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Revisiting the Doom movie’s bizarre first-person action sequence

Hollywood tried to recapture what made the original 1993 Doom game special

doom movie - first-person sequence Universal Pictures

There were other first-person shooters before 1993’s Doom — developer id Software’s own Wolfenstein 3D, for example — but no game captured the zeitgeist quite like John Romero, John Carmack and Tom Hall’s descent into Martian hell. PCs now had an action genre that consoles couldn’t compete with; a keyboard and mouse could deliver precise aiming at a frantic pace.

Doom was a phenomenon that spawned multiple sequels, ports, a legendary comic book and eventually a feature film, each one trying to carry the legacy of that first-person experience forward.

This wasn’t an easy task in every medium. In many ways, Doom was the archetypal video game movie — a legendary franchise brought to life and chock full of action. If this one couldn’t make the jump to the big screen what could?

On the original game’s 25th anniversary, one specific sequence from the film — when the camera breaks away from traditional filming styles to recreate the first-person perspective — is a reminder of what id Software accomplished with nascent 3D graphics and the computing power of MS-DOS.

The Rock in Doom 2005 Universal Pictures

Development on the Doom movie began in 2003, with the project eventually fast-tracked by Warner Bros. to capitalize on the forthcoming, much-hyped Doom 3. A pre-superfame Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Karl Urban were cast to play the two male leads, “Sarge” Mahonin and “Reaper” Gimm, Marines sent to face off with brutal foes in cramped Martian hallways. The movie follows the game’s plot pretty clearly, with hapless scientists accidentally unleashing a horde of grotesque monsters — in this case mutated humans, not actual demons from Hell — in their search for cheap energy.

The majority of Doom plays out as a standard mid-2000s action flick, with lots of CGI that’s not quite up to snuff and wisecracks that don’t land despite Johnson’s easy charisma. But the final stretch of mayhem gets weird when an injection of experimental serum knocks out Urban’s Grimm. When he wakes up, the camera zooms into his eye and whips around, and all of a sudden we’re seeing everything from his point of view as he rampages through the facility.

The sequence lasts a little over five minutes — an excruciatingly long time to maintain a first-person perspective — and was absolutely the high point of the throwaway IP cash-in. Doom departs from “found footage” flicks like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, which work with the conceit that the characters are always holding cameras to record the action, and instead translates the intense action of the video game into a direct cinematic equivalent.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, a Polish cinematographer who shot films like The Verdict, Speed and Species and then shifted to making his own action movies (Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds), made moviegoers feel like they were inside our Doomguy’s head as he blasted through corridors, massacred tons of zombies and confronted an iconic Pinky creature. The sequence doesn’t feel quite like a movie or a video game — the best thing I can compare it to is one of those amusement park rides with big screens and moving chairs.

First-person shots in action movies weren’t uncharted territory before Doom. One notable attempt was Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. The film had a tough row to hoe in theaters; the year prior, Humphrey Bogart had played Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, which was an immense commercial hit. Montgomery was also starring in Lady, and knew he needed to do something different.

At the beginning of the film, Montgomery turns to the audience and tells them that the entire movie will be seen through Marlowe’s eyes as he attempts to solve the crime. From that point on, the audience’s view never wavers. Unfortunately, the cast isn’t really up to the challenge of acting to the camera instead of each other, and the whole experience ends up being pretty awkward.

There are a handful of other examples — who can forget Alex Murphy awakening in his new body in Robocop, or Arnold scanning the area in Terminator? — but most shots before Doom were from a fixed position, making the perspective easier to express. The frantically moving camera of the video game adaptation was a preview of how CGI could make first-person cinema believable.

Doom’s first-person stretch was shot primarily with Steadicams, stabilizers that let operators move their cameras freely while reducing jitter, but not as one continuous take; the sequence took three months to plan and 14 days to film. In an interview from the time of release, members of the visual effects team estimate that around 15 splices were made at various points, then were later obscured with digital effects. The end result was 7,000 continuous frames of live action, followed by 2,000 more that were done completely as CGI.

doom 2005 first person action scene Universal Pictures

The hands seen on-screen don’t belong to Karl Urban. Due to the angle, animation supervisor Kevin Spruce created CGI replacements, including one for the gun. The team originally tried to shoot real hands and weaponry using a green screen, but realized it would be nearly impossible to match the changing lighting conditions throughout the sequence. Even in the bits when you see Urban’s reflection, it’s actually a CGI double.

For all the work the team put into the first-person segment, Doom was resoundingly panned by the critics. The movie suffered from a mediocre script and sometimes cheap-looking set design. But that five minutes of first-person cinema would have some serious repercussions.

Argentine director Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) is infamous for his willingness to test his audience’s limits, but when he wanted to push the viewer deep into the experience of a drug dealer named Oscar at the end of his life in 2009’s Into the Void, he took a page from Doom’s book. While it’s doubtful that Noe saw the contemporaneous video game adaptation before working on the movie, it’s a fascinating comparison: The audience rides along in Oscar’s skull as he gets set up by his friend Alex and is shot to death by police officers. Since we’ve spent so long in Oscar’s perspective, it comes as a huge shock — and then when his consciousness rises out of his body and embarks on a wild, hallucinatory journey to reincarnation, it’s even more powerful.

Noe’s rich, artful compositions stand in stark contrast to the somewhat chintzy-looking sets of the video game movie, but the two projects used very similar methods behind the scenes. Every shot of Noe’s film was edited and polished with CGI to make it flow seamlessly, with one of the strangest details being the blacking out of occasional frames to simulate Oscar blinking.

A similar experiment in seamless perspective shifting — if even more ambitious — came with Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant 2013 film Gravity. After the Explorer shuttle is destroyed, Sandra Bullock’s astronaut wakes up floating in empty space, with the camera placed right inside her helmet. Cuaron and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki built a tremendous amount of equipment to create the film’s vertiginous visual effects, which again were executed by mixing real footage with CGI.

Another unconventional director with a love of first-person scenes is Wes Anderson, who likes to deploy them when his characters are riding in or driving vehicles. The naturally centered composition of first-person shots lines up very well with his extremely stylized aesthetic.

The most notable advancement in big-screen, first-person POV came with 2016’s Hardcore Henry, directed by Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller. Starting out with a GoPro, Naishuller posted intense, kinetic first-person shorts to YouTube that brought him to the attention of Hollywood luminaries. They ponied up the cash for Hardcore Henry, a film shot entirely through the eyes of a violent cyborg on a mission to rescue his wife from kidnappers.

Seventeen different unseen stuntmen play Henry in the film, using GoPro cameras strapped to a bespoke “Adventure Mask” made by Sergey Valyaev. A complex system of magnets was used to stabilize the cameras as much as possible to reduce nausea in the viewer. Still, Hardcore Henry is ... a lot to watch. Even if it were filmed traditionally, the film would be an exhausting ballet of ultraviolence.

Next year, Tony Giglio (S.W.A.T.: Under Siege) will deliver a new Doom movie for Universal’s 1440 division, unrelated to The Rock’s 2005 attempt. Giglio tells Polygon that the film will revisit the first-person sequence. And why wouldn’t it? The POV is at the heart of the source material. Still, Giglio hopes to find his own perspective on the aesthetic.

“We will be using the first-person perspective but not like the first film or for long extended periods,” Giglio told us. “While Doom is widely known for pioneering the first-person perspective, it’s not ‘new’ anymore. So I wanted to find a way to give a nod to it, but not have it dominate or distract or take you out of the film.

Giglio says his Marines have a “heads up” display on their visors, which will allow the movie to shift into the first-person perspective on a whim, and in a very video game move, show viewers the character’s location on a map and other valuable info. “We went for subtle homage instead of hit over the head,” he says.

While “subtle homage” may be a foreign notion to the Doom franchise, Giglio will add a new layer to Doomguy’s history next year. The choice to put the player in the action hero’s shoes for such an extended amount of time was daring in 2005, but movies have come a long way. Doom’s first-person sequence was a daring experiment in capturing the frenzied intensity of the source material, one that defined how people think about video games for a quarter-century. But just as technology has reshaped the Doom games over and over and over, so too will new filmmaking tools redefine first-person in 2019 — and likely beyond.

K. Thor Jensen is a writer and cartoonist who lives on a tiny island in a big ocean with his family. He has been excavating the upside-down of the internet since 1997.