Creator Q&A: Capturing NYC moments with a new spin on bullet-time
Paul Trillo's latest masterpiece takes us on a mesmerizing tour of New York City. Spinning through quiet scenes and intimate moments, it's a dizzying, dazzling display for the senses:
Once our heads stopped spinning, they began reeling with questions.
Vimeo Video School: How did this project come about?
Paul Trillo: As a semi-follow-up to the 41x41 piece, Nokia Brand Labs first approached me with the opportunity to use the Lumia to create a bullet time type effect — basically capturing the same moment across multiple cameras.
Originally, we were to stage a red carpet event and shoot it with a 180° camera rig that pivots around actors. When it became clear that the time to develop the technical aspects of this were going to take a while we scrapped the idea.
Eventually, I pitched the idea of taking this bullet time rig outside of the studio and doing something completely mobile. I thought it was the best use of a smart phone camera. Their size and weight made it more feasible to move 50 of these things around.
I was less interested in doing something big and staged and more interested in quiet intimate portraits. I feel you can become desensitized to your environment when living in New York. This came out of a need to be more aware of one's surroundings. New York is filled with interesting, bizarre, and unique people and moments. If you open yourself up to all that potential you'll meet some amazing people.
VVS: How the heck did you capture these images?
PT: Potentially the scariest part of this project was figuring out how capture these images.
"Bullet time" (dubbed after “The Matrix,” which made it famous) is a multi camera array that takes a photo at the same instant from slightly different angles. When played back in an image sequence it creates a frozen time effect.
Although this effect has been made popular for a while, we had a unique set of challenges by using Nokia Lumia 1020s instead of DSLR cameras.
We quickly realized that we had to come up with a hack to get the 41 megapixel on the Lumia 1020 to fire at the same time across multiple devices. By some luck or miracle, we met an amazing Windows developer by the name of Jesus Aguilar. He created an app for us called Sekenzer that triggers a photo across all the phones at the same moment.
After we sorted all that out, we aligned the cameras along an arch. We really wanted to do something different than the standard 360° or 180° approach. That's where the idea of the arch came in.
VVS: How does the typical approach work, and how does your approach differ?
PT: The standard 180º or 360º places the camera on a circular rig (like a giant expensive hula hoop) that revolves around the subject in the center. By turning the rig upright to create an arch the pivot point becomes the ground plane. This was done partly for creative reasons and partly for practical reasons. In the arch orientation, it was easier to move the rig around and place subjects in front of it without disturbing them from their natural setting.
To my knowledge, I don't believe a camera array arch has been made like this. The closest thing I can think of is a full circle portal type camera array created by Tim Macmillan, a visual artist, who was one of the first to experiment with this frozen time effect.
VVS: How many images are used to make each of these scenes? How many images were captured for this project?
PT: We had 50 phones, so each image sequence is made up of 50 photographs. We had about a 1-in-5 success rate with every time we fired the app. If we had an incomplete sequence, we'd have to shoot it again. So we wound up with almost 29,000 photographs when it was all said and done. Which is about 550-600 takes.
VVS: What programs and processes did you use to put it all together in post?
PT: After all the photos were organized, which was an insane and mind-numbing process, the image sequences were brought into After Effects. Since we were only working with 50 frames (about 2 seconds), the sequences were slowed down with Twixtor, then put through image stabilization to smooth out any discrepancies in angle. Finally, after I worked out the order, I did simple animation to create the seamless camera motion between shots.
VVS: Had you done something like this before? Where did you learn these techniques and what prepared you for this project?
PT: I have wanted to do something with this frozen time technique for some time. A lot of my previous work is about manipulation and perception of time and space. It felt like a natural progression in line with work I had done in the past. This project was incredibly unique, however, with very specific technical challenges. I don't think there is any way I could have prepared or anticipated the problems we ran into.
VVS: And what problems were those? Did anything unexpected happen that you had to adapt to or learn from?
PT: Pretty much all of it was unexpected. When we ran our first test of the app, the photos were about a half a second out sync. It was pretty disconcerting since the whole effect relied on the images to be captured at the same moment. There was a moment where I saw the whole project fall apart and didn't think it would work.
Eventually, Jesus was able to limit the latency in time between cameras to about 0 to .02 milliseconds. That latency can be seen in some of the moments where people are twitching. It definitely wasn't a desired effect but it was the best solution we could find while making this 100% mobile in a short timeline.
VVS: How did you find your subjects and choose these particular scenes?
PT: The point was to document real life in a surreal way. So I really didn't want actors or scenes to feel false. I had set specific locations where I knew we'd encounter interesting characters (we shot on the west side of Central Park, Union Square, Washington Square, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown). Once we got out on the street, we just sort of stopped people at random who we thought had interesting looks. It was important to get a range of people so it felt like a slice of New York City's population.
VVS: The audio really takes this piece to another level. What was the process of recording the audio?
PT: I thought the audio component would add another layer of reality to an otherwise unreal effect. I wanted to create the feeling of passing through scenes and how it feels to over hear people talk. Each subject that appears in the video was interviewed about their day. We met some awesome people and it sort of made me appreciate New York all over again. In some ways I had never felt more like a tourist and on the flip side of that had felt far more connected to the city.
VVS: What was the biggest challenge in creating this piece?
PT: Pretty much every aspect of this was an equal challenge. There was no instruction manual for what we were doing so it was pretty DIY from beginning to end. We had a lot stacked against us: From figuring out how to rig 50 devices onto a relatively small surface area; to custom designing the arch, mounts and app; to ensuring the mobility of this beast of a machine; to avoiding wifi and electrical interferences so that the photos could fire; to finally compiling everything into a seamless sequence. The pieces eventually all fell into place, but yeah, I'm happy it's done.
VVS: What was the greatest reward?
PT: The Vimeo Staff Pick was definitely the biggest reward. It was incredibly encouraging and increases the visibility of the video tenfold.
Also, we met the voice of the Subway announcements who says "Stand clear of the closing doors." He recorded a voicemail message for me which was pretty awesome.
Paul Trillo puts a spin (literally) on the bullet-time camera effect popularized by The Matrix with his pivoting 180° camera rig fashioned from 50 Nokia Lumia phones. Look out, Keanu.
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