The Matrix – The magic behind Bullet Time


The Matrix (1999) is an American science fiction action film directed by Larry and Andy¬†Wachowski. The Matrix¬†is set in the future where reality as perceived by humans is actually the Matrix, a simulated reality created by the sentient machines to pacify and subdue human population, while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used an an energy source. When computer programmer Neo learns of this, he is drawn into a rebellion against the machines, involving other people who have been freed from the ‘dream world’ and into reality.


The film is most known for popularizing a visual effect known as ‘bullet time’. It is a shot effect that progressing in slow-motion while the camera appears to be moving throughout the scene at normal speed. The directors’ approach to the action scenes drew from upon their admiration for Japanese animation and martial arts film, and the fight choreographers and wire fu techniques from Hong Kong action cinema was influential upon subsequent Hollywood action film production.

Each camera is a still-picture camera, and not a motion picture camera, and it contributes just one frame to the video sequence. When the sequence of shots is viewed as in a movie, the viewers sees what are in effect two-dimensional ‘slices’ of a three-dimensional moment. Watching such a ‘time slice’ movie is same a a real-life experience of walking around ‘in the scene’, from different angles. The positioning of the still cameras can be varied along any desired smooth curve to produce a smooth looking camera motion in the finished clip, and the timing of each camera’s firing may be delayed slightly so that a motion scene can be executed.


For The Matrix, the camera’ positions and exposures were previsualized using a 3D simulation. Instead of firing the cameras simultaneously, the visual effects team fired the cameras fractions of a second after each other, so that each camera could capture the action as it progressed, creating a super slow-motion effect. When the frames are put together, the resulting slow-mo effects approached the equivalent of 12,000 frames per second, as opposed to the normal speed of 24 fps for film. The cameras at each end of the row were standard movie cameras to pick up the normal speed action before and after. Because the cameras can be seen as the rig is in a circular motion, computer technology was used to edit out the cameras that appeared in the background on the other side.

Bullet time effect is used to illustrate the character’s exertion of control over time and space in the movie.