“Bullet Time”… in the late 19th century

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Eadweard Muybridge couldn’t have known in the 1880s that his photographs would one day—over a century later—remind someone of a popular science-fiction film of the late 20th century starring Keanu Reeves.

And filmmaker Thom Andersen could not have known that the documentary he made about Muybridge in 1975 would create such a link in the minds of its viewers 24 years later. But that’s what’s funny about art. Once released by its creator, it lives separately, changing with the times and its surroundings, shaped by the people who take it in.

Muybridge lived and worked in the decades before motion pictures. He was a photographer, and although he took some of the earliest shots of Yosemite Valley, he’s best known for his motion studies. In 1878, at Stanford University’s stables, he rigged up a line of cameras, connected each shutter to a tripwire, and directed a man on a horse to ride like the wind, tripping the wires one by one to produce a famous series of shots of a horse in motion. Muybridge crowed that for the first time someone could see that a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground at once.

Nearly 100 years later, filmmaker and historian Thom Andersen made a documentary about Muybridge called Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, and it’s typical of Andersen’s work: insightful, opinionated, painstakingly researched and never short of fascinating.

After his success with horses, Muybridge began to catalog the actions of humans—jumping, boxing, sipping tea—and Andersen describes how Muybridge experimented with camera arrangements. For example, rather than have his subjects move along a line as the horses did, he’d have them stand in one place, training his bank of cameras onto that spot. Sometimes he’d capture a single action from several angles simultaneously, placing banks of cameras along a semicircle, aimed at the center.

Having frozen his subjects in time and chopped their actions into discrete units, Muybridge was never able to get them moving again. He tried. He invented a device called a zoopraxiscope that projected a sequence of still images, bringing them to life, but he had to paint the images onto glass discs. He couldn’t project the photos themselves, so the result was more like animation than modern motion pictures.

Andersen, though, had the full capability of cinema at his disposal, so in his documentary he does what Muybridge was never able to do for an audience: he flips quickly through the photos to make the people in them move. And here’s where things get unexpectedly interesting. When showing an action Muybridge shot from multiple angles, Andersen cycles through the photos and casually shifts from one angle to another, mid-stream, creating the illusion of a single moving camera. A man jumps up, and then the camera appears to rotate around him, moving along a semi-circle, as he hangs in the air.

Current viewers will recognize the effect immediately. It’s Neo, arching his back to avoid a bullet, his coat whipped up, or Trinity poised for a kick, the camera encircling her while she floats motionless in the air. In The Matrix the effect was dazzling. It may have even been the key to the movie’s success. And although the Wachowski brothers (and effects supervisor John Gaeta) used state-of-the-art equipment in 1999, they essentially were taking still photos from multiple locations just as Muybridge had done in the pre-cinematic Victorian era.

What’s fascinating about this chain of cinematic history isn’t the effect itself or its novel use in a sci-fi movie but the way present-day viewers of Andersen’s documentary have a brief collective thought that couldn’t have been anticipated by either Muybridge or Andersen.

Film is a collaborative medium. Just look at all those names at the end of every movie. Seldom is the audience considered a part of the collaboration, but we are. Just as Andersen applies movement to Muybridge’s still photos, we apply our knowledge—of the world, of life, of other movies—to the images onscreen, creating something unique to each of us. We’re all different, with our own individual responses, and when we act in unison, gasping or laughing together, it’s not because we’re manipulated like puppets but because the filmmakers have, wittingly or not, found something common to us all, maybe even something as intangible as a familiar camera flourish.

Because of these final collaborators, art can defy gravity, hang in the air and exceed the limits of time and technology. In the active minds of the people who experience it, art lives.

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