This is almost impossible with conventional slow-motion, as the physical camera would have to move impossibly fast; the concept implies that only a "virtual camera," often illustrated within the confines of a computer-generated environment such as a game or virtual reality, would be capable of "filming" bullet-time types of moments. Technical and historical variations of this effect have been referred to as time slicing, view morphing, slow mo, temps mort and virtual cinematography.
The Bullet Time effect was originally achieved photographically by a set of still cameras surrounding the subject. These arrays are usually triggered at once or sequentially. Singular frames taken from each of the still cameras are then arranged and displayed consecutively to produce an orbiting viewpoint of an action frozen in time or as hyper-slow-motion. This technique suggests the limitless perspectives and variable frame rates possible with a virtual camera. However, if the still array process is done with real cameras, it is often limited to assigned paths.
Using Computer vision techniques, for many years it has been possible to capture scenes and render images of novel viewpoints sufficient for bullet time type effects. More recently these have been formalized into what is becoming known as Free viewpoint television (FTV). At the time of The Matrix, FTV was not a fully mature technology. FTV is effectively the live action version of bullet time, without the slow motion.
In The Matrix, the camera path was pre-designed using computer-generated visualizations as a guide. Cameras were arranged, behind a green or blue screen, on a track and aligned through a laser targeting system, forming a complex curve through space. The cameras were then triggered at extremely close intervals, so the action continued to unfold, in extreme slow-motion, while the viewpoint moved. Additionally, the individual frames were scanned for computer processing. Using sophisticated interpolation software, extra frames could be inserted to slow down the action further and improve the fluidity of the movement (especially the frame rate of the images); frames could also be dropped to speed up the action. This approach provides greater flexibility than a purely photographic one. The same effect can also be produced using pure CGI, motion capture and universal capture. It is thought that the opening sequence from the late 1960s Speed Racer cartoons partially inspired the Wachowski Brothers to incorporate the bullet time effect into the Matrix.
Antecedents to bullet time occurred before the invention of cinema itself. Eadweard Muybridge used still cameras placed along a racetrack to take pictures of a galloping horse. Each camera was actuated by a taut string stretched across the track; as the horse galloped past, the camera shutters snapped, taking one frame at a time. (The original intent was to settle a debate the governor of California had engaged in, as to whether all four of the animal's legs would leave the ground when galloping.) Muybridge later assembled the pictures into a rudimentary animation, by placing them on a glass disk which he spun in front of a light source. His zoopraxiscope may have been an inspiration for Thomas Edison to explore the idea of motion pictures.
Muybridge also took photos of actions from many angles at the same instant in time, to study how the human body went up stairs, for example. This is the effect used in The Matrix, and other movies, and is achieved roughly the same way as Muybridge set up his shots. In effect, however, Muybridge had achieved the aesthetic opposite to The Matrix's bullet-time sequences, since his studies lacked the dimensionality of the later developments. A debt may also be owed to MIT professor Doc Edgerton, who, in the 1940s, captured now-iconic photos of bullets using xenon strobe lights to "freeze" motion.
In popular film culture, Blade was the first film to illustrate super human reflexes dodging bullets in a scene in a park when the character of Blade fires at Stephen Dorf's character, Deacon Frost. Computer generated bullets are also used to illustrate the concept and slow motion camera work.
John Woo is also famous for incorporating slow motion shoot outs in his movies, such as A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled. These films would later influence media such as Max Payne and The Matrix series.
Long before the emergence of a technology permitting a live-action application, bullet-time as a concept was frequently developed in cel animation. One of the earliest examples is the shot at the end of the title sequence for the late-sixties Japanese anime series Speed Racer: as Speed leaps from the Mach Five, he freezes in mid-jump, and then the camera does an arc shot from front to sideways.
The first music video to use bullet-time was "Army of Me", a 1995 Björk video directed by Michel Gondry. It was also featured in Dario Argento's 1996 horror movie The Stendhal Syndrome (CGI, with a bullet), and the 1998 BBC documentary mini-series Intimate Universe: The Human Body with time-slice by Tim Macmillan. In 1994, Dayton Taylor invented a film-based system called TimeTrack that was used in many television commercials The effect was also used in 1998's Blade and further developed in Blade II.
Bullet time became popularized when John Gaeta and team expanded it temporally and into the digital arena through the incorporation of frame interpolation and image based CGI within the film The Matrix (1999) and through view-morphing techniques pioneered by BUF Compagnie in music videos by Michel Gondry and commercials for, among others, The Gap.
In 2003, Bullet Time evolved further through The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions with the introduction of high-definition computer-generated approaches like virtual cinematography and universal capture. Virtual elements within the Matrix Trilogy utilized state-of-the-art image-based computer rendering techniques pioneered in Paul Debevec's 1997 film The Campanile Movie and custom evolved for the Matrix by George Borshukov, an early collaborator of Debevec.
Other early applications of the concept: