Liam Burke

From Discourse-time to Bullet-time: How Comic Books Froze Motion Pictures

Cinema, as described by Lev Manovich, is “the art of motion, the art which finally succeeded in creating a convincing illusion of dynamic reality”. There are no illusions in comics; static images are unmistakeably a fundamental aspect of the medium. The fixed imagery of comics is often seen as limiting, particularly when compared to forms such as cinema that offer a convincing semblance of motion. However, many of these assessments are borne out of misconceptions regarding comics’ means of expression and an ignorance of its possibilities.

Seymour Chatman observes that in literary descriptions “Events are stopped, though our reading or discourse-time continues, and we look at the characters and the setting elements as a tableau vivant”. Chatman goes on to demonstrate how the iconic nature of film images prevents cinema from achieving this “discourse-time”. Eclipsing literature, comics enjoy a limitless discourse-time, as a panel can be read for as long as one pleases. The limitless discourse-time of comics’ fixed imagery was celebrated by Italian director Federico Fellini, who wrote, “the world of comics may, in its generosity, lend scripts, characters, and stories to the movies, but not its inexpressible secret power of suggestion that resides in that fixity, that immobility of a butterfly on a pin”. While the comics may not have lent cinema its “secret power”, this has not stopped some filmmakers from trying to discover it for themselves.

In 1999, The Matrix popularised digitally augmented slow motion, or “bullet-time”. The comic book influence in which The Matrix was steeped was recognised by the creators as being a key component of this technique. Visual effects supervisor John Gaeta explained that the “immediate result of the comic background is the storyboards are far more dramatic, and the moments they select to actually draw, the snapshot in time, is often right on the head, the most maddening, the most emotionally evocative”. Specifically acknowledging comic books in the lineage of this technique, director/writer Larry Wachowski, recognising the different specificities of the forms, stated: “comics are graphic-type storytelling where you could freeze a moment and make an image that sustains. As a counterpart, you can’t really do that in film. We tried to do that”.

As Larry Wachowski points out bullet-time cannot completely recreate the limitless discourse-time of comics, but it does allow for prolonged contemplation of interesting or complex images without the disengagement that freeze frame creates. The technique was popularised through its use in The Matrix, with variations appearing in many subsequent mainstream films, television programmes and video games.
This paper will explore comics’ place in the lineage of a bullet-time, which has become ubiquitous in modern entertainments. It will identify the strategies creators have employed to utilise this new expressivity, and it will address the impact of these near frozen moments on performance, narrative and medium specificity.


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