Wait a Second!
The Debut of the Millisecond Camera
"To catch him, he must become him." That is the tag line for
the Paramount Pictures thriller Face/Off, about an FBI agent (John Travolta)
so obsessed with catching a terrorist (Nicholas Cage), he assumes his
preys identity to the screen. Producers Michael Douglas, Seven Reuther,
and Christopher Godsick brought the project to director John Woo (Broken
Arrow, Hard Target) and cinematographer Oliver Wood (2 Days in the Valley,
Celtic Pride, Mr. Hollands Opus, Terminal Velocity), with no doubt
that they could bring off this taught thriller.
Woo established himself as a master of action filmmaking with his work
in Hong Kong. Widely considered the best at creating well-paced, complex
yet lucid action sequences with a lot of fire power, he uses the latest
techniques to implement his ideas. One of the tools he has used throughout
his career is high speed photography for dramatic slow motion effects.
However, the most dramatic event, a bullet coming out of a gun, is too
fast to be captured by existing high speed cameras. Pin-registered cameras
will go up to a maximum of 360 frames per second. During a gunshot, they
will expose only several frames, so the image is very short and blurred.
Prism cameras will go up to 2,500 frames per second. This is enough to
get the event on about fifteen frames, but doesnt produce very sharp
or stable images.
Up until recently, the only option was to create the image of a bullet
coming out of a gun through the use of CGI. However, this is very labor
intensive and expensive. It often produces results which look cartoonish
rather than intense and real.
During the pre-production process on Face/Off, Woo and Oliver Wood heard
of a recently developed camera that can shoot 35mm film at up to an astounding
12,000 frames per second with images that are sharp and stable. This camera
would shoot approximately 80 frames during a gun shot, slowing the action
down by 500 times. In essence, this creates a very sharp image of a bullet
as it leaves the gun.
The camera is from a company called Millisecond Cinematography. It can
shoot full format 35mm film at rates from 120 to 12,000 frames per second
with excellent image resolution and stability. The camera was developed
by Nathan Nebeker through the support of Cordin Company, a firm specializing
in high speed photographic equipment for scientific research.
Created by Nebekers father Sid in the 1950s, the company makes the
fastest cameras in the world, used in scientific, government and military
research labs. "I grew up knowign about these exotic and obscure
high speed cameras my father made, but I was more interested in movies
and pop culture," the younger Nebeker admits. "I was looking
for an entrepreneurial opportunity, and it occurred to me that the cameras
Cordin made were, strictly speaking, cinema cameras."
Nebeker set out to design a Cordin-based camera tailored exclusively to
the needs of commercial cinematography. "The Cordin cameras are designed
purely as data gathering devices," he explains. "They have no
regard for cinemagraphic standards or post production needs. They will
do weird things like take four rows of 16mm frames on 70mm film. Which,
if you are doing scientific analysis, frame by frame, is fine. But not
very practical for commercial use."
The camera is called a rotating drum camera, because instead
of moving film from a magazine, it moves a much shorter strip of film
around inside a rotating flywheel or drum. "Traditional cinema cameras
have very complex mechanics that move film behind a single lens
they move the film to the light."
"The drum camera has relatively simple mechanics, but much more complex
optics. It moves the light to the film. And since light moves much faster
than mechanisms, you can get much faster framing rates," Nebeker
explains. "The image from the objective lens is relayed through a
rotating mirror back to the film. Using a mirror to get image motion is
much better than a prism, because it doesnt refract the light when
off-angle, the way a prism does. The resolution of the drum camera is
inherently better than that of a prism camera."
To take a shot, the operator must cut a 90 inch strip of film, or 120
frames worth and load this piece into a special film cassette. The cassette
then loads the film into the camera. When the camera is turned on the
drum starts spinning, until it reaches the desired speed. The speed is
controlled by a computer, which also manages shutter timing and other
functions of the camera.
"The fact that the camera doesn't use any film during run-up or run-down
means you don't waste any film for a shot," Nebeker continues. "This
is in stark contrast to other high speed photography methods, where you
get one to three shots per 1000 foot roll. This camera will get 130 shots
out of a 1000 foot roll, which, with the cost of film and processing,
is an enormous cost savings," he says.
"Also, the film is cradled in this very rigid flywheel, so even though
it is traveling at speeds up to 500 mph, the film itself is very gently
treated, and moves with much more stability. It is much better than ripping
the film through a gate at 100mph, as with a prism camera."
This means the camera is limited to 120 frames per take, or five seconds
of screen time (10 seconds at 12 fps playback). "The 120 frame limit
is the main limitation of the camera," Nebeker explains, "but
the camera system includes sophisticated timing equipment so that you
get exactly what you want on those 120 frames. Of the 70 shots we did
in the three day shoot for Face/Off, we only missed three shots, and that
was because the person shooting the gun got the timing wrong."
The timing requirement for the camera system is tight, with shooting limited
to the time it takes for the drum to turn around once. Past that, the
film will be double exposed. "When you shoot at the top speed of
12,000 fps, this is one hundredth of a second, or ten milliseconds,"
says Nebeker. "At the higher speeds, over 1,500 fps, the shot must
be timed and illuminated with Millisecond's special flash lamps. These
lights will come on within a microsecond, stay on for the exact time prescribed,
and then turn off within a microsecond."
This is necessary for two reasons. First, they are much brighter than
standard lights, "and you need a hell of a lot of light," says
Nebeker. "Second, because a mechanical shutter is not fast enough
to control the light entering the camera at these speeds. This also means
daylight shots are limited to a few thousand frames per second,"
For the Face/Off shoot, Millisecond set up in a gun range, allowing them
to photograph live ammunition. "The way we timed the shot was to
shine a little laser beam right in front of the hammer of the gun. This
laser then went to a light detector, that was wired into the camera system's
timing circuit. When the actor fired the gun, the hammer would break the
beam, which would signal the flash lamps to turn on. They would be on
for the 10 milliseconds while the bullet was coming out of the gun, and
then turn off. The whole thing looks like an instantaneous flash when
you watch it," he explains, "but 120 pictures were taken during
Some of the shots required were of the camera looking down the barrel
of the gun as it is fired. For these shots, the crew set up a mirror at
a 45 degree angle, pointed the gun at the mirror, and then pointed the
camera at the mirror so that it was looking through the mirror down the
barrel of the gun.
"When the gun was fired, the bullet would go straight toward the
mirror and shoot through it, but the camera caught the image of the bullet
coming straight at the viewer," Nebeker says.
While all of the shots for Face/Off were taken at the maximum 12,000 frames
per second, Mr. Nebeker believes much of the work the camera will do is
in the lower speed ranges. "People hear 12,000 frames per second
and are blown away, and then that's all they think of. But this camera
works very well down to 120 frames per second. So people need to think
of two things. One is all the different slow motion shots which are now
possible, which may not have occurred to them before, and the other is
how much better and easier to use this camera is than traditional high
Exposure on the camera is set like any other cinema camera. Because of
the relay optics, the camera shoots at f 10, regardless of whether the
objective lens has a wider aperture. The equivalent shutter angle is 40
degrees. "We set exposure using the basic tables, extended to cover
the 1/50,000 exposure time, and we didn't see more than 1/4 to 1/2 stop
reciprocity loss in the 5279 stock we used, even at the top speeds. You
determine the amount of light in the traditional way, but the result is
usually that you need as much light as possible," Nebeker adds.
The other thing Nebeker wants people to understand is the proper relationship
this camera has with computer generated images. "Producers will blithely
say, 'Oh, I can just do that on the computer.' What they don't realize
is the time and expense involved in creating computer images which don't
always turn out that convincingly."
"The CGI bid for the Face/Off shots was over ten times what it cost
us to take actual shots of actual bullets," says Nebeker. "Even
if you use CGI to enhance or tweak shots, it is always better to start
with original images. For example, we took one shot of a bullet coming
out the end of a high powered rifle which is used in the establishing
sequence of the movie.
"Because the bullet was from a fast rifle, the depth of field the
camera covered wasn't enough to satisfy John Woo. He wanted to see the
bullet in sharp focus for longer. But of course, it is impossible to rack
focus over 10 milliseconds. So the guys at Video Image used the shot as
a basis for a CGI enhanced shot, which turned out much better than if
they would have guessed what it might look like, and drawn something from
As a result of this technology, the famous John Woo gun standoff where
different characters are caught, each pointing their guns at someone else,
will unfold as a drawn out, dramatic sequence instead of a single instant
on screen. "It was a great honor to work with John Woo and Oliver
Wood the first time out." Nebeker says, smiling. " I am really
looking forward to all the new and interesting ways directors will come
up with to capture things in this time domain that people have never seen
At most, the Millisecond drum camera is the biggest revolution in basic
camera technology that has been introduced to the film industry since
the industry began. At the least, it is a very exciting new creative tool
for the innovative director.