Like anyone who has spent two hours waiting at the DMV can attest, emotional states are affected by the perception of time. In filmmaking terms, we want to take a moment to discuss one of the most commonly used time manipulation techniques – Slow Motion – and how it can be used to add deeper, emotional intensity to a scene or sequence.

How to Use Slow-Motion to Create Iconic Moments

The Art of Slow Motion in Film

Watch this video essay

In The Art of Slow Motion in Film, a video essay by The Discarded Image, specific examples of slow-mo usage are explored and explained by Julian Palmer.

Palmer’s examples are informative and cinematically significant, showing some of the most creative uses of slow motion in the last 60 years. As filmmakers, we should take inspiration from unique uses of slow-mo, but also study the common patterns in which its utilized.


Using slow-mo for action sequences

Action and war films often heavily feature the use of slow-motion. As the epitome of chaos, battle scenes use slow-motion to redirect the viewer’s attention to important details that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The control of time is the viewing experience. Using slow-mo in action scenes allows filmmakers to "paint" within the chaos, create drama on a grandiose scale, and achieve a deeper impact.

Inception - Epic kick scene

300 features some of my favorite uses of slow-motion battle sequences. Cinematic, emotional, and strangely stunning, the slow-motion utilized here helps to tell the whole story of the battle while also communicating the feel of the fight.

Scenes slow down so we can relish all the details of the moment, and then speed up again to build excitement. The effect is visceral and epic.

300 — Fight scene

War movies, battle scenes, and in general, scenes with a great deal of action, utilize slow-mo frequently. While every film is not as visually poetic as 300, many will employ a unique approach to slow-motion to enhance audience immersion.


Slow motion death scenes

Bonnie and Clyde - Final scene

Second only to battle scenes, and often combined with them, are death scenes. Palmer uses the final scene from Bonnie and Clyde, where the two protagonists are unsuspectingly pumped full of bullets. Amidst this intense moment of violence, Clyde falls in slow motion as his life gradually comes to an end.

Film speed changes throughout the short sequence but ends with both bodies slowly slumping into their final resting places. Capturing those last few moments in slow-mo allows the viewer to explore every facet of their deaths, while also feeling the intensity of every bullet.


Slow (e)motion

Any time a filmmaker uses slow-mo, they’re choosing to drive attention to small details. In doing so, those details achieve significance. Similarly, when slow-mo is used to focus on a character’s emotional reaction to a person, place, or event, the moment becomes significant.

Palmer uses several Scorsese films to exemplify this principle. Slow-motion shots of characters from Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Casino show different scenarios in which the characters’ thoughts and feelings are put on clear display.

Casino - Ginger's mission in life was money

My favorite example is this scene from Casino. The slow speed of the film emphasizes the moment Robert De Niro’s character falls in love with Sharon Stone’s character.

As he watches her toss mounds of chips up in the air, time comes to a complete standstill. From the steady push towards De Niro’s eyes, to the slow-motion walk on Stone as she weaves through the crowd, Scorsese makes sure the full weight of this moment is made clear to everyone.


Slow mo intoxication or altered states

Judge Dredd examples

Finally, and perhaps my favorite example from Palmer’s video is Dredd where characters take a street drug called “Slo-Mo” to alter their perception of time. During these drug-induced sequences, the entire film slows down to reflect their heightened emotional and mental states.

While the ‘slo-mo’ drug may be specific to this film, it demonstrates that slow motion is a powerful way for an audience to share a character’s experience of intoxication or altered perception.

up next

How These Films Use Doors

Slow-mo is just one technique in your filmmaking toolbox. To heighten the emotional impact of your scenes, you can also check out Learn How Oscar Winning Films Use Doors To Tell Better Stories and 6 Ways To Turn Movie Props Into Iconic Symbols.

Can you think of any other recent uses of slow-mo that were particularly unique or inspiring? (Deadpool is my first thought!)

Up Next: Use Doors To Tell Better Stories →
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  • A freelance writer and producer, Mary has worked on a wide variety of independent and commercial projects, in addition to her ongoing work as a digital comedy writer. Currently, Mary works with several notable YouTube channels including Legend of Katie, Chocolate Ghost House, and Nani Nani Kids. She is also a co-founder of Infinititty Comedy, a female-centric sketch group dedicated to placing women in the film positions which offer creative control.

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