High-Speed Photography and Time Dilation

A few notes comparing two of Eadweard Muybridge's offspringbullet time photography and the high-speed photo finish system — more than a century after the godfather of biomechanics kickstarted a new science.

The camera

Muybridge pioneered the technological visioning of human movement by having a single fixed-location camera take a motion and strobically break it into individual segments for analysis.


With bullet time photography we take many photos at once to dilate a moment of action/time and create a fluid movement of the "camera" during that dilated moment. In other words, we have multiple cameras shooting from multiple points to create a "virtual camera" that moves on any line that the photographer desires. Although the "virtual camera" is moving, the spirit of Muybridge's technique remains the same. Crucially, however, computer software interpolates between the photographic data points to re-create fluid movement (of the camera) and reconstitute the moving object (though relatively static compared to the camera), thus dilating time.

In the sprint photo finish, on the other hand, Muybridge's technique is exactly the same, except accelerated by a camera taking 2,000 photos per second. Instead of the act of interpolation uniting the discrete image (data points) together, as with bullet time, the computer software removes all images not required to determine the exact moment that a body crosses the finish line — one camera shooting from a single point.


In the case of bullet time photography, time is dilated by the "movement" of the virtual camera, as the sub-component cameras fire sequentially or simultaneously. Through interpolation, we have a particular form of produced spectacle in which we create that which does not occur. Becoming is controlled by a software algorithm.

Photo Finish

In the case of the photo finish, time is dilated with the assistance of the graduated clock ruler at the bottom of the layered image. By eliminating all images save the ones in which a runner crosses the finish line, we effect the erasure of that which did occur. Motion is arrested.

Edge detection

MJ - Bullet Time - Courtesy MJ to the MaxBullet time usually requires the concurrent use of chroma key (greenscreen) techniques in order to construct its spectacular outcome. At that point, colour serves as the means of edge detection such that contours may be traced and the individual subject separated from its environment. Contra Benjamin, it is not so much the aura of the actor's individual performance that is lost, but rather the entire lived spatial environment that is forcibly removed by fiat of computer software.

The edge detection of the photo finish system is more powerful and insidious in that it doesn't require a special background from which to isolate objects and trace their contours relative to the finish line. Although no background is being substituted in producing the final representational output, the ability to detect edges in spite of this becomes all the more impressive.


Comments are closed.