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<   No. 3898   2018-12-27   >

Comic #3898

1 Iki Piki: At least we have legs here in cyberspace. How do you even move here, Quercus?
2 Quercus: I dunno. I just want to move and I move.
3 Spanners: It's the power of the mind to manipulate this simulated reality. Like Neo in The Matrix.
4 Quercus: So can I do kung fu?
4 Spanners: You'd be great at it. You have dozens of limbs.

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The Matrix is an historically significant film for many reasons, one of the main ones being the introduction of the special effect known as bullet time to mainstream audiences.

One might think that bullet time required the advent of digital photography and computerised video processing to achieve. But the effect was in fact invented well before digital photography, with film cameras.

The earliest predecessor of the effect was Eadweard Muybridge's use of multiple still cameras to capture a rapid succession of images of a horse galloping, in 1878. When run together in sequence, the images produce a short motion picture, a precursor to the development of motion picture films. However the visual effect of the resulting set of still photos is more or less what we recognise as a normal type of film, not the bullet time effect of rotating a camera around a stationary object frozen in time.

That effect had to wait until 1980, when Tim Macmillan started experimenting with arrays of film cameras, designed to capture the same moment from different locations. When these images were run together like a film, they produce the "frozen time" effect that we now recognise as bullet time. Macmillan however called it "time-slice motion pictures". He tried to promote his work as an artistic effect, but film makers of the day rejected the concept, saying it was too unrealistic and disorienting to use in movies. Macmillan instead turned to the scientific world, which readily made use of his technique, as it could be used to show aspects of the natural world that cannot be seen or visualised otherwise.

Between 1980 and 1999, a few avant-garde film makers used these - what we would now consider primitive - time slicing methods to produce strange effects for things like obscure music videos or documentaries. But The Matrix in 1999, making use of newly invented digital camera technology, was the first mainstream movie to feature the effect in a big way and bring it to widespread knowledge.

I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Tim Macmillan at a scientific conference a couple of years ago, in which he went through the fascinating history of this style of photography. He seemed a fairly humble and unassuming man, happy that the technique he developed is now known and used widely, but not bothered by the fact that virtually nobody knows his name or that he was the one who pioneered it.

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My comics: Irregular Webcomic! | Darths & Droids | Eavesdropper | Planet of Hats | The Dinosaur Whiteboard | mezzacotta
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