FOEC sits down with the Australian photographers behind the Shanghai-based camera array used to capture the time slice shots for Roy Chow & Sammo Hung’s latest martial arts epic, Rise of the Legend. Time slice (or bullet time) has evolved beyond its first appearance in The Matrix and Shanghai’s Splice Boys are at the forefront of exploring the possibilities and limitations of this prohibitively complex photographic technique.
Since late 2012, the Shanghai-based start-up Splice Boys has been providing clients within the Chinese advertising industry with a one-stop shop for the construction, shooting and output of “time slice” or “bullet time” footage. For a modest fee, their modular rig of one hundred cameras captures images thought for the longest time to be off-limits to productions with anything less than a massive budget. As a technique, time slice allows the camera to orbit physical objects frozen in time or moving in slow motion without the intervention of computer-generated effects. The technique remains synonymous with the time-bending fight sequences of The Matrix, the first film to introduce time-slice shooting to the world at large in 1999.
Rapidly growing their reputation in the commercial world on shoots that have taken them from China, to Australia, to Dubai and back again, Splice Boys got their first taste of work in the international film industry contributing shots to the action sequences in Roy Chow and Sammo Hung’s production of Rise Of The Legend (2014). Rise marks a fresh start for the loosely connected series of films about China’s renowned Qing era folk hero, Wong Fei-hung, best known to Western audiences through Jet Li’s performance in Tsui-Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Jackie Chan’s humorous take in Yuen Woo-ping’s Drunken Master (1978). With all-star talent from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China involved, Rise could not be a better showcase for the work of Splice Boys: burly, beardy Australian photographers Tom Brandon and Richard Kendall. In a job that requires them to be the brains, braun, creative conscience and business nous of a small, specialist company in China, Tom and Richie have experienced a remarkably steep learning curve in the journey to their current level of work. Nonetheless, they are keen to see the artistic and technical possibilities of time-slice shooting systems expand as they court new feature film projects.
Films Of Every Colour sat down with Tom and Richie a few days before Rise of the Legend’s Beijing premiere to ask them about their role in capturing the action of martial-arts movie legend Sammo Hung’s dynamic choreography; what creative challenges and business challenges they have faced, and how they see the time-slice technique developing in the future.
FOEC: Can you explain how the time-slice system works to create this unique effect and what gear you require to achieve it?
TB: Roughly, the gear on that rig is about a hundred cameras, twelve computers, a server, switches – it’s essentially a big computer network with a whole lot of cameras attached to it and a custom-built triggering system, so we can fire all the cameras. There’s something like a kilometer of cabling that goes with the rig and around six hundred individual connections. And you have to make sure that each connection is just right otherwise it doesn’t work! So, yeah, it’s complicated. [laughs] But, essentially, the rig is a virtual camera track and every camera captures a single frame of the video. Because of this, the rig is more of a photographic system, as opposed to a film system. When you’re filming with a regular camera, you’re stuck, in the sense that you can only ever film forward, whereas with the rig we can have different parts of it firing in different orders so we can cover the same actions forwards and backwards. We can freeze actions, we can slow down or speed up and we can do all of this while also having the camera “moving”. Whilst some cameras can shoot very fast, you can’t also have them moving through space fast enough to create some of the effects that we can do. Also because you can use these photographically you can shoot in such ways with the sort of shutter angles and times that you couldn’t do with film cameras because we can have shutters opening and closing after one another.
RK: We can do shots that have more than a 360-degree shutter angle. Our virtual frames per second allow us to create a massive difference in time that you wouldn’t be able to do on a cinema camera.
FOEC: Splice Boys formed in late 2012, during your shoot for the Landrover campaign with Black + Cameron. How did each of you come to be working on the rig?
TB: It was six weeks before shooting started and we’d discussed that Richie would assist on the rig because, at that time, someone else was going to run it but they pulled out at the last minute. Richie was asked to run the rig and also to build it. He hadn’t done it before – he knew the theory of how to do it but didn’t know the practicality of it. When he came back to Shanghai from India, he was going through the discussions with Tao [director/producer at B+C] about how to proceed and I was there and had a few questions about it, to which the answer was “Well, do you want to do it?” So it ended up being that Richie and I had all of about four weeks’ notice to build and teach ourselves how to use an entire hundred-camera bullet-time rig.
FOEC: When was the first time you ever set up and shot with the rig?
TB: That was the Landrover job. We had built the rig and taught ourselves how to use it but we had never been able to do a full-scale test before we had to take it out on location. So the first shot that we ever actually did, where we put all one hundred cameras together, was in Yunan province. It was the snow shot in the Landrover piece, and we were something like five thousand meters above sea level, maybe even higher. It was minus fifteen to minus twenty degrees centigrade and we were setting up the rig in the snow – so the actual tripods were encased in snow – and halfway through the day, a blizzard came through. We all had altitude sickness to varying degrees of intensity. I was running the main brains of the whole system in a small tent and out the back of the tent we had a generator and the wind was whipping the fumes from the generator around and into the tent! So I was sitting there with diesel fumes and altitude sickness trying to get the rig working [laughs].
RK: You can’t feel your fingers in those conditions. We started setting up in the dark, it took eleven hours to get everything set and we managed to get everything working for the first time just at magic hour and we nailed the shot on the first take! We got a couple more in and then it was pitch black again. It was to the teeth but we survived and we used the shot.
TB: And that was our first shot. That was a really tough job, that one. It was a really steep learning curve because it was the first time we’d ever got the rig working. Now it’s a relatively smooth process.
FOEC: What have you been experimenting with most recently that viewers only familiar with this technique in popular feature films won’t have seen?
TB: One of the things we’ve been playing with centers around light painting techniques. Light painting is something you can do in regular photography, where you have very long exposures and you use different types of light sources to expose different parts of the scene and create trails of light. What we can do is make that an animated effect. We can make it look like the light is actually moving.
RK: We’ve been doing things like taking the camera array off of the solid track and moving it, which means that you can have things like motion blur in backgrounds. It behaves much more like a cinema camera because the camera array is moving and it creates a much more fluid, dynamic sort of imagery.
TB: I think that pulling the rig off the ground and mounting it on cranes and tracking vehicles and stuff is something that really no one has been doing before and that frees up the technique and opens it up. We first did that a few months ago. It was something we had talked about for ages but never had the opportunity to do. So we took a small rig of thirty cameras and hung it off the back of a tracking vehicle to shoot a car commercial. We had the car following us while we were driving and shot so that the rig was actually moving, tracking the car. So the car stays focused, even though it’s a bit blurry because we were shooting on long exposures, but there is this beautiful movement in the shadows and the reflections on the car and the whole background is streaky and blurry because of the motion blur.
RK: It’s much more poetic. If you play with time and motion and the speed of the object and the speed that the camera’s moving, all those variables have a major effect on the look. Even a small change in speed will create a dynamic change in the image. So it’s about refinement and that’s where we’ve found that we’ve come a long way in recent times. The fine craft and fine detailing of the system makes a big difference. It’s not just about setting up a bunch of cameras and pressing play.
FOEC: You’re not just doing the photographic and video side of this, you also have to be businessmen, running it at the same time. How much of an eye do you keep on your competition? Are there a lot of other companies that are even able to do what you do?
RK: We get a lot people calling us up, asking, ‘Can you tell us how to build one?’
TB: As far as other rigs go, there are more and more getting built but as far as people who think about it in the way that we think about it, there’s probably only three other companies in the world that really think about the rig photographically, who really push the technique. Other people are very much focused on doing the same classic, boring effect, which is to move around a completely frozen object or do a little slow motion but nothing else; no real exploration of the photographic techniques that are available to them. So I guess, in that sense, we don’t really worry too much about the competition because we really focus on creating the most interesting techniques that we can and let the work speak for itself. Sure, other companies might get some jobs that we might not get but they’re probably not going to get the same jobs that we will because I think people come to us for something else.
FOEC: Which jobs have you used the rig for so far and what kind of jobs could you use it for that you haven’t done yet?
TB: We’ve predominantly been using it for advertising and live events. Live events are interesting because they’re not very creative but they’re very interactive, which is cool. We also did Rise of the Legend, which comes out soon and that was good because it was much more about the creative process and I think that’s much more where we want to push it. The way these rigs run, they’re quite idiosyncratic and they’ve got a number of things that make them hard to use for any purpose. They’re big, they’re bulky ,they’re delicate, they take a long time to set up and operate.
FOEC: How did the Rise of the Legend producers find you?
TB: Before he was in filmmaking the DP of Rise had worked extensively in advertising and knew people that we worked with and found out about us through them. So he and the director came over from Hong Kong and did some testing with us. They had already agreed on working with a different supplier but after testing with us they found that we had a much more sophisticated system, that gave them a lot more control over the speed of the shot, so we ended up doing it for them. We did two action sequences in the film, choreographed by Sammo Hung. We had two people flying out of a four-story building and fighting in mid air. And we were actually, physically up there, so we built a rig that was about 30 metres long, the top point being ten metres high, and then went down in a big arc, that then rested on the balcony of the building, which was about six metres high.
RK: One of our camera assistants didn’t realise at the time that the rig would be up so high and then he informed us that he could not handle heights. But I think he got through it in the end.
TB: From a logistical standpoint, building something that large – outdoors as well (and there was rain) – posed a whole lot of issues. For instance, with The Matrix everything was shot in the studio, on green screen and there was only the body of the actor. Everything else you see was created later. Whereas this shot was done for real, so there was a real building and the whole rig was supported off that, ten metres up on scaffolding with a hundred cameras. It took three days to set up for that one shot.
FOEC: How many takes were needed to get that one shot?
TB: About twenty.
RK: The real challenge was the fact that you’re shooting with a hundred cameras up in the air, on scaffolding, that’s hard to access and you have to climb with safety harnesses to get to the cameras. If you have a single loose connection on the cameras then you have to walk up twenty meters of scaffolding to change that one cable.
TB: One of the things about these rigs is you need to create what’s called a stabilisation pass. Usually that’s a very simple process. You must have certain physical data in the shot that you can create your stabilisation pass from but the logistics of putting that data in the shot when the rig is suspended ten meters in the air become exceedingly complex [laughs].
FOEC: How much did you work with the cinematographer [Ng Man-ching] once things were actually set up?
TB: Most of the work was done before. Given the massive scale of that shot, we really had to confirm most of it a month or so before we did the shoot because we had to build all the scaffolding and custom-made rigging just to do this one shot. You can’t just make it up on the day. It’s essentially a collaborative effort between the director, DP and us.
RK: We created 3D renders of the shot to preview what we would get and map it all out. The great thing is when you do that and set it all up and then look at the final shot, you go ‘Woah, that’s exactly what we envisioned.’ When you have that level of planning, it really does reduce the risk. You don’t want to set up a massive camera array, then do a test shot two hours before the shoot and go, “Oh, well can we move the position of the camera?”
TB: If you have a regular camera and you want to tilt it up a couple degrees, you can just tilt it, whereas with us if you want to tilt it up, you have to tilt a hundred cameras a couple of degrees [laughs].
FOEC: What is the creative reward and job satisfaction for each of you when working with the rig?
RK: It’s the work out. It’s getting the tools. It’s kind of a cross between tech, art and manly shit. That’s the best way I can put it. We’re using tools, we’re using our bodies, we’re designing creative shots and lighting, we’re doing tech.
TB: It’s practical camera effects, which has been somewhat of a dying art and is hopefully going to have a resurgence – it seems like it’s starting to have a resurgence. And that’s what’s most interesting about [the rig] as a whole: everything we do is done in-camera. You can see the result instantly, once we shoot it. The most satisfying part of it is in creating something quite unique and creative and it all being practical.
RK: We’re learning how to use the rig outside of the normal box. We can do imagery, which doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily a camera array any more. There are ways in which we’re cheating the feel of the cinema technique and making it look less like a moving track and more like a single photographic camera.
TB: We’re trying to get away from The Matrix basically [laughs]. The Matrix is cool but it’s cooler for us to do stuff that makes people look at it and go, ‘Ooh, what is that?’ and you don’t necessarily know what it is.
FOEC: Most filmmakers seem focused only on using these rigs to capture a single action bound to the central axis point. You both talk much more about not just capturing the movement and action within the space but also capturing the space itself and creating a mood with that. It sounds like you’re working a lot more with the mise-en-scène and the production design than most previous applications of this technique.
RK: Yes, that’s basically how we’re going to apply this to real world situations for filmmaking and visual language. A lot of the time we find that we’re educating the directors and the people we work with because they come to us with no idea what they’re dealing with. We need to have long discussions with them about what the possibilities are for the visual language that you can create with this and how to get the best results.
FOEC: Whenever I try to explain what you do, I tell people that you’re working on a bullet time rig or time slice rig and some will have heard of it but I often find myself describing the shots from The Matrix to them and then the penny drops. Can you think of a better name for what you do?
RK: The technical name is a ‘multi-camera array’.
TB: Or a virtual camera – a virtual camera track.
RK: But that doesn’t mean anything to anyone who doesn’t know what the rig is.
TB: With this, the only thing that’s in the collective consciousness is The Matrix. Hopefully, one day, we’ll do something that will be so successful that we’ll be able to say, ‘It’s like that!’ [laughs]
RK: That’s just the way the world works. When a new technology or product is born, then people will always call it by the first name that gets popular. Like a Walkman.
TB: It’s called “dead time” by some people.
RK: Yeah, I don’t know who came up with that fucking name. Terrible.
TB: I think they call it “temps mort”, like in French.
FOEC: Temps Mort sounds much sexier.
TB: Also the way some people speak of it, they’re describing certain techniques that you can use with the array. It’s very hard to put in a single category because there are so many things that you can do with it. It’s a bit like a motion control track and also nothing like a motion control track.
RK: It’s a development of cinema that, after The Matrix, everyone thought would be more widely used in filmmaking. And it has been used a little bit but not to the extent that people first thought it would be.
TB: It needs a revolution in the technology and not just the techniques. If all the practical limitations that you come up against are gone then I think people will use the technique a lot more.
RK: It’s like the throw-out tent. Back in the day, if you wanted to pitch a tent, you’d have to take a big tent bag with all the lines and tent pegs and shit and set it up. Now you can buy one, which you open, throw it in the air and BAM! – it’s a tent.
TB: We envision a rig that you can just pull out of its box and you’re ready to go, like a camera. Because it is a camera, it’s just a really complicated camera that you have to assemble from all these varied components that come from different areas of technology. It’s a modular system, which is great – you want a modular system but not one that is made from adaptations of existing technologies. They’re not technologies designed to work together in the way that we want them to. We can force them to do a certain amount but there’s only so far you can push it in its current form. If you want to look at the technique as a whole – if it’s really going to survive where cinema is going – then you probably need to focus more on cinema and really creative camera techniques and building shots. For that to happen there needs to be a complete rethinking of how the technology is built from the very start and that’s one thing we’re hoping to look into: redesigning these things from the ground up and working out those idiosyncrasies. However [pause for nervous laughter] that is not a cheap enterprise.
More of Splice Boys videos can be seen on their website and their Vimeo page. You can catch their work on the big screen as Rise of the Legend goes on general release in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore from 20th November 2014.
Rise of the Legend (2014) trailer (with subs!)
Many thanks to Splice Boys for all the images used in this article.