When the viewing public thinks of slow motion, they most often envision the time extension of familiar actions and events, such as a woman’s hair flowing in the breeze, water pouring into a cup, glass breaking, etc.
The actuality of these moments, when shot in moderate slow motion, is that they are really the same as regular speed imagery, just more of it.
Ultra high-speed, by point of contrast, can reveal the subtext of these events.
When frame rates move beyond a few hundred frames per second and into the 1000fps, 10,000fps, or 1,000,000fps realm, a window to worlds beyond the perception of the human brain is opened wide. As human beings, we travel at a single speed and single direction along the plane of the 4th dimension. As such, we simply cannot ‘see’ the hidden story within events as they transpire in real time. Ultra high-speed imaging, in the hands of creative filmmakers provides a way to perceive beyond our visual capacities.
When a bolt of lightning strikes, we see a sudden and instantaneous flash in the sky. Photograph that same lightning bolt at speeds of 5000fps or faster, then play that back at 24fps, and we discover that the electrical discharge starts up in the clouds and extends in a series of tendrils to the ground, with a point of brightness at the end where the atmosphere is being burned away. These tendrils spread out like the branches of a tree, with some petering off into the atmosphere while one successfully completes its journey to the ground to discharge its energy. It is an active process with many components, yet to the human eye in real time, it is an instantaneous and simultaneous event.
Our attention and emotions are colored by the ways in which we perceive events. Part of that perception is the speed at which we can observe. The flight path of a bumblebee appears agitated and peripatetic when witnessed in real time. Viewed in ultra slow motion, it appears as a graceful balance of motion. A violent stick fight between Ethiopian Suri tribesmen appears brutally random to our brains until the timeframe is extended to actually reveal a balletic dance of ritual interplay. Akin to the experiment of Pavlov’s dog, we ascribe emotional contexts based in large part to the speed in which we are able to distinguish events.
How can we utilize this function as filmmakers? By altering the speed at which we capture events, we can shift how our audience perceives the emotional context of an action.
Benjamin Bergery, who runs a blog on the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) site, recently published Part One of a revealing interview with Filmmaker Didier Daubeach on how he manipulates perceptions using the alteration of time.
We use many tools to direct the audience, such as lighting, camera angles, movement and edits. Altering the perception of time to create events that were before unseen is a powerful and relatively new tool in our arsenal.