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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 prey’s 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. Holland’s 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 doesn’t 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 Nebeker’s 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 doesn’t 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," Nebeker continues.
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 that instant."
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 speed methods."
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 scratch."
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 before."
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.