Slow motion is dead

Martin... wants... movies... to... run... at... regular... speed... again...

Neo. Mate. Get on with it.

All right, I’ve finally seen Watchmen. I quite liked it, but there’s one aspect of it that finally took this rant off the back-burner…

I have had enough of slow motion, and way too much of bullet-time. I’ve had enough of film-makers using slomo indiscriminately as some kind of a graphic wank, when its purpose – like all other cinematic techniques – is to further the telling of a good story by heightening tension or emphasising drama.

Want to see slow motion being used properly? Check out the demise of Dermot Mulroney in Jon Amiel’s excellent 1995 thriller Copycat

If it weren’t for the protracted blink and settling doughnut, you’d hardly register the slomo. Christopher Young’s poignant score (which tells us that there’s no hope for Mulroney) indicates that slow motion is being used here to simulate the huge emotional emphasis we attach to painful recollections; the fact that this death is entirely unrelated to the central plot only serves to heighten what a futile waste of life this is.

Ad – content continues below

Obviously slow motion also has a long-standing and valid place in horror and suspense movies too; the ‘tar-stained-stairs’ of Nightmare On Elm Street are in good company with the blood-filled elevator in The Shining as examples where slow motion simulates the inexorable helplessness of a nightmare. Here director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, editor Hervé Schneid and composer John Frizzell bring a back-breakingly tense sequence to a nightmarishly slow motion stand-still as Kim Flowers fails to outswim her pursuer in Alien Resurrection

In neither of the above video-clips is there anyone running (too late) towards the character shouting a Vader-esque ‘Nooooo’ two octaves below normal pitch. Neither do the crucial shots run 6 times in succession from different camera angles so that you can see the effort that went into them. Nor are the shots slowed down just so that we can sate our curiosity, but rather they have a reason for using slow motion, and they’re part of a larger plan by the film-makers and storytellers.

Most importantly, they’re not ‘bullet-time’ shots. I use the phrase in the sense it has come to be understood in recent years, rather than the Matrix-style definition wherein multiple cameras circle an actor to provide a navigable 360-panorama of a fast event. That high-effort, low-application technique has now devolved into ‘video-scrubbing’ shots, where action suddenly slows down and then speeds up again. If all you’ve yet seen of Watchmen is the Comedian’s unwilling exit from his apartment in the trailers, you’ll know that there’s at least one such shot in Zach Snyder’s movie, and there are plenty of others besides.

As a significant event in Watchmen, the one which sets up the whole story, I can just about tolerate the stylism of the ‘scrub’ in the Comedian’s death. Elsewhere in the film, the technique does nothing to advance the narrative or even to excite.

Slow motion is becoming a pornographically reductionist commodity to insert into a movie along with tits, tears, explosions and SFX. It will turn up whether it’s needed or not, whether it adds an extra dimension to a scene or whether it just gives the producers a chance to get extra value out of a really really expensive explosion or stunt.

Ad – content continues below

Why will Hollywood not remember the lessons from the blockbusters it most reveres…? Though the George Lucas backlash still seems to be in full vigour, there’s one thing you can’t fault him on; I could be wrong, but to my recollection I can’t recall any slow motion in his movies. At the very least, it’s far from his trademark style. I remember one interview with Lucas for Return Of The Jedi where he explained his take on what made the Star Wars movies so exciting. Jabba’s sail-barge in RotJ took months of construction in Yuma, Arizona, yet occupies not more than a few minutes of the closing sequence of act 1 of the movie. Not only is the destruction of Jabba’s barge not in slow motion, it’s only given enough screen-time for the viewer to register the event before moving swiftly on. Lucas stated that it was this willingness to lavish so much attention on something and then treat it with such relative indifference that ‘sold’ the Star Wars universe.

And it’s the slomo dwelling-on-the-expensive that intrudes into the suspension of disbelief in more recent blockbusters. I keep watching Michael Bay movies in spite of the lingering slomo, not because of it.

At one time the fact that you had to re-light for slow motion forced directors to think before budgeting the time for it; unfortunately CGI has effectively removed that barrier to thought. But you know what? Even degraded bullet-time is a valid tool in the hands of someone who actually has something to say with it. If you’re looking for a bullet-time masterclass, check out Martin Scorsese’s use of the technique in Raging Bull (1980). Scorsese had special equipment built that varied the light-input to the camera lens when he sped up the film feed during the fight scenes, allowing him to film segments of a shot in slow motion. Check out Taxi Driver too. Check out (some of) Brian De Palma’s best slow motion work as well. These guys are thinking.

You need to pump a hell of a lot of light into a scene to retain depth of field during slow motion sequences, and it was only the advent of greater light-gathering power in cinematic lenses and high-ASA/low grain film stock that began to make slow motion a practical and widely-available movie-making resource in the late 1960s and beyond. The universal switch from black-and-white to colour slowed that process up a fair bit as well, in addition to the fact that slomo eats expensive film-stock at a rate of knots.

Now all these factors can be worked around, and Hollywood can have as much as it likes. All I would like producers to do is to examine the filled-in questionnaires from test-screenings. In the ‘Things I Liked About This Movie’ column, I’m guessing that slomo registers very little among the plaudits for good story, art direction, excitement, fast-moving action and the inevitable T&A.

When I excluded Matrix bullet-time from Top 50 movie special effects shots, I girded myself for a volley of complaints (in concert with laments that Gollum was missing too), and I wasn’t wrong. I have no complaint about whether, as a technique, it was well-done or not (it usually was), just the fact that the effect, cool or not, had nothing useful to contribute to the tension or narrative. This, combined with a bit of resentment that the technique spread like an unwelcome and particularly snotty cold to disjoint loads of other movies and TV shows in the following ten years, from Doctor Who to Watchmen.

Ad – content continues below

I’m not remotely claiming that the noughties has a monopoly on slomo-abuse. The conceit that justified the slow motion sequences in shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman in the 1970s was that slomo was needed to capture events that were too fast to register. To the viewer it was patently obvious that these events, at least in the aforementioned shows, were happening at very regular speeds indeed (if not considerably slower than usual) and that the producers were using the iconography of scientific films to help pad out the runtime and suggest great strength or speed with little more than hokey sound effects.

Neither am I really saying that slow motion is dead. Just that it could use a cup of tea, a bit of a rest and a moratorium on automatic inclusion in action movies. As an effective tool of the trade, slow motion is as valid as it’s ever been; as a cure-all, it’s snake-oil.