15 years ago this week, a pair of siblings with only a modest cult indie movie under their belt, to that point, released a film you might have heard of: “The Matrix," a heady and immediately classic mashup of sci-fi, cyberpunk, Baudrillardian philosophy (or a distortion thereof) and anime, all wrapped up in an immensely compelling Messiah-myth story. On a macro level, the Wachowskis' film was such a successful fusion of all its various influences that it felt like something new, raked in just shy of half a billion dollars worldwide, and spawned a franchise (which we won’t talk about any further here for fear of spoiling the celebratory atmosphere). But on a micro level “The Matrix” was revolutionary too, delivering, in amongst some terrifically stylish set and costume design and spectacular action setpieces, one of the most jaw-dropping effects we’d ever seen to that point in a film: Bullet Time.
The technique, which gives the impression of a camera moving around in real time while the subjects are in extreme slow motion, was developed especially for the film by Manex Visual Effects (previously Mass Illusion, previously The Trumbull Company), and specifically by VFX supervisor John Gaeta. Gaeta himself credits the work of “Akira” director Otomo Katsuhiro and the view-morphing technique pioneered by Michel Gondry, among others, as being instrumental in the development of Bullet Time. Gondry especially had found a way to give the impression of a small range of movement around a still subject, but it was Gaeta and co. who refined the technique so that the subject could be in motion, and the “virtual camera” could practically encircle it. None of this, of course, we knew or cared about at the time, we were too busy picking our jaws up off the floor, lest they be caught in the stampede of rival commercials, promos and movie producers who’d be responsible for a thousand and one subsequent rip-offs.
But no matter how popular the technique became, and how much of its shiny new luster may have worn off since, we can still remember the sheer visceral amazement we felt watching Neo dodge those bullets the first time. Since then we’ve had squid-faced pirates, mo-capped Gollums, shiny mutable car-robots, 3D blue aliens, Brad Pitt aging backwards and Sandra Bullock floating through space, and we can almost expect each new summer to bring us some new technological gimcrackery that will again trick our eyes into believing something impossible. But prior to “The Matrix,” that kind of marvel was a little rarer, or maybe we were just less jaded and carried with us more of youth’s capacity for wonder, and less expectation.
In any case, shriveled oldsters that we are, we thought we’d take a nostalgic look back at a few of those pre-’Matrix’ times when we were brought face-to-face (or face-to-TV-screen) with something that had, till then, been outside our imaginations. (And in keeping with the spirit of Bullet Time, we’re largely avoiding Stan Winston/Rick Baker-esque practical effects in favor of technological, post-production jiggery pokery.) Some may seem quaint to us now, as it’s remarkable how quickly effects that seemed shockingly cutting-edge can date, but even that is perhaps another tick in the plus column for "The Matrix": it’s been fifteen years and countless imitations since it debuted, and even though that’s roughly four centuries in effects years, just look at this clip again and tell us it doesn’t still kill it.
1. The Dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” (1993)
While in many cases, especially some of the more close-up work, practical creature effects, animatronic and puppetry were used, this first scene of wonder in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” is largely computer-generated. And the effects do look a tiny bit worn now, especially as we’ve had sequels to this film, the dino sequence in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” and IMAX extravaganzas like “Walking with Dinosaurs” since. Still, this was an incredible moment for moviegoers, and one neatly mimicked by the film’s plot: while the characters are all amazed that Hammond could bring these creatures back to life, we were directing the same awe at Spielberg.
Factoid: As well as its CG imagery, this is the first film to feature digital sound, with Spielberg funding the development of the DTS system to enable that. Also, more complex post production effects (the T-Rex in the rain for example) could take as long as six hours per frame to render, so Spielberg supervised that process from the set of his next film—“Schindler’s List.”
2. The T-1000 Terminator from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
Mr. James Cameron was always going to be the guy to make it onto this list more than once (in fairness we could easily have included the bit where the boat breaks in “Titanic” as well), but item 1 in the category of “Old Special Effects That Still Look Pretty Amazing To Us” is the liquid metal Terminator from ‘T2.’ Pitted against the also amazingly cool, but defiantly analog-looking robotic Arnie (and we should note the VFX were a combination of ILM wizardry and Stan Winston practical effects), this sleek metallic chameleon epitomized the clinical evil of the machines-of-the-even-further-future. Even when it was a floor.
Factoid: The CG sequences total only 5 minutes in the film, (though the storytelling’s so good it feels like a lot more) but took a staggering 25 man-years to complete, using a vastly more complex and refined version of the technique ILM used to create...