Interior. Day. A man walks into a store to buy an item. Paying for the item, he hands over a small-denomination bill to the woman behind the counter, who, distracted, gives him way too much change. On his way out of the store, he realizes, and returns to the counter to alert the clerk of her mistake. What a nice man, how decent of him, end of pretty boring story.
But hang on, let’s run it again — this time in super slow motion.
The man… walks… up… to… the… counter… Oh my god, it’s an evil bastard, intent on carrying out some obscure horrible misdeed. Watch out, woman! Trickery and sleight of hand! Fiend! No, wait — he’s turning around… handing the money back… Oh my god, this is the sleekest, most heroic act we’ve ever seen — but hold the phone once more! Look at the eye contact he’s giving her! Oh my god, they’re falling in love with each other, and here we are witnessing the lightning of genuine connection. What a transaction! What a roller coaster! What a journey! Also, what was that item? Whatever it was, I need to buy one of those too!
Okay, maybe this doesn’t work so well on the page (so much for that career as a screenwriter). But you get the point: For some reason, the mere act of slowing down something, anything, leads to all sorts of weird emotional alleyways; it makes us manically interested in the most mundane details of what’s going on, and liable to read in tons of inner-life detail that isn’t really there.
We all know that slow-motion footage leaves us wide open to manipulation. It’s become such a cliché of action movies, music videos, true-crime documentaries, political attack ads and product marketing that we tend to see it as one of the cheapest tricks in the filmmaker’s handbook. We’ve all lost hours to dicking around with it ourselves, since slo-mo filming was included as a feature on smartphones. And it’s presumably how conspiracy theorists see the world.
Yet directors still make use of the technique all the time, because they know that, no matter how wise to it the audience might be, slowing the action down just works. Like victims of a stage hypnotist, when the action goes glacial, we’re wide awake but suggestible af, every time. Why do we keep falling for this shtick? Surely it’s conclusive proof that, just as we’ve suspected all along, all humans are idiots.
Or perhaps not. According to filmmaker Lawson Deming, our love of low-gear imagery might be a hypertrophic version of our natural human curiosity. “Slow motion is fascinating because mundane objects take on a completely different aspect when you observe them outside the bounds of normal perception,” he says. “It just tickles the brain when you present something that supersedes our natural senses.”
Deming’s intuition about this led him, in 2016, to create one of the most ambitious and arresting pieces of slo-mo photography in recent memory: The title sequence to the CBS series The Good Fight, in which elegant household objects shatter or explode in glorious, super-slowed tinkle-o-vision, to the strains of a squalling neo-Baroque orchestral score by the composer David Buckley.
Gorgeous, isn’t it?
Deming came up with the concept to represent the world of top Chicago lawyer Diane Lockhart (the show’s central character) dramatically falling apart; she is forced out of retirement in the first episode when her life savings are lost to a financial scam, and all the exploding vases, decanter, laptop, office phones and furniture constitute, says Deming, “a representation of how fragile the trappings of ‘success’ are.”
“We wanted the destruction to feel graceful and clean,” he explains, “and so we tried whenever possible to minimize the smoke and fire from the explosions and make it feel like the objects were self-destructing, rather than being affected by an outside force of any kind.”
The technical challenges in extorting maximum beauty from milliseconds of breakage were huge. To capture the detail, he and his visual-effects production company, Barnstorm VFX, increased the frame rate at which the objects were filmed to an obscene 25,000 frames per second — more than a thousand times the industry standard of 24 frames per second. This was necessary, Deming says, in order to let viewers peer, god-like, into the instant of detonation itself. “The violence of an explosion is at its greatest at its inception, so we needed to go up to a high frame rate to control that initial split second of destruction. The extreme frame rate allowed us to re-time the speed of the effects any way we wanted to create a more consistent feel, by reducing the acceleration of the initial blast and then increasing the speed of the subsequent debris.” (Watch it again, and you can just about make out those high-definition gear shifts, deftly blended in time to the percussion.)
No Business Like Slow Business
Few directors have gone to such extreme (and expensive) lengths to show us the inner beauty of insurance claims, but as an artistic technique slo-mo-ing goes all the way back to the earliest days of filmmaking. The effect was happened upon in 1904 by a moviemaking priest in Austria, looking for ways to reduce flicker in film projections — but who, tragically, was too slow off the mark himself to capitalize on his discovery — and the retarding effect of “overcranking” (essentially winding an Edwardian movie camera’s handle too fast, so the action is rendered much slower when it’s played back at normal speed) was soon taken up as a deliberate technique in an era of exploration of the new art form.
In the early 20th century, exponents of expressionism and horror, in particular, looking for ways to exploit the new medium’s potential for bending and twisting reality, found overcranking a useful technique for exploring madness and terror. In Au Secours!, French director Abel Gance’s horror short from 1924, about a brave gent who takes a bet that he can spend an hour inside a haunted house, the Chaplin-esque hero performs an eerie slow-fast-slow trampoline dance to suggest disorientation and vertigo (afterwards he checks his watch, reinforcing the sense of time being dicked with by supernatural forces):
A more artful example from the era comes from Jean Epstein’s 1928 rendering of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Building a sense of Gothic dread, slow motion is the star of one lengthy sequence that riffs on time passing slowly in the most literal way — by hyper-fixating on the inner workings of a grandfather clock.
Action-slowing was also applied by some of early cinema’s most celebrated figures, such as the Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein. His famously harrowing montage of the massacre on the Odessa steps in 1925’s Battleship Potemkin includes sped-up and slowed-down moments to help convey the chaos of a stampeding crowd (although speed wasn’t actually manipulated in the iconic shots of the runaway baby carriage, so often imitated in slo-mo shootouts of later years). Another pioneer of slow-motion aesthetics, troublingly, was the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. In her two-part film documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia, segments featuring divers and discus throwers are slowed to become hypnotic studies of athletic bodies in motion.
While some later critics have hailed her more experimental sequences as a groundbreaking artistic advance, many viewers, citing the film’s cutaways to Hitler in the crowd, have condemned them as gratuitous Aryan porn (though it’s perhaps worth pointing out that Riefenstahl didn’t restrict the slo-mo treatment to white competitors). Either way, it’s an early demonstration of slo-mo as a natural fit for propaganda, and its capacity to be both epic and deeply sinister at the same time.
Jump-cutting to its more modern, commercial manifestations in moviedom, increasingly sophisticated instances of overcranking have been the calling cards of Stanley Kubrick (who used it to turn gang brawls, chimp tantrums and blood torrents into ballet), Brian “Baby Carriage” De Palma, and Sam Peckinpah. A few directors have arguably built whole careers out of particularly memorable treacle-paced scenes. Quentin Tarantino’s lingering shot of craggy bank robbers leaving a diner at the start of Reservoir Dogs (which wasn’t actually filmed in slo-mo, but artificially grafted to half-speed during the edit) was the fanfare to, and kind of microcosm of, his whole subsequent career. And British heist-meister Guy Ritchie is synonymous with his inventive decelerated action sequences.
For Deming, Ritchie is a standout plod-time practitioner, particularly for his technique of alternating slow and fast motion, “both to simulate characters’ perceptions, as in the Sherlock Holmes films, and for reasons of pure style and fun.” He says, “I vividly remember the opening sequence of his first feature film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with the combination of quick cutting and super slow motion, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
Like the Reservoir Dogs title scene, which will forever be associated with the song “Little Green Bag,” the overall effect here relies heavily on the music. In fact, it’s often the music as much as the action that springs to mind when we recall a classic slo-mo moment. And, from Apocalypse Now and Chariots of Fire to Watchmen and Zombieland, it turns out there’s a very pragmatic reason we see so many of them inserted into opening sequences, weaponized by an iconic soundtrack moment.
As Deming explains, while watching slow-motion imagery is nearly always engaging, any sound recorded with the event, when slowed to match, results in an awful dirge that usually kills the dramatic mood. “Hence,” he says, “I think a lot of the time, music is used for purely practical reasons. Slow motion is also frequently part of montages or other abstract sequences as well, so music just seems to fit well with it — you’re pairing abstract visuals with abstract sound.”
So while hitting the brakes on the visuals often gives us a sublime insight into the universe’s hidden secrets, doing the same thing to the audio just gives us the sound of the universe yawning in our face.
Time-Lapses in Judgment
Outside of the world of narrative filmmaking, slow-motion footage doesn’t need an artful director to fully capture our attention. Illustrating this on a regular basis are the ongoing experiments conducted by The Slow Mo Guys, two British slo-mo bros whose YouTube channel has amassed a staggering 13.2 million subscribers. They’ve achieved cult internet status by filming condoms in wind tunnels and hanging out with Will Smith, and generally capitalizing in a fun, infectious way on our universal fascination with movement that transcends human experience.
But in training our awareness so keenly on sedated events, slow-motion footage also distends and distorts our understanding of what’s going on — and, in certain situations, this can have damaging real-world consequences.
Eugene M. Caruso is a behavioral scientist at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, who has conducted research into the biasing effects of watching slowed-down footage in real-life situations — such as action-replays in televised sports and juries viewing video evidence in court. According to him, “Our experiments show that when viewers see a replay in slow motion, rather than real time, they’re more likely to see the action as intentional.”
In findings published in 2016, Caruso and his collaborators detail a study in which test subjects were shown genuine surveillance footage of an Illinois store robbery gone wrong. A five-second clip shows a man with a gun backing away from an unarmed store clerk then shooting him. In showing this to people, Caruso found that when people saw the footage slowed to 2.25 times normal speed, they tended to attribute far more intentionality — and hence more moral culpability — to the shooter; compared to those who saw the events at regular speed, they were more often convinced this was a homicide carried out in cold blood, as a “willful, deliberate and premeditated” act. “In essence,” says Caruso, “watching these sorts of actions unfold over longer amounts of time makes them feel more premeditated — as if the actor had more time to think before acting.”
In fact, statistically modeling their results on to likely jury verdicts, the researchers estimated that panels composed of people basing their judgments on the slow-motion version of events would be four times more likely to form a unanimous opinion that the robber acted with a premeditated intent to kill than those who’d only seen the evidence at regular speed. As the paper points out, this gap in how we perceive intent has huge real-world implications: “[It] may mean the difference between concluding that an act was aggressive or calculated rather than clumsy or impulsive. In legal proceedings, it may mean the difference between lethal injection and a lesser sentence.”
To judge for yourself, you can see both versions of the surveillance-camera clip embedded in the online edition of Caruso’s paper (scroll to three-quarters down the page, and be warned that you might find it disturbing to watch).
Chillingly, not only does our urge to project plans and calculations become more powerful with time-manipulated footage, it tends to remain even when we’ve been made aware of the cognitive biases it’s introducing. “Because our perception of time is subjective,” says Caruso, “it can be influenced by seemingly incidental factors, such as the speed at which people view another’s actions.” Psychological time is all over the place compared to “clock time,” in other words. And so once exposed to a distorted version of events, we struggle to correct our interpretation back to a “natural” frame rate.
“One striking aspect of this phenomenon is that the effect [of inferring intentionality] tends to persist even if you know about its existence,” says Caruso, who isn’t immune to being swayed either. “I have a similar experience — viewing actions in slow motion still feels different to me, even though I realize they aren’t ‘really’ different than at regular speed.”
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the heavy rotation of slow-motion effects in crime documentaries and political ads that target opposing candidates. A deliberate thrum of beats and/or a sinister electronic bass tone are all the cues we need for our imaginations to conjure menace, plots and obvious guilt, even though we know it’s all straight out of Hokey Image-Doctoring 101.
“Our theory doesn’t predict that slow motion should necessarily increase sinister intent,” Caruso caveats. “Rather, it predicts it will increase beliefs about either positive or negative intent.” While using slo-mo to lead us by the nose in a positive direction seems less common, it turns up here and there in advertising. A particularly cheery instance was this commercial for the Gap, which aired in 1998, and used the influential “bullet time” style of advanced, “tracking” slo-mo, a year prior to the technique’s landmark appearance in The Matrix.
As a connoisseur of how slowed-down action affects our perception, Caruso points to another of Ritchie’s movies as a particularly compelling illustration of the relationship between slo-mo and intent, citing Robert Downey Jr.’s bare-knuckle fight scene in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes: “The slowing and speeding of time, coupled with the voiceover describing events just before the viewer sees them unfold, creates for me a powerful sense of control and deliberation as he dismantles his opponent.”
Sherlock Holmes might be able to cope with the minutiae of events flowing by in ultra-high resolution, but as for the rest of us, we’re clearly not fully qualified to absorb the world in slow motion. Perhaps it’s precisely because it’s so alien that we find it so alluring. As Deming suggests, “It’s very difficult for us, with our individual experience and finite perception, to conceptualize all the metaphorical machinery working under the surface of reality, and so to get just a taste of it in this way is mind-bending and almost addictive.”
But it might also be that what makes us fall under its spell so readily is that it reminds us of how we used to see the world as kids — when we were more engaged with life, more of the time; when everything still shone with a little of that newness and unfamiliarity that sharpens our focus and keeps it fixed on a tight zoom; and when all of us ran at a higher frame rate relative to what was going on around us. And for an ingenious representation of how painfully slowly the adult world grinds on from the perspective of an eight-year-old, check out the DMV scene from Zootopia, which might just be the most perfectly realized piece of slo-mo moviemaking of all.
It may be that tuning into things happening in slow motion is the shortcut to mindfulness that a distracted world is looking for — and there’s a fair bit of research out there that makes that connection between mindfulness techniques and the elastic nature of psychological time.
Whatever the metaphysical appeal, though, slow motion seems to be the one movie trope we’ll always have an appetite for — it’s not going anywhere fast.