In the climactic gun battle of John Woo´s deliriously nutty identity-switch action film Face/Off, the two enemies-Cage and Travolta-and their sidekicks fire away at each other with Berettas and Glocks; you can see densely detailed plumes of smoke erupt from the muzzles, obscuring the shooters´ hands. As bullets emerge from weapons, thousand-foot-per-second velocities slow to a graceful glide, until the spin from the spiral rifling of the gun barrels
is clearly visible. It looks like a beautiful bit of computer-generated-image graphics-less fancy than the ripple-wake, stop-dead bullet magic in the new Matrix movies, but somehow more real.
That’s because the Woo images are more real than CGI: Real bullets were slowed on film by a one-off, hand-built device called the Millisecond Camera, shooting 12,000 frames per second. For all the advances in digital effects, 35mm film still offers more information for the eye: “When you really look at it, you can tell it’s film,” says Nathan Nebeker. “You just don’t get that richness of detail with CGI.” Nebeker knows what ’s talking about. He is the owner of a company called Conniption Films, and he made the Millisecond Camera.
Nebeker’s camera bears scant resemblance to standard movie cameras. “You couldn’t make a mechanical shutter open and close quickly enough,” he says. “[And] there are physical limits to how fast you move film through a camera. To go really fast, you have to move the light to the film.” In his camera, a loop of film rotates rapidly in a drum, whose housing is emptied of air to reduce friction. A rotating mirror and a series of optics directs a “slice” of light to each frame. At speed, the camera holds only enough film for a hundredth of a second’s worth of action, but that’s not quite the problem it sounds: A bullet flies 10 feet in that time.
But the most extraordinary thing about the Millisecond Camera may be this: In Nathan Nebeker’s world, 12,000 frames per second is an excruciatingly slow clip. Running Conniption Films is Nebeker’s second job, a Hollywood- and TV-focused spinoff of the family business: building really-high-speed movie cameras. Cordin Scientific Imaging, based in Salt Lake City and headed by Nathan Nebeker’s father, Sid, has been in the sometimes secretive service of the scientific and military community for almost 50 years. The fastest cine camera produced by Cordin today is unimaginably quick: One second of images taken with the 200-million-frames-per-second digital model would take 96 days to view if played back at standard movie speed.