Audiences were awestruck when, in 1999′s The Matrix, actor Keanu Reeves hung in the air, mid-karate kick, as the camera seemingly swung around him. Now, imagine swapping Reeves with a flying frog.
Next month, BBC1 will air U.K.-based John Downer Productions’ Weird Nature, a 6 x 30-minute natural history doc coproduced by the BBC and Discovery U.S. that uses a similar technique, known as time-slice, to showcase extraordinary animal behavior. ‘The difference is, in The Matrix they used still cameras and morphed between the different images,’ says John Downer. ‘For [Weird Nature], the camera was specially built to receive more images, so it relies less on morphing between the different angles. But, the principle is the same – it captures one moment in time from various angles and you can move between those angles.’ This difference also allows for slower movement, ideal for capturing anatomical details and minor movements. Says Downer, ‘We have male and female fish that leap out of the water to lay eggs on a leaf and we capture the moment when they’re in flight together. You don’t want to move that too quickly, because you want the detail to sustain.’
Time-slice photography is an in-camera technique that’s achieved when many cameras are joined to create one big camera. The camera can take many forms, but at its simplest, it’s an arc of about 120 lenses with a camera back on each. ‘It uses conventional 35mm film stock, but it uses two frames as one,’ says Downer. ‘Rather than being on its side, the image scans across the two frames, which are lying on their sides to make one big horizontal frame.’
Downer first used the time-slice technique for natural history filmmaking in the BBC program Supernatural, which began filming in 1996 and took two years to complete. Among the species filmed were leaping dolphins and flying pelicans, captured by a time-slice camera secured to the side of a boat. For Weird Nature, Downer applied this previous experience with time-slice to make the camera movements less predictable. ‘What was exciting in Weird Nature was traveling through three dimensional space,’ he explains. ‘We move around an animal, but then the camera moves off and picks up something else and then it moves past that. It also zooms under it, flies past it – we freed the camera up a lot more around the animal. This also explores a lot more behavior and teases out moments of action the eye can’t see. I think that has a lot more potential. In Supernatural, you always thought you were moving in the same direction. We’ve broken out of that and now feel like we can take this technique anywhere.’
Filmmakers who consider using time-slice photography would be wise to note the technique’s post production requirements. Downer budgeted a minimum of one week in post for a single time-slice. Scenes filmed in a studio needed additional attention, since 360 degree scenery shots needed to be laid in the background. This was particularly tricky for the sequences that move from one animal to another, because live-action shots are included between the time-slice images. The series’ most complicated sequence, which is under four minutes long and includes about 12 time-slices, took two months of post work.
Weird Nature took three years to complete and although it carries a budget of about £2 million (US$2.9 million), Downer says he was able to use the time-slice technique only because he owns his own post facility. ‘It’s more of a feature film or commercial technique. It isn’t really viable on a normal production budget,’ he explains.