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'The Matrix' Anniversary: 7 Pre-Bullet Time VFX Effects That Blew Our Minds

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 3, 2014 at 12:07PM

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.
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The Phantom Zone Prison in “Superman II” (1980)
The thing with films in the '80s, (especially if you lived in a Luddite, late-adopting household like mine) was that occasional TV repeats were the only away to rewatch favorites until you befriended someone with a VCR. For this particular writer, that friendship was based around a neighbor’s VHS copy of “Superman II,” which may have been the first tape I ever wore out through overuse. Now obviously, there are effects in the first Superman film too, but for whatever reason, the one that really stuck with me was the disc-prison to which Zod and his henchpeople are condemned. I remember literally never having seen anything that cool before in my life. And even if it’s kind of hilariously dated now, the notion of a 2D crystal prison floating through space is still a pretty scary one.

Factoid: “We tried to look for different distorted effects. We eventually settled for cramming them into a little rectangle which came down, and collected the villains, and took them away … The camera was in a spinning mount which would rotate in 360 degrees, and the actors were also turning. This created a multitude of movements." - From “The Magic Behind the Cape” documentary.

The lightsabers in “Star Wars” (1977)
Well, OK, there were lots of special effects that were incredible for the time in the original “Star Wars,” but probably the one that exerted the strongest subsequent grip on the imagination was one of the simpler, if more tedious, to create. The lightsabers wielded by the Jedi Knights and Sith Lords alike immediately became one of the most iconic and widely recognizable elements of the Star Wars universe, to the point that, a little like the hoverboard from “Back to the Future 2,” we're genuinely not quite sure why we haven’t got real ones yet. The glowy laser-tube thingies also emitted a very recognizable sound that, as the possibly-apocryphal-but-we-love-it-anyway story goes, Ewan MacGregor had to be asked to stop mimicking under his breath when filming the prequels.

Factoid: Back then, the process involved hand animating the lightsaber blades frame by frame from the original print, then shooting a strip of film with those animated cels put through a light diffuser (to give the glow) and then double exposing that film to get the extra brightness, before comping it back onto the original footage. Probably now there’s a “Lightsaber effect” keyboard shortcut, though (and you can find out in this 15-minute doc "The Birth Of The Lightsaber").

So that's basically the story of our childhood told via contemporary effects. Tell us about your cherished memories of movie tech wizardry below.

This article is related to: The Matrix, The Wachowskis, Features, Feature, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Superman


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