Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Slow-mo musings [August 19]

The slow-mo effect: it gets me every time. The footballer leaps for the ball, the lovers lean in for a kiss, the lost dog runs to its owner, time slows down and I feel a prickling behind my eyes. It’s the oldest cinematic trick in the book but I can’t stop myself tearing up. Why does slow-motion footage have such an emotional impact?

The internets are full of this stuff. You could spend all day watching things happen at snail’s pace: bubbles rising, watermelons exploding, hurdlers hurdling, birds flapping their wings. With slow-mo you see all the minute details that you miss in real time. It’s immersive and it’s hypnotic.

In sport the slow-mo replay shows us how the impossible becomes possible. We see individual muscle tendons contracting as the rugby player floats over the line. We understand the physical risks involved in this split-second of play. Power becomes superpower when time slows down.

Slow-mo scenes in TV drama reveal the astonishing complexity of human feelings. In an episode of the ABC crime series ‘Mystery Road’ a body is discovered and loved ones must be told. Dialogue becomes redundant as the actor’s facial expression moves from fear to disbelief to horror and finally to abject grief. Compared to the shorthand of an emoji, it’s a cornucopia of emotions.

American video artist Bill Viola has been exploring the impact of slow motion video footage for decades. On floor to ceiling screens he projects infinitely slow-moving images of human bodies immersed in water. Lazy ripples re-shape their faces over and over, never the same way twice. Viola messes with our sense perception so that we lose track of the passage of ‘real time’. It’s meditative and it’s revelatory.

Viola says his use of extreme slow-mo is a response to ‘the anxiety of being aware of our mortality’. As we age it can seem as if life is speeding up. Our memories play tricks on us, compressing time. Years feel like months, decades feel like years.

Does slow-mo footage trigger our emotions because it reminds us that time used to move at a more leisurely pace? Or does it conjure sense memories of those moments we’ve felt intense fear and time seemed to slow down?

It’s my birthday next week. The best present you could give me would be a TV remote with a button I can push to ‘slow-mo’ my own life.


(This column was first published by Fairfax in August 2018)