frozen moment brought to us was separating the subject’s time frame from the camera’s time frame.”
Numerous companies have their own version of the multiple-camera technique, including Timetrack, Time Slice, Paws, Big Fish Films, Manex and Reel EFX. “I can’t believe the crush of people that are interested in this,” says Jim Gill of Reel EFX, who adds that his company generally does one to three multicamera rig jobs a month, mainly for commercials.
But is frozen moment in danger of becoming the morph of the late ’90s?
Morphing — digitally transforming one image into another — was a flashy, obvious and very popular technique. But when it began to seem dated, no one wanted to feature the effect.
In reality, morphing never went away; it just was used more subtly. “We now use morph as a way to smooth out elements, but no one’s aware of it,” Murphy says. “We don’t make morph the subject.”
Ironically, morph technology helped make frozen moment possible. “Different camera setups, if they’re not precisely aligned, you get wobble or shake,” Murphy explains. “You need to somehow bridge those images. Morph became an integral part of frozen moment.”
Similarly, Murphy believes that as audiences tire of the more blatant uses of frozen moment, filmmakers will find more refined ways to take advantage of it.
But Gill says directors and visual effects artists still haven’t exhausted all the uses for frozen moment as a stand-alone technique. “People are starting to explore some of the more in-depth uses of the array,” he says. “I’ve been pushing for more stunt action sequences.” Recently, Reel EFX provided a multiple-camera array for a sequence in “Swordfish,” in which the camera follows the expansion of an explosion.
The film’s visual effects designer and supervisor, Boyd Shermis, says that rather than focusing on a single subject, the camera array changes focus from subject to subject, revealing how the explosion affects different people. “You’d think it’s a normal, operated camera, but it’s happening at such an intense speed.” Different elements were shot in separate passes, he adds, so that the speed of their movements could vary. In addition, the sequence required a certain amount of synthetic in-betweening, using morphing technology to create additional frames and make the scene go on longer.
“We think of it as another of those tools out there that allows us to do something unique with the way we photograph a subject,” Murphy says. “It’s a tool with a lot of potential.”