Features and Columns · Movies

How the Special Effect of Slow Motion Works

Here’s a breakdown of how slow motion went from a technological hurdle to an aesthetic choice.
The Matrix Slow Motion
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on January 27th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about how slow-motion effects work.

Slow-motion is one of those things I think I understand until I’m actually pressed to explain what it is. Which is exciting! One of the best feelings in the world is untangling something you took for granted and figuring out how it works. It’s like learning a new recipe or solving a puzzle. It makes the way you experience the world just a little clearer. And that’s neat!

So, the visual effect of slow-motion: how does it work? Well, from the name you can ascertain that it has to do with the way time feels on-screen. And when it comes to moving images, how time feels is largely beholden to frame rate, or the number of consecutive still images that appear on a display per second.

We associate cinematic “real-time” with twenty-four frames per second (fps). By stringing together twenty-four consecutive frames, we experience the illusion of motion, just like a flipbook. Now, if you were to shoot one second of film at 60fps and set it to playback at 24fps, that one second of real-time would now take 2.4 seconds to play out. The motion would appear slowed and unblurred because there are more frames to stitch the motion together. So: the more complex and fast the motion, the more frames will be necessary to sell the illusion that time is moving slower and to keep things from looking “jumpy.”

But all of this is much better seen than described. So, press on to today’s video essay which breaks down not only how the effect works, but how it transitioned, over one-hundred years of film history, from a technological hurdle to an established trope and aesthetic.

Watch “How slow motion works“:

Who made this?

This video is by Vox, an American news website owned by Vox Media, founded in 2014. They produce videos on news, culture, and everything in between. This video is a part of Vox Almanac, a series run by Phil Edwards. You can follow Edwards on Twitter here. You can subscribe to them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.