Of the many tools and techniques at the filmmakers’ disposal, slow motion has to be one of the simplest, most widely used, yet incredibly powerful ways to present a scene. Action, horror, comedy, music videos, dramas, sports movies, and entire YouTube channels have all utilized slow motion to great effect. Let’s break down some examples and examine why slow motion works so well.
OK Go: The One Moment
I’ll start with a meticulously and mathematically crafted music video. According to the video, the shot took place within 4.2 seconds. However, when the footage is slowed down and tweaked for timing, it syncs up perfectly with the 4-ish minute song. Check out the official behind-the-scenes for the music video here. This video by Siska came out a year earlier than the OK Go video and employs a similar technique. It was filmed at 1,000 frames per second from a car driving 50km/h past extras lined up in a row. Both work amazingly well due to the sheer amount of planning and production that goes into these shots. The timing must be perfect. So much is happening that our eyes must catch tons of visual information. Most of the details can’t be seen in real-time, which lends itself to repeated viewing to understand the entirety of such an ambitious project.
Sports movies are always chock full of slow motion. And it’s easy to see why: slowing down fast-paced action heightens the drama and puts the viewer in the shoes of the athletes making the final shot, crossing the finish line, or scoring the winning goal. As the drama unfolds, we, the viewers, hold our breath in suspense. Drawing out moments in a game that would be over in a flash creates a more cinematic experience.
The race scene in Unbroken uses a combination of real-time running spliced in with segments of slow motion. The slow-motion portions allow the viewer to see more of the actor’s emotions during the race. You get a better feel for the mental struggle that is going on, raising the stakes and engrossing you more in the story. Another sports movie example is the Touchdown Scene from Any Given Sunday. They present the slow motion in this scene almost in real-time, but it uses more exaggerated camera movements and “flashes” from the player’s vision to draw out the moment from a viewer’s perspective.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Nearly every fight scene in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World utilizes slow motion for comedy and action. Whether it’s the characters casually discussing an enemy’s weak spot as they’re about to get pounded or the huge impact of punches and kicks, the slow motion is there to sell it. After a big hit, the bodies floating and flying through the air heighten the drama.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World also combines fast-paced editing with slow-motion shots. This technique creates a fascinating contrast between the slow-mo and the fast-paced editing cuts. The editors and VFX artists in the film also use some trickery, combining shots with real-time footage of one actor and slow-motion footage of another actor. This effect is done by filming each actor separately on a green screen at different film speeds and then combining the shots in post! There’s nothing quite like the “What do I do?” in slow motion as Scott is about to get hit.
Say what you want about this incredibly stylish film, but it utilizes a ton of unique slow-motion effects that help sell the idea that our characters are somewhere foreign. When Jennifer Lopez’s character enters the mind of her subjects, the world is slowed down or muffled slightly to really emphasize that this is not the real world. Furthermore, gravity appears to be gone or inverted, lending to engaging slow-motion visuals. (These were likely created by suspending the actor in the air and using a wind machine, combined with slow-motion filming.) You can see similar “dream-like” effects in the film Inception, where the dream world can be slightly “off.”
This is why the use of slow motion works. It’s an added layer or element that’s not necessarily flashy or extreme, but instead it’s ever-present and washes over each scene it’s in, giving more of a “vibe” that plays to our viewing experience.
And of course, speaking of Inception, you can’t overlook the use of ultra-slow motion for the van flying off the bridge and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb getting pushed into the bathtub.
Slow motion isn’t only for use in narrative fiction! The Mythbusters have spent years blowing things up, shooting things with various weapons, making things go exceptionally fast, breaking objects, and testing all sorts of high-speed reactions. All in the name of science. Science and slow motion kind of go hand-in-hand on television. The slow motion on Mythbusters wasn’t just necessary but also incredibly fascinating and beautiful at times. The main reason it worked so amazingly well. The amount of information and scientific data they could collect by breaking down their tests frame-by-frame is part of what made the show so interesting, and what made the visuals so compelling. You can hear Adam Savage’s breakdown of working with high-speed cameras on Mythbusters here.
Slow Motion Honorable Mentions
The internet is full of amazing slow-motion videos—everything from experiments filmed on smartphones to Reels/Shorts/TikTok videos to famous memes. Gimme Pizza is one of the absolute best slow-motion meme videos. This type of slow-motion is created simply by slowing down the original footage and enjoying the hilarious results. Voices become slowed and delayed, creating comical effects. This type of slow-motion effect has even become popular with music. Many songs nowadays are remixed with a “slowed and reverb” version, such as this remix of Call on Me by Eric Prydz. Artists even release their own slowed versions of popular tracks, such as this Slowed Version of Heat Waves by Glass Animals. And, of course, one of the most popular internet slow-motion channels is The Slow Mo Guys. With nearly 15 million subscribers, it is clear that slow motion still draws in viewers!
Creative projects have been using slow motion for decades. Filmmakers and creators have blazed completely new paths that heighten this method of filmmaking. It doesn’t have to be 1,000 frames per second to be effective, either. A better understanding of these slow motion examples and implementing them in your projects can put a new spin on your video work that wows viewers!