How slow motion works

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Slow motion is a key part of modern visual culture, from iPhone selfies to movies. So how does it work?

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In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards explores how slow motion works and how it became a part of movie history. It’s a history that starts at the very beginning of photography, when pioneers like Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge discovered that capturing images required capturing motion, too.

Slow motion was key in the silent film days, in which camera operators would overcrank their cameras (slowing down footage) or undercrank (speeding it up). These experiments could range from goofy to dreamy. Soon after the addition of sound, Hollywood embraced a standard speed for movies — and slow motion became an even more important tool.

As the video shows, it showed up in sports reels, movie musicals, and artsy French dramas. And before long, it was part of the action movie landscape too, from Seven Samurai to Bonnie and Clyde.

Today, we take for granted that slow motion is one of the available tools to moviemakers, whether they’re working on an iPhone or a Hollywood set. And it probably won’t stop anytime soon.

Further reading

This issue of American Cinematographer is a time capsule look at the adoption of the key sound film technology used in early movies, Vitaphone.
https://archive.org/details/americancinemato07amer/page/n37/mode/2up?q=24

Most academic writing that touches on slow-mo focuses on individual filmmakers, like this essay by scholar Ludovic Cortade.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n14t.13?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Finally, if you really want to nerd out on film history, this is a copy of the Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, in which they started developing a frame rate standard and discussed synchronization of sound and film.
https://archive.org/details/transactionsofso29soci/page/294/

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