The biggest VFX decision on “The Matrix Resurrections,” of course, was how to update the mind-blowing Bullet Time effect for the return of Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). After all, a lot has changed since Bullet Time earned the Oscar in 2000, creating the illusion of bending time and space so Neo could perform his balletic martial arts. But thanks to new advancements in physically-based lighting and volumetric capture, it’s now a lot easier to produce amazing photorealism. Yet director Lana Wachowski didn’t want the VFX to overwhelm her richer and warmer aesthetic, in keeping with the surprisingly emotional love story between Neo and Trinity. That applied to cracking the new code for Bullet Time by DNEG.
“One of the things that was important was the aesthetic,” said Dan Glass, the production VFX supervisor from DNEG (who previously worked on “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”). “It’s clearly an upgrade. It’s a new version of the Matrix that’s learned lessons from the previous films [about blurring reality and unreality], and she wanted it to feel all the more real. As you watch it, you relate to it even more. It’s a continuation of ‘Sense8,’ which was primarily shot on location with available light in a documentary approach…and, of course, the visual effects responded to that.”
The original Bullet Time effect, which had its roots in Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in persistence of vision as well as animation, was achieved by photographing Reeves dangling on wires from all angles with a customized 120-camera rig, and then stitching together the images with software to simulate his slo-mo acrobatics. Today, volumetric capture achieves the same result digitally by capturing 360-degree imagery and then transferring and manipulating the footage in 3D space.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
However, Glass wanted a more organic approach to the new Bullet Time. The R&D work was accomplished mostly by Volucap at Studio Babelsberg in Germany (custom rigs and software) and London-based VFX studio One of Us. This became the basis for the two bravura sequences in which Neo faces off with The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) baddie. “Really, Bullet Time in this movie is used primarily against Neo, so it’s power that’s taken away,” added Glass. “We looked at initially shooting underwater [footage] because you get this very natural sense of exertion but [also] slowness of movement.
“We built some custom rigs for filming underwater but the natural effect of reduced weight on actors’ faces was distracting from the overall performance and the idea of digitally replacing lead actors faces for the effect went against the authenticity Lana was after so we ultimately opted for shooting dry. And we used stereo rigs. But instead of being offset cameras, they were lined up and shooting at different frame rates and shutter speeds, so that we could capture elements simultaneously in the interaction between The Analyst and Neo. Then we composited them and split-screened them together from different film speeds. But it wasn’t always simple. The camera was often on a Steadicam, and they moved at different rates. There was quite a bit of massaging and trimming, and then we added CG hair and slowed down movements for that underwater look.”
The first Bullet Time scene takes place in a workshop, where the rusty Neo is overpowered by The Analyst, who threatens to kill Trinity with a bullet that Neo is unable to stop. The Analyst teasingly intervenes as a warning to Neo what he’s up against.
“The workshop [completed by One of Us] offers the longest and most subtle use of Bullet Time, kicking off with angle grinder tools going off in the background. Which are one of the cues for when time is reversing, going forward, slowing at different speeds,” said Glass. “But even those are largely built from cinematography, so we shot at different frame rates, and they’re mixed together, and time-wrapped. But arriving at that look was not straightforward. When you go to high speed and slow things down, they become sharper, they don’t have longer trails unless you’re doing long exposure, so we had to play around to come up with that look.”
By contrast, the second Bullet Time sequence in a cafe was about Neo overpowering The Analyst and hurling 20 baddies up in the air. This came after the new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) combats Neo in a dojo callback to the first film to regain his mojo. For the background environment, they used Epic’s Unreal real-time engine for a softer, more stylized look.
“The [cafe Bullet Time sequence] was a mix,” continued Glass. “There were stunt players that were suspended [on wires] and we added CG around them, using different frame rates, and some volumetric capture. [But] we were innovating because the original Bullet Time was an intense exercise. Everything was pre-planned, and you built your camera path, and to change things set you back days or weeks. And we needed a system that was a lot more supple and pliable to work around the way we were shooting. Which was: Arrive with a Steadicam, put on a zoom lens, and then [shoot]. And we could modify the rigs with 10 or 12 cameras very quickly with engineering and 3D printing pieces overnight. It was cumbersome, but it worked best for coming up with the right gear.”