Note: This post is partly a reply to a question someone asked me, back-channel, about slow motion, but also partly due to my general interest in how time works in narrative, and in brevity and stasis (and “the ongoing”).
Slow motion is created by presenting film footage at a slower rate than it was shot at. The principle is as old as cinema itself. In 1879, Eadweard Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, which allowed him to project his 1870s photographic motion studies as animations. (Film projection is, interestingly, older than film-capture cameras.) It was observed immediately that repeating the photos 2:1 (double-printing), or spinning the zoopraxiscope slowly, would slow the motion down.
An aside: In conducting his motion studies, Muybridge lined up multiple cameras that were activated by tripwires. (The motion picture camera wouldn’t be invented until 1890.) This same technique would later be resurrected as “Time-Slice” or “Bullet-Time,” popularized by the Wachowskis in The Matrix.
After the jump I’ve arranged a partial history of slow motion in cinema. It isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list; rather, I’ll point out what I consider memorable or otherwise significant uses of slow motion.
But first, I thought it would make sense to look at this excellent YouTube video on undercranking, an analysis of a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931):
Slow motion is traditionally achieved by doing the exact opposite of undercranking: “overcranking,” or shooting at more than 24 frames-per-second (or 16 in the case of a silent film). The footage can also be slowed down after shooting, in post-production, where frames can be double- or triple-printed (etc.). (Computer editing has made this easier than ever before.)
Another aside: Today, we often think of silent films as moving “too quickly”; this is because they were shot at slower rates than today’s films (16 frames-per-second instead of 24 fps). Sometimes, as this above video demonstrates, they were indeed then meant to be projected faster, for instance to achieve a comedic effect. But most silent films are meant to be projected at slower speeds, at which point the motion appears normal (although it’s still somewhat jumpy, due to the lower frame-rate). Old sound projectors could be set at sound (24 fps) or silent (16 fps) speeds (since both sound and silent films were in circulation in the 1930s).
OK, on to the slow motion!
1924: René Clair, Entr’acte
How can you not love a film that opens with Erik Satie and Francis Picabia jumping around in slow motion next to an animated canon?
This second version (bottom) has an alternate score that’s not half-bad. It’s higher quality than the first one, which has Satie’s original score. You can mix and match! (Both feature the complete 22-minute film.)
1929: Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera
Vertov, like Jean Cocteau (see next), was a restless innovator, and his most famous film features all sorts of cinema trickery, including slow motion.
This version isn’t the greatest quality, and it has a questionable contemporary score, but it is the full 68-minute film. (There’s also a Google video version, here, with the same modern soundtrack.) For anyone interested in the artificiality of cinema (or who thinks that metatextuality started in 1963), Man with a Movie Camera is a must-see.
Another point worth making: Vertov explored cinema’s artifice, but he was also greatly concerned with real life, and Man with a Movie Camera is a documentary film. Documentation and realism need artifice in order to exist, and there is no inherent reason why artifice and documentation need stand in opposition to one another—a conclusion we still have trouble accepting today, despite Vertov’s example.
1930: Jean Cocteau, Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet)
Possibly my favorite Cocteau film (and it’s really a shame that the full thing isn’t up at YouTube). The use of slow motion here is very subtle: check out the falling smokestack at the 2-minute mark. The rest of that shot doesn’t occur until the very end of the film, implying that everything that occurs (and what does occur!) happens during the duration of that tower’s crumbling. A great example of the dream-time cinema is capable of creating. (We’ll see Cocteau again and soon.)
1932, Rouben Mamoulian, Love Me Tonight
As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note in their classic text Film Art, the hunting scene in this film offers a somewhat unusual example of slow motion being used for comedic, rather than dramatic, effect. See in particular minutes 8:30–9:25 in this clip:
…but I’d really recommend that you watch the whole thing. It’s one of the greatest movie musicals ever made!
1933: Jean Vigo, Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes diables au collège
Vigo uses slow motion more than once throughout his absurdist film debut, for instance in this pillow-fight scene toward the end:
Click here for the entire film—a much nicer quality copy with English subtitles. Watch and learn where Guy Maddin stole 9/10 of his films from! (Just kidding I love Maddin.)
1936: Joseph Cornell, Rose Hobart
After cutting it down from 77 minutes to 19 (his favorite shots of star Rose Hobart), Cornell projected his 16mm print of East of Borneo (1931) at silent speed (16 fps). (He also projected it through a sheet of blue-tinted glass, accompanied by junk-shop samba records.)
The whole short film is up at YouTube.
Cocteau never missed a chance to play with his footage. See, for instance, Belle’s arrival at the Beast’s castle, starting at 8:20. (The full film is up at YouTube but it’s easy to come by the gorgeous Criterion DVD.)
1946: Maya Deren, Ritual in Transfigured Time
Deren was heavily influenced by Cocteau’s work (which just shows she was smart). And, yes, that is Anaïs Nin (as the “Haughty Woman”). Gore Vidal also puts in an (uncredited) appearance.
1965: Kenneth Anger, Kustom Kar Kommandos
I’m not sure how much actual slow motion this film uses, but it’s important to point it out, because Anger had a major influence on both Martin Scorsese and David Lynch (who will both be showing up soon). Anger’s influence on comtemporary cinema cannot be overstated.
1964–6: Andy Warhol, Screen Tests
Warhol shot the screen tests at 24 fps, but like Cornell, projected them at 16. The slow-motion effect is subtle (since the subjects are sitting still), but striking.
The Screen Tests are meant to be projected silently, but of course when people put them up at YouTube, they enjoy setting music over them. (Well, that’s understandable.) So you’ll have to turn the volume down on the next two to get something closer to the original effect (or don’t turn it down, and pretend you’re watching a black-and-white Wes Anderson film):
This may be sacrilegious, but I think “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the second song (“It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills”) sound pretty nice when played at the same time.
1967: Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde
This film’s violent ending (a rather intricately edited montage) achieves some of its shocking effect by intermixing slow and regular motion.
1969: Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch
Peckinpah used slow motion in many of his films, intermixed with regular motion, as in this film’s ending:
1971: Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange
Kubrick opens and closes the film with slow motion:
…and he employs the technique elsewhere throughout the film, for instance in this fight between Alex and his droogs. (He also uses fast motion in places.)
1975: Blake Edwards, The Return of the Pink Panther
See minutes 3:00–6:30, Clouseau’s battle with Cato. This clip is dubbed in Italian, but they left the original slow-motion shouts in, so you’ll still get the full effect.
1976: Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver
Both the opening and the ending make dramatic use of slow motion.
See in particular 4:27–6:41 in this clip, taken from near the end of the film:
1980: Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull
Like Kubrick, Scorsese uses both slow and fast motion throughout the film.
1980: Jean-Luc Godard, Sauve qui peut (la vie) (US title: Every Man for Himself; UK title: Slow Motion)
I’m convinced that this—Godard’s return to theatrical filmmaking and the beginning of his late “Romantic” period—is one of the man’s greatest films. Sadly, it’s not available on video in the US (although there is a UK Region 2 PAL DVD).
Godard’s uses of slow motion are heavily influenced by his 1970s video work—he reapproached film with an almost-transcendent sense of the medium’s plasticity—and rank among the most unusual I’ve ever seen. You can get a taste for them in this clip (which also features some of Gabriel Yared’s incredible score):
(Godard was, of course, heavily influenced by Dziga Vertov.)
1980: Tim Macmillan begins his Time-Slice experiments
As mentioned earlier, he was returning to Muybridge’s original (and by then mostly forgotten) idea. See this 1993 BBC documentary for more on Tim Macmillan’s innovative—and ultimately very influential—work.
1982: Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi
In his 1980s answer to Dziga Vertov, Reggio uses both extreme slow motion and extreme fast motion (and everything in between) to present “life out of balance”:
You can watch the entire feature film at YouTube, albeit occasionally interrupted with commercials. (Note too that this is the letterboxed edition, and that there’s been some controversy over the film’s correct aspect ratio.)
1985: Accept, Midnight Mover
This music video borrows its technique from Macmillan, but speeds up the resulting footage:
1986: John Woo, A Better Tomorrow
Slow motion has long been a staple in action films (Kurosawa slowed down certain scenes in Seven Samurai (1954), for instance), but no one has used the technique more extensively than John Woo (whose contributions to the action film are still being felt).
The following fan-made video gives a good overview of Woo’s signature techniques/motifs. Slow motion is featured throughout:
1990: Pixies, Velouria
This is a random observation, but the way that Joey Santiago exits the frame early on, only to reenter toward the end (and then exit once again), has always reminded me of Ariel’s final leap in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). I like to think that this means Santiago is Ariel.
The Pixies supposedly made the above video solely so that the song (surely one of their best) could get played on Top of the Pops (which it then didn’t). It’s easily my favorite of their videos: the tension between the song and the footage is utterly exquisite, and the mountain they’re running down might be Mount Shasta itself, underneath which is hidden—as we know from Frederick Spencer Oliver’s 1894 novel A Dweller on Two Planets—the lost civilization of Mu, otherwise known as Lemuria:
I know she’s here
I can see the tears
Plus it’s fittingly symbolic how quickly Kim Deal gets left behind by the others, while Frank Black’s the first one to reach the camera (filling the screen momentarily with his torso).
While we’re on this topic, the video for “Dig for Fire/Alison” is my second favorite Pixies videos—and it, too, features extensive slow motion:
1993: Douglas Gordon, 24-Hour Psycho
In this structuralist/minimalist/conceptual art work, Gordon projected the entirety of Psycho (1960) over 24 hours.
Among other things, Gordon’s piece allows careful study of the shower scene montage. (And I’m not sure the above is an actual clip, but either way it conveys some limited impression of the piece.)
Gordon speaks some about the project here:
(Of course some wag made 24-second Psycho.)
1994: Suede & Howard Greenhalgh, The Wild Ones
Countless music videos have used slow motion. I included this one not because I like it (the song is warmed-over U2), but because it supposedly employs the Time-Slice technique. That said, I don’t think that it does—it looks to me as though the actors are just holding still while the camera moves:
I also wanted to point out that the title of the album that this hails from, Dog Man Star, is a reference to Stan Brakhage’s film cycle Dog Star Man (1962–4). Stereolab isn’t the only band that steals its album titles from experimental films!
1997: David Lynch, Lost Highway
“This Magic Moment”
1998: John Woo, Face Off
All of Woo’s films since A Better Tomorrow feature extensive slow motion, but I’m singling this one out because it was his first US film to be widely seen. (I’ll confess it’s also one of my favorite films of the 90s.)
1998: Gap kakhis commercial
I put this here mainly because I adore Louis Prima. But it also makes a nice segue to…
The original film popularized the Bullet-Time effect. I prefer the uses of slow motion in the second film, however: the fight scene at the chateau (throughout, but see in particular 2:27–2:33), and the fight on the freeway.
2000: Kar Wai Wong, In the Mood for Love
Wong has used slow motion in all of his films, but In the Mood for Love was of course his mainstream breakout hit.
2001: Wes Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums
Anderson is a fan of changing the frame-rate in the middle of shots. I believe he actually creates these effects the old-fashioned way, altering the frame-rate while filming (“in-camera”). See 0:35–1:25:
2002: Brian De Palma, Femme Fatale
The most interesting parts of this film, I thought, were its extreme slow-motion sequences (which occur in a sea of more traditional slow motion). Surprisingly, none of those scenes seem to be up at YouTube, but here’s a fan-made trailer that conveys some of this film’s reliance on slow motion:
2004: Kar Wai Wong, 2046
My personal favorite of Wong’s films.
2007: Interpol & E. Elias Merhige, The Heinrich Maneuver
Yes, that E. Elias Merhige. This one recalls the “Velouria” video.
2009: Zack Snyder, Watchmen
Whetever else one might say about this film, its opening credit sequence is quite extraordinary—easily the best thing Snyder’s done. I also think that the repetitive nature of Dylan’s song fits the slowed-down action very well.