Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

Director John Woo’s 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 I’ve 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 Paramount’s 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 gun barrel.
Woo, a standard-bearer in his own right as the vanguard of Hong Kong’s 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/Off’s 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. Holland’s 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 don’t 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.)
"Millisecond’s camera," Nebeker continues, "transports film 30 times faster than any camera with comparable resolution. And it doesn’t waste film the way high-speed cameras with a supply reel and a take-up reel do as they get up to speed."
Millisecond’s 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 camera’s 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 that’s possible at 12,000 fps, which translates into five seconds of normal screen time.
The shots for Face/Off were taken at a Shooter’s 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 don’t 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 Nebeker’s father Sid, for his Cordin Company, Salt Lake City.) How do you light a subject being imaged at that speed? A normal incandescent source can’t 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 bullet’s 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, it’s 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."