Slo-Mo & the Drop: How Movies and Music Misuse Anticipation
Without diving into the overall pros and cons of Wonder Woman as a film, I wanted to specifically address one flaw that’s been ignored in the coverage of the movie: the overuse of slow-motion. Namely, how its usage is part of a lineage than can be traced back to Zack Snyder’s early work and its overall influence on the DCEU as a whole.
Zack Snyder certainly didn’t invent the idea of using slo-mo during fight scenes, but it’s hard to ignore that his film 300 did create a new shorthand for how epic action would be showcased in the years to come. While the film is peppered with an overabundance of slo-mo shots, two quickly spring to mind when anyone thinks of the movie. The first is the film’s most famous and parodied scene, where King Leonidas proclaims that this is, in fact, Sparta before literally killing the messenger with a swift kick into a pit.
The second comes later in the film when a cascade of warriors descend off a cliff like so many coaxed lemmings. Along with the massive financial success of the film, Snyder’s continued foray into genre fiction has meant this type of directing/cinematography has become the de facto style for those behind the camera who don’t have confidence in the impact of their action scenes.
In the musical world, the same thing has happened with dance music. Instead of slo-mo, it’s the drop — that moment the bass and a dozen other layers of sound erupt after a quieter and slower part of the song. Technically, slo-mo is the equivalent of the moment before the drop, but the effect is the same. Both use a period of calm to build anticipation for what’s about to happen, causing the inevitable impact to hit with that much more force.
While the effect can be fun and is a nifty way to play with the audience’s perceptions and emotions, it’s become an aggressively overused feature in virtually every strain of electronic music. Like slow-motion, the general concept of the drop is nothing new. Musicians, producers, and DJs have long used pre-choruses and bridges to remove layers of instrumentation only to bring them all back to make an iteration of the chorus hit harder. But just as Snyder took slo-mo to new heights with 300, Skrillex’s work repackaging EDM and dubstep for the masses certainly led to the drop’s modern proliferation.
In Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins attempts her first crack at a big budget spectacle film packed with action. Rather than relying on deft choreography and innovative camera work, however, she cribs from fellow DCEU helmer Snyder with an absurd amount of slo-mo. From the training scene early in the movie to the assault on the beach to every other fight Diana enters during the film, slo-mo is used to amp up the action. Part of this is to hide all the CGI that’s employed in the film, but it also shows both a lack of confidence in the action and a creative team willing to resort to cheap tactics to win over audiences.
Sloppy action work is all over superhero properties, from Iron Fist to the early days of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the finale of Snyder’s Batman v Superman; but there are a number of modern examples of how to properly film a fight scene without relying on CGI. The hallway fight in season one of Daredevil, for instance, demonstrates the Marvel/Netflix show’s mastery of the form. And though Arrow has waned in this regard, its fight choreography in seasons one and two are still some of TV’s best. SHIELD even learned from its early mistakes and went on to create some instantly iconic action setpieces.
Taking a page from Arrow’s book, season 2 of SHIELD began putting impressively choreographed fight scenes at the forefront of their action, usually by employing Kevin Tancharoen, one of TV’s best action directors. The show even pulled off its own compelling one-shot fight scene during season two’s ‘The Dirty Half Dozen’ (naturally directed by Tancharoen).
Along with Tancharoen, another strong example in this regard is Wendy Stanzler, who’s steadily worked on both Arrow and SHIELD. Her own must-see fight comes from the season 3 SHIELD episode ‘Paradise Lost,’ where she pitted May against the Inhuman Giyera in an all white room.
Then there’s Michelle McLaren, who has shown off her skills a number of times on Game of Thrones. Interestingly, she was once up for the director’s chair on Wonder Woman (and Thor: The Dark World), before leaving due to creative differences. As the story goes, she wanted to make an epic action film whereas Warner Bros favored Jenkins’ more character-focused approach. In the end, Jenkins lack of experience with fight choreography and action scenes may be precisely what led her to rely so much on what her peers have done.
Slow-motion can be a great tool to provide a beat for the audience to catch their visual breath before more movement erupts, but it can become stale if overused. Like any good framing device, it needs to have purpose and meaning. An example where Jenkins employs it masterfully is the shot of Antiope flying through the air as she nocks three arrows on her bow. She’s about to pull off an impressive feat by tagging three targets at once, so the slo-mo allows you to prepare for the moment and fully understand what’s about to unfold.
Conversely, an earlier usage of slo-mo involves a rider spearing someone only to kick into slow-motion as they bend back on their horse. The scene goes nowhere, but the use of slo-mo deceives the viewer into thinking the shot is about to become important. If the moment were in an Edgar Wright film, you could assume it was being utilized in a mocking fashion. Instead, it just comes across as sloppy directing and editing.
Both the good and bad of Wonder Woman can be laid at the feet of dozens of individuals, from cast to crew. Still, Jenkins deserves both the final blame and praise as the person who oversaw the whole project. She’s not alone, however. Like J.J. Abrams’ use of lens flare, the trend of slo-mo in film and television will come to aggravate even the most MOR audience members—as will the use of the drop in music. When it does, hopefully we can get back to a point where these effects are used as strategically employed tools for building anticipation, rather than lazy methods to sell undercooked products.