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.
In The Art of Slow Motion in Film, a video essay by The Discarded Image, specific examples of slow motion 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 motion, but also study the common patterns in which it’s utilized.
Using Slow Motion for Action Sequences
Action and war films often heavily feature the use of slow-motion. As the epitome of chaos, a battle scenes often use slow motion to redirect the viewer’s attention to important details that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The control of time is the control of the viewing experience.
Using slow-mo in action scenes allows filmmakers more time to paint within the chaos. To create drama on a grandiose scale and to achieve a deeper impact.
The film 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.
The scenes slows down so we can relish all the details of the moment, and then speeds up again to build excitement. The effect is both visceral and epic.
War movies, battle scenes, and in general, scenes with a great deal of action, utilize slow motion 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
Spoiler Alert: Final Scene from Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
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.
The speed of the film changes throughout the short sequence but ends with both bodies slowly slumping into their final resting places. Capturing those last few moments in slow motion allows the viewer to explore every facet of their deaths, while also feeling the intensity of every bullet.
Any time a filmmaker uses slow motion, 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 all the more signifiant.
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.
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 Motion Intoxication or Altered States
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.
Palmer’s examples demonstrate pretty universal principles for the use of slow motion that you could apply to your own projects. At its core, slow motion builds significance in a moment. It allows the viewer an opportunity to experience the subtle details of a moment that, at normal speed, would largely lose its impact and meaning.
If you want to explore more awesome slow-motion scenes, check out What Culture’s List of 10 Innovative Uses of Slow Motion in Movies. For a practical walkthrough of how slow-motion footage is shot, check out this post from NoFilmSchool.
For a deeper, theoretical look at how slow-motion is perceived by the human mind, check out PixelArtist’s essay on The Effects of Slow Motion on Viewers’ Emotional and Cognitive Processing.
Slow motion 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 motion that were particularly unique or inspiring? (Deadpool is my first thought!)
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