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…
The Alien Water Pseudopod in “The Abyss” (1989)
Still one of the more beautiful special effects we’ve seen, the long tentacle of water weaving its way through the ship to find the awestruck Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris at the end of it, was already an amazing shot before the hovering water alien starts mimicking her facial expressions. In fact, when we first were at this point watching the film, “The Abyss” might well have been a candidate for one of our favorite movies, but then that ending happened.
Factoid: ILM spent 6 months creating the 75 seconds of effects that make up this shot, thereby, along with substantial reshoots, forcing the film’s release to be delayed by over a month from its original July 4th slot. It also has contributed the mythos of James Cameron’s reputedly dictatorial on-set style; Ed Harris, for example, has refused ever to talk about the film again.
The Stained Glass Knight in “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985)
We’ll be honest, it’s probably time we revisited this well-intentioned Barry Levinson-directed stab at bringing Holmes to a younger audience because really all we remember from its noisy hi-jinks and proto-Harry Potter boarding school set-up is a post-credits sequence that reveals [SPOILER for 30-year-old movie alert!] the baddie actually survived and is, sigh, Moriarty, and this one terrific moment in which a stained glass window comes to life and menaces a priest.
Factoid: Blink and you’ll miss it, but this is in fact the first-ever fully CG-animated, photo-real character in a film, and was created by a young man working for Lucasfilm at the time named John Lasseter.
Inside the Computer World in “Tron” (1982)
While the light cycles and lovingly rendered video game graphics of the original “Tron” are undoubtedly the first things this film calls to mind, even at the time, for us the most impressive part was how seamlessly the footage that contains live action, especially of the actors’ faces and some practical sets, was incorporated to blend seamlessly into the computer graphics. Considering the film was initially planned as pure animation, this is doubly impressive, and the grainy, monochrome faces of Bridges, Boxleitner et al. set into the neon-detailed costumes and landscapes are actually what give the film an aesthetic that looks tremendously retro-cool to this day.
Factoid: Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest cheerleaders for “Tron” was Roger Ebert, who awarded it 4/4 stars, called it “a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun” and closed his first annual “Overlooked Film Festival” with a screening of it.
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.