Faster Than A Speeding Bullet
Director John Woos Face/Off Images the Moment that Hot Lead
Flies from the Muzzle of a Gun
by Jon Silberg
"I want to take slow motion further than Ive ever seen it taken
before, director John Woo declares. Following Broken Arrow, his
second American film, Woo found the chance to do just that for Paramounts
Face/Off, in which Woo made use of a newly-designed motion picture camera
capable of capturing detailed images of a real bullet shooting from a
Woo, a standard-bearer in his own right as the vanguard of Hong Kongs
modern action cinema, is a longtime admirer of slow-motion sequences in
the films of Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Jean-Pierre Melville. Woo determined
that a key gun-fight in Face/Off would be most effective if he intercut
it with images of bullets gracefully gliding toward unknown targets.
"It is a classic gun battle," Woo describes. "But I think
it makes it more dangerous to view the bullets and the smoke from the
guns this way. Many people fire at the same time and there are chilling
moments right after. Who got shot? Who might die?"
Suspense aside, Woo finds lyrical beauty in the slowed-down action sequences.
Less interested in capturing the confusion one might experience while
witnessing real-life mayhem, Woo is fascinated by the aesthetics and choreography
of what is, at essence, movie violence. "It becomes like a painting
to me," he says, "something of beauty."
Face/Offs bullet inserts were shot using a newly-designed camera
from Millisecond Cinematography. Millisecond principal, Nathan Nebeker,
photographed the series of bullet shots for Face/Off, on which Oliver
Wood (Mr. Hollands Opus) was the principal cinematographer. This
high-speed camera is capable of running 35mm films (four-perf) at up to
an astonishing 12,000 frame per second clip, the speed required to capture
a flying bullet. Since cinematographers dont normally use such unusual
cameras, they typically rent with an operator.
Nebeker explains how his camera differs from other ultra-high-speed cameras
such as those manufactured by Photo-Sonics. "There are other cameras
that go fast," he says, "but they send the image through a prism,
which decreases resolution because the prism is at something of an angle
relative to the film during most of exposure. Our camera uses an eight-faceted
mirror to allow controlled, razor-sharp images on each frame." (At
least one Photo-Sonics motion picture camera, for instance, uses a four-sided
rotary prism, says rental coordinator Carlos Lopez, and that model, the
4C, images the film with a "wiping effect," with no hard aperture
plate and with relative motion between the image and the film during the
exposure phase at a parallel, 0-degree angle.)
"Milliseconds camera," Nebeker continues, "transports
film 30 times faster than any camera with comparable resolution. And it
doesnt waste film the way high-speed cameras with a supply reel
and a take-up reel do as they get up to speed."
Milliseconds camera uses a single 90-inch loop of film which is
fixed to a track inside the flywheel of a rotating drum. Every frame in
this film loop is exposed during the shot, and since the film spins with
the drum to which it is affixed, there is no tension placed on the stock
at any time. Prior to filming a shot, with the cameras capping shutter
in place, the drum spins around for seven minutes until it finally achieves
the top speed of 100 revolutions per second. Then it is ready to expose
the entire 90 inches of film in one single rotation of the drum. A 10
millisecond (100th of a second) shot is all thats possible at 12,000
fps, which translates into five seconds of normal screen time.
The shots for Face/Off were taken at a Shooters Paradise Gun Range
in Simi Valley, Calif., an hour outside Hollywood. There, firearms of
various makes and types were fired by ballistics expert Rock Galotti at
an almost 90 degree angle to the camera.
"I have to make sure each shell is properly weighted," Gallotti
explains. "Every round is a different speed. They can travel anywhere
from 28 feet per second to 1,100 feet per second. You add or subtract
the amount of powder in the casing to determine the speed; obviously the
less powder, the slower the bullet travels. That can be good for the effect,
but you dont want to slow it down too much or it will come out of
the barrel at an extreme angle."
Trick photography such as this gives rise to production problems unique
to scientific inquiry (in fact, the drum camera was first manufactured
for research, not as a production camera, by Nebekers father Sid,
for his Cordin Company, Salt Lake City.) How do you light a subject being
imaged at that speed? A normal incandescent source cant do the trick.
Tungsten or square-wave HMIs present a perfectly fine light source for
most high speed photography. In the Millisecond system, the lights are
triggered by the firing of the gun to illuminate the bullets path
for the instant of the frames exposure. The custom-made, single
square pulse xenon tube lights emit enough illumination (approximately
1,000 times daylight) necessary to get an exposure on each frame in such
a short time period.
With the bullet sequence already cut together, its left to filmmakers
like Woo to imagine future applications of such technology. "This
could be used for many things," he contemplates. "I could blow
up a building and show glass flying everywhere this way. I think that
would be very pretty."