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VIDEO ESSAY: Fast-Mo: Fast-Motion Sequences in Film

Video
by Leigh Singer and Nelson Carvajal
May 7, 2014 2:17 PM
1 Comment
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I remember, as a kid, watching The Three Stooges on TV and always feeling a little baffled to see the Stooges springing back up from the ground at a hyper-motion, cartoonish speed; these singular fast-motion moments usually followed a bigger gag, like one of the Stooges being set on fire or bitten by a large animal. Still, even as a child, it was quietly unnerving to see human beings moving faster than they . . . should. The fast forward motion was more acceptable in cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner, for example. In real life, however, people don’t move like that. But in film and television, this fast motion effect has become more popular as years have gone by—especially when one considers how prominent time-lapse photography has become—so there must be an important reason for that.

In Leigh Singer’s dazzling new video, he explores the visual rhetoric of the fast motion effect by grouping films together by shared themes and visual motifs. There are the pistol-slinging cowboys of the Wild West in The Ballad of Cable Hogue juxtaposed against the kinetic, gun-wielding rabble-rousers of Baz Luhrmann’s updated Romeo + Juliet. Also, there is the meta-grouping of film clips from Funny Games, Click and Caché. Each of those films visually demonstrates the power of the fast-forward effect via an actual remote control. In Funny Games the remote control is used to undo a fatal act, in Click it is used as a time travel device, and in Caché it is used as a plot-fueling investigative device to discover who has been sending mysterious surveillance videotapes. (Note: what other video supercut appropriately mixes an Adam Sandler comedy with a Michael Haneke film?) As Singer’s video blazes (fast) forward to the tune of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell” overture finale, it becomes clear that Singer is fascinated with how silly we look when we’re depicted in this fast forward motion. If slow motion dramatizes the moment, then fast motion injects a comic surge to the mise-en-scène.

Curiously enough, after a couple of viewings, I personally found the video to be deceptively powerful in its implications of the way we process the concept of time, especially with cinema. When speaking of the moving image in cinema, film historian Ivor Montagu once said “No other medium can portray real man in motion in his real surroundings.” The cinema itself is an art form that manipulates time in more ways than one. For one thing, it freezes time: actors are immortalized and live forever on movie screens big and small. Yet, at the same time, it makes our perception of time decidedly pronounced. When we watch a movie, we’re subconsciously convinced that we’re seeing actions happen in real time. But it’s not real time. The motion picture itself is moving at a rate of 24 (or these days 30) frames per second; those are 24 captured moments—24 instances of actions or feelings that have already happened. Still, this notion of time we won’t get back is remedied by having at least captured some of it on film. Likewise, that fleeting concept of speed, or the future even, is validated and realized by the fast-motion visual effect. In our own lives, time is something we really can’t control; it passes by with a relentless fervor. Therefore, the fast-motion effect is a demonstration of tremendous power. If the cinema is our duplicate (or projected) reality, then the fast motion effect represents our god-like ability to manipulate time's reality. It’s a unique opportunity. The kinetic speed of the fast-motion effect is a universal touchstone; it transcends language and culture barriers. It’s a visual representation of the voracious thirst driving life. It pushes us forward, even when we’re afraid to take that leap, because in life, there is no rewind button.--Nelson Carvajal


Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, filmmaker and screenwriter. Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi, Dazed & Confused, Total Film, RogerEbert.com and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter @Leigh_Singer.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.


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1 Comment

  • Dave Creek | May 8, 2014 12:14 AMReply

    I'm really tired of this effect when it's used in non-fiction TV, such as some "reality" shows and even documentaries. It looks inherently silly to me, and spoils any serious intent on the part of the filmmakers. It's also an easy way to do a transition rather than having to shoot and edit using cutaways, dissolves, etc.

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