Life of a bullet


Year: 2005.

Type: opening credits to the movie Lord of War.

Visual Effects supervisor: Yann Blondel.

Created by: l’EST.

Availability: free online (3.01 minutes, free on YouTube).

Page reference: Cook, I. (2011) Life of a bullet. ( last accessed <insert date here>)

Lego re-creation

Life of a bullet



The movie’s most powerful visual is an opening credit sequence that traces a bullet’s journey from a factory to an African war zone and ultimately to its tragic final target: the forehead of a child soldier. With economy and brutal clarity, the image argues the film’s point far more effectively that the remaining two hours (Source: Di Certo 2005, np link).

Utilizing Buffalo Springfield’s instantly recognizable song, For What it’s Worth, the segment in this film follows a single bullet from the time it’s a flat piece of metal, through the factory, around the globe to various armies, into a magazine, down the barrel of a rifle, and finally into the unsuspecting head of a human being. It’s like a story within a story, and honestly it’s probably my favorite part of the entire film (Source: Nastasi 2010, np link).

[The movie] literally starts off with a bang. The films opening credits, scored to Buffalo Springfield’s For What Its Worth, are shot from the point of view of a bullet as it makes its way from a Russian factory … into the brain of an anonymous young African man. He may be a killer himself, or he may be an innocent. The bullet doesn’t care… (Source: Anon 2005, np).

The opening credits of Lord of War might be the best couple of minutes at the theater all year: a roller-coaster ride during which the thrills give way to chills, with which the rest of the film simply cannot compete (Source: Wilonsky 2005, np).

Lord of War’ has a pretty amazing intro. You are a bullet going through the factory being made, inspected, etc. It’s set to “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield which is quite an upbeat sounding song. Basically you go through all the processes of being made and then are put into a crate in the factory. Then the crate is opened up and you’re at a port. The contents are inspected briefly and then sealed again. Then the crate is opened up a second time and you’re somewhere in Africa. You are thrown onto the floor with all the other bullets then picked up and loaded into an AK-47 (you can hear gunshots in the background). Then then gun you are in begins to fire (still to the tune of “For What It’s Worth”) and all of a sudden you fly out of the barrel and straight into someone’s head, with it going into extreme slow-mo just before the moment of impact so you can look deep into their eyes. The second you hit the screen goes black and the music cuts out and you are given a few seconds of black to regain your composure until the rest of the movie begins (Source: happynoodleboycey 2008, np link).

(The title sequence is) a continuous shot from a camera mounted on the back of a bullet casing - illustrating the lifespan of a bullet. - Gunpowder is poured into a metal casing, lead slug mounted on top. A bullet is born. A perfect 39mm. - The bullet travels along a conveyor belt with thousands of identical siblings in a Ukrainian factory so grey it's monochrome. - The bullet, picked up by a ham-fisted Ukranian factory worker, is tossed into a crate. - The bullet, lying in its open crate, rolls down a chute where it's inspected by a Ukranian military officer holding a manifest. He seems to stare directly at our bullet. Ukranian officer (to his subordinate carrying a manifest, in Ukrainian) Call it 'agricultural machinery'. - The bullet crate rattles around in an open-bed truck along an industrial road, passes a decapitated statue of Lenin. - The crate containing our bullet is placed on a ship in the cold grey Odessa harbor. A container door closes, plunging the bullet into darkness. - The door re-opens. The bullet, still in its crate, now basks in bright, tropical sunshine, surrounded by an azure sea. - The crate is removed by a pair of slim, dark hands, revealing a glimpse of the bustling, weathered port of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. The crate is one of dozens unloaded from the ship. - Bullet's POV from another open-air truck, now slogging through a mud-clogged road in lush rainforest. - The bullet is unloaded from the truck in Freetown, Sierra Leone - immediately grabbed by the young hand of a RUF soldier. - The bullet is loaded into a 30-round magazine which is inserted into an AK-47 machine gun. - The bullet waits - in the gloomy chamber. Suddenly, from outside, the sound of raised voices and gunfire. - The bullet and its neighbors start to rise quickly up the magazine towards the chamber as the Kalashnikov is fired. - Our hero bullet is next. Will it see action? - Smack. The gun's bolt strieks the explosive cap, gunpowder ignited, the bullet driven out of the barrel. - Shed of its casing - now only a slug - the bullet emerges into bright sunshine. It is flying down the main street in Freetown. - The bullet gives us a perfect point-of-view of the bullet ahead of it. They are both flying towards their intended target - a wild- eyed child soldier, a boy no more than twelve, firing an AK-47 almost as tall as he is. - The leading bullet narrowly misses, whistles past the boy's ear, striking the whitewashed wall behind - one more pock-mark in a building riddled with pock-marks. - Our bullet, following close behind, finds its mark, slamming into the boy's forehead just above his left eye - his expression, oddly relieved. - The bullet carves through the lobes of the boy's brain where it is enveloped in blood, finally plunged into darkness - the bullet's final resting place (Source: Niccol nd, np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

L’E.S.T. visual effects supervisor Yann Blondel talks about the digital techniques he employed for key sequences in Lord of War opening ‘bullet factory’ titles. At the beginning of the sequence we dive on a machine. This machine has been created/extended using CGI and some animation has been added to it. That shot had also been accelerated and stabilised. Inside the machinery everything is CGI until we emerge on the conveyor belt. The conveyor belt itself is CGI and the bullets are as well. The background needed to be reconstructed in CGI because the camera was waving a little too much and we wanted a straight trajectory. When the bullet is picked up, the actor and the hand have been shot against green screen and composited on a CGI background. After being tossed back on the conveyor belt we fall in a tube. Here, again, everything is CGI until we fall in the crate full of bullets (which is obviously CGI). We emerge on the second conveyor belt. The background has been retimed and stabilized. Here only the foreground is CGI. It’s exactly the same case when the crate is opened in the Ukrainian Harbor. When the crate is opened again in Africa it’s another story. When the bullet falls and rolls on the ground everything is CGI. We had shot a nice movement but the distance with the ground wasn’t good. We had to recreate the whole background in CGI to gain a couple of inches! And as there were moving elements it wasn’t simple. Then the bullet is tossed in another crate full of ammunitions (all CGI). While being loaded into the truck and travelling through the jungle the crate and the bullets are CGI. In the street, until we get thrown on the ground, only the crates and the bullets are CGI. But when we get loaded in the magazine everything is CGI from background to the magazine and the barrel of the AK47. And then, when the bullet is shot we only added a CGI bullet, some guys fighting in the street, accelerated and stabilized the shot. Software details: XSI, Shake, After Effects, Photoshop and Matchmover for 3D tracking. VFX: L’E.S.T. (visit the link for some major vfx shot breakdowns and stuff) (Source: maxdiamondhead 2007, np link).

[Director] Niccol does note that the opening was the last thing he did on the movie, and that he had to call in a lot of favours to complete the complicated shot. “There are times when people work for nothing on a movie. In this case, people actually paid the production to work on this sequence” (Source: Knight 2006, np).

Discussion / Responses

Reminiscent of the center-of-(wide)frame-focused opening to The Naked Gun, the knockout title sequence to “Lord of War” is a first-person narrative where the “I” happens to be a bullet. We bear witness to the life and death of the little guy. Sadly, the HDR-based CG imagery robs the piece of its realism; it’s obfuscatory where it might be stark. While well intentioned, the execution is incredibly clinical -there is too much message and not enough heart. You want a bulleted reality of war? … The lensing is exquisite but calculated to a fault while the timeless music of Buffalo Springfield serves as a kind of mawkish plea, an unnecessary retread. And the child endgame plays as yet another manipulation; he wouldn’t be standing stiff in the midst of a firefight because he wouldn’t last with the given sight lines. As it -he- stands, the blocking of the actor contradicts a primal predilection towards self-preservation. As this doesn’t make sense, the slick stylization does not serve. The sniper duel in Saving Private Ryan succeeds because of a rooted context which subsumes an implausible end. That context is missing here. We struggled for some time with this post. The first person POV reminds one of a first person shooter video game and never seemed suited to the subject matter. Now I wonder, was the gaming correlation part of the intent? (Source: Anon 2008, np link).

A bullet in the head always seizes the imagination or at least the audience’s attention, but because the African is merely cinematic collateral damage, the image registers both as showboating and as a warning shot for the problems to come. The screenwriter for ‘Lord of War,’ Andrew Niccol, lavishes a great deal of time and many words building a case against guns; unfortunately, the film’s director, who also happens to be Mr. Niccol, enjoys playing with toy guns. His words may say no, but his overworked, overslick visual style says lock and load, baby (Source: Dargis 2005, np).

Talk about overanalyzation. How would YOU film the life of a bullet? Maybe the music was cliche, but this P[oint]O[f]V[iew] treatment makes the weapons a character in the story as much as the actors. / … / I understand what you’re saying with regards to glamorous manipulations, but I agree that this particular example has been over analysed. For a start the credit sequence has to both tell a story and credit the makers of the film, so bumping up the abstraction allows for the narrative to be absorbed whilst not demanding so much concentration as to render the text invisible. … I would also wager that the video game similarities were unintentional. All in all the arms trade is an extremely complicated and unpleasant issue. This sequence was, in my opinion, very competent and capable in it’s compression of that issue. / … Overall the whole title sequence, in a nutshell, follows the same path as the protagonist in the film and summarizes his choice of work. The bullet is created, sold, and forgotten. It just happened to find itself in the back of a child’s head, much like the weapons Cage sells. / When I first saw this opening title in the cinéma, I wept. I suppose at further analysis I allowed myself to be manipulated by the “mawkish plea”–however, at the time I felt I had seen an incredibly beautiful short film and could have left the theater satisfied. I still think the piece is both literally and figuratively from the bullet’s POV and thus the issues mentioned in the original post actually seem well-motivated. In short, I dig it. / … / …  the game like POV gives it even more character and a feeling of neglectance. Guns and bullets don’t kill people, people do. / … The idea is good. We see the life of a bullet from birth to death, but I just think it’s executed (no pun intended) very weakly. In short I think it’s trying too hard. There are similar “life of a bullet” sequences in Wanted, but they work a) because they are way better made and b) the tone of the film is ridiculous/fantastical anyway. … As for the music, it’s typical of a Hollywood film; dry, dated and irrelevant. I like the song, but it’s an ill fit here. / … I don’t understand the complaints about the CGI or the clinical execution, though. I’m not sure I would want someone striving for realism, warmth and heart in recounting the life of a bullet from its POV; obviously the simple fact of choosing that viewpoint means there is a specific (and probably anti-war) point to be made, and that’s to the good. Portraying the bullet’s life, its very existence, as a cold and clinical fact is a big part of what gives the sequence its force. / …  It would be good too applied to the tobacco work, a cigarette “life” were we could see how it’s done (and the shit they put on them that is not tobacco) until it modify some cell inside the lung so the cancer starts… It’s a good answer for people that deny their responsibility in things that have a clear and obvious end, that means we are all part of a chain, and the last link of it is not the only important one. … / … although those commenting here may be right about what the child is doing, i too remembering being a bit taken out of the sequence by that part. it certainly didn’t have the impact it should have because i couldn’t figure out why anyone would be standing still out in the open. however, i’ve also seen youtube footage of actual firefights in iraq by untrained, barefooted young men who almost got their heads taken off because they’re doing the most idiotic stuff – like standing out in the open firing randomly / ... My gripe is that the music conflicts with the visuals (no pun intended). The industrial creation and journey of the bullet is cold and stark, but the music comes from an era of freedom and protest and humanitarianism. I would rather there be no soundtrack music at all, simply the sound effects of the machinery, the jostling noise of the transport, and a final BANG! at the end. It would have been a lot more dramatic, and would ratchet up the chills and the seriousness of the subject matter considerably (Source: Dan et al nd, np link).

… to analyze a given phenomena, one must ‘trace’ the connections by following them as they lead the social scientist along their own path. Instead of a leap of faith between different levels of reality (local, regional, global), one has to map out the actual conduits through which these areas are connected. One must trace the connections established between global actors and local actors to such a degree that one could, in principle, explain the subjective manifestations of global dynamics. This means, for example, following an innovation as it progresses from a laboratory to a published paper, to a set of colleagues, to a venture capitalist, to a marketing team, to a distributor, to a collection of stores, to the public, and to their friends through word of mouth and advertising. Similarly, with conflict, one may want to (as best as possible) trace the line of a weapons shipment to its embroilment within a particular battle. The opening scene of the movie Lord of War is emblematic here: portraying the creation of a single bullet in a factory, and following it as it is checked for quality assurance, packaged into a wooden container, shipped abroad to a rebel group, loaded into a weapon, and finally used to kill a man in a conflict. (Source: Srnicek 2010, p.38).

The UK DVD release of Lord of War includes, prior to the film, an advert for Amnesty International, showing the AK-47 being sold on a shopping channel of the style popular on cable networks (Source: Wikipedia nd, link, this advert is in store here).

Lord of War's titles have the brutal clarity in construction, clear polemical purpose and cold anger of a John Heartfield photomontage. Like the TeleShop ad, they use a degree of estrangement to make us see an over-familiar situation with fresh eyes, but the film titles opt to stick closely to the reality of bullet production and use, which is much more uncomfortable. The repeated image of two fingers picking up the bullet, and the blank expressions of men peering at it, underline collective responsibility for the arms trade. Jokes are beside the point here. The sequence compels us to face up to what we already know (Source: Poynor nd, np link).

Outcomes / Impacts

Experts from Amnesty and Oxfam exposed the failings of international regulations that allow arms dealers and gunrunners to ship weapons into the world's worst conflict zones, and arms those who are torturing and massacreing civilians. Brian Wood, one of Amnesty International's researchers on the international arms trade, said: ‘The sad truth is that this film is largely based on facts. Gunrunners really are able to fly and ship weapons into conflict zones where civilians are slaughtered. They can arm some of the world's worst human rights abusers. Yet the lack of legally-binding controls means that, like Nicolas Cage's character, they can laugh in the face of the law. When people leave the cinema a lot of them will say 'that's awful, but Nicolas Cage's character would never get away with it in real life'. But arms brokers and transporters can and do, even in the UK. That's why governments worldwide must bring the international arms trade, including brokers and transporters, under very strict ethical control.’ Anna Macdonald, Head of Campaigns at Oxfam, said: ‘Filmgoers don't have to sit back and accept this. If people are shocked by this film, they can do something about it. Just by visiting they can join our campaign and help bring this deadly trade under control. It's the world's poorest people who suffer the most from arms proliferation. An Arms Trade Treaty is desperately needed, to stop the flow of arms to abusers and to help make all our societies safer.’... Amnesty International, Oxfam and IANSA (International Action Network on Small Arms) have joined forces to form the Control Arms campaign, calling for an international Arms Trade Treaty that would introduce tough, legally-binding controls on the trade in deadly weapons. Already Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has voiced his support for the campaign. But more needs to be done before the treaty gains worldwide acceptance. The organisations are asking people to join their online Million Faces Petition at (Source: Amnesty International UK 2005, np link).

The ‘Lord of War’ is a powerful drama highlighting the horrors of the Arms Trade. An erstwhile 'Gun - Runner' confronts himself, his actions and what he has become responsible for, in moral dilemma.The Bromley and Orpington Amnesty group are presenting a screening of ‘Lord of War’ (cert 15), in the Wesley Room, at Orpington Methodist Church, Sevenoaks Road, Orpington. The event will be free, but donations would be welcome on the night (Source: Davis 2010, np link).

I was struck this week by the impact of a simple advert that, coupled with the film it was preceeding, has brought about quite a bit of contraversy and talk with my mates, here and particularly in the USA. ... And the film was Lord of War. I just thought it was good to see two mediums – Amnesty International and Hollywood – complimenting one another in such a powerful way (I’m sure AI gained prestige and LoW increased in sales)… It just struck me as a possible alternative to conferences… mass appeal thru movies coupled with awareness and action available thru related groups (Source: DAMNFLANDRZ 2006, np link).

Sources and further reading

Amnesty International UK (2005) Control arms: campaign reveals arms trade realities behind new Nicholas Cage film Lord of War. 14 October ( last accessed 4 August 2011).

Amnesty International USA (nd) Lord or War - education guide. Amnesty International: New York ( last accessed 4 August 2011)

Anon (2005) Opening today. Philippine Daily Enquirer 12 October

Anon (2008) Lord of War. Art of the title sequence 15 August ( last accessed 21 March 2011)

DAMNFLANDRZ (2006) Comment on Brewin, K. (2006) Is It time for positive discrimination at emerging church events? 26 March ( last accessed 4 August 2011)

Dan et al (nd) Comments on ‘Lord of War’. Art of the Title Sequence ( last accessed 25 May 2011)

Dargis, M. (2005) Guns Are Evil. Everybody Should Have One. New York Times 16 September

Davis, J. (2010) Lord of War. 22 January ( last accessed 4 August 2011)

Di Certo, D. (2005) Lord of War. Catholic News Service ( last accessed 19 January 2011)

happynoodleboycey (2008) Best movie intro? (discussion). 3 March ( last accessed 21 March 2011)

Knight, (2006) Mixed up with the wrong crowd: Director of gun-trade movie needed help from arms dealers. National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada) 24 January

maxdiamondhead (2007) Lord of War title sequence. 27 June ( last accessed 21 March 2011)

Nastasi, A (2010) Quick list: five amazing opening credits sequences. 29 June ( last accessed 19 January 2011)

Niccol, A. (nd) Lord of War: a sreen play. ( last accessed 24 June 2013)

Poynor, R. (nd) Finger on the trigger. Eye magazine ( last accessed 4 August 2011).

Srnicek, N. (2010) Conflict networks: collapsing the global into the local. Journal of critical globalisation studies 2, p.30-64 ( last accessed 21 March 2011)

Wikipedia (nd) Lord of War. ( last accessed 4 August 2011)

Wilsonsky, R. (2005) Good shot: Lord of War unloads one of the year’s best cinema moments. Dallas Observer (Texas) 15 September

Compiled and Legoed by Ian Cook, thanks to Matthew Clifford & Tommy Sadler (last updated June 2013).