Everyone loves slow-motion video, even if they don’t know how it actually works. You've probably seen some of the more famous examples on Planet Earth or Discovery Channel specials—a bullet pancaking against a wall, a shark chomping on prey, or a seemingly inflexible golf ball rippling against the impact of a club. These ridiculously slowed-down images upend our perceptions of the physical world, and offer a glimpse at the subtle mechanics of really, really fast things.
High-speed video cameras have been around for decades, but recent advances in digital video capture have allowed for higher-resolution images that are cheaper and simpler to produce. Today's specialized high-speed rigs are able to capture footage at a rate of 1,000 or more frames per second (fps). When these clips are played back at a frame rate slower than the capture speed, time appears to slow, with the smoothness of standard frame rates preserved in impeccable detail.
While once reserved for scientific and industrial purposes, this technology has found its way into modern art, contemporary film, and television, and racked up innumerable hits on YouTube. Here, we’ve compiled a list of our favorites.
A Great White Shark Capturing its Prey
The great white is a massively powerful creature that has little, if anything, to fear—unlike the poor seals on which it dines. This slow-motion video of a shark leaping dozens of feet into the air to capture a hapless seal in its jaws should strike fear into every sentient being on earth.
Flicking a Lighter
The ignition of a cigarette lighter seems like a virtually instantaneous reaction, but high-fps video has a way of rebutting such assumptions.
Striking a Cymbal
The bronze cymbal appears to be anything but flexible. Even when struck by a fierce drummer like John Bonham, these percussion instruments always seem to shake... not ripple.
Firing a Rocket-Propelled Grenade at a Trailer
Also a seemingly instant force, the electrostatic discharge of a lightning bolt is revealed to have several stages when viewed at super slow speeds.
A Bullet Pancaking Against a Wall
Perfectly symmetrical. Perfectly angled. Perfectly hypnotizing.
Alan Rickman Drinking Tea/Throwing a Fit
It’s also true that super slow motion video has a way of making things look epic, even the dull practice of drinking tea. Add some Inception horns and Severus Snape throwing a fit and you have one of the best high-speed videos we’ve ever seen.
A Bald Eagle Capturing a Fish
I don’t really know what to say about this one. It’s an eagle… grabbing a fish… in slow motion.
An Eagle Owl Zeroing in on Your Face
I’d like to know the fate of the cameraman and his camera.
A Dog Drinking Water
Scientists have long been in the dark about how exactly dogs use their tongues to lap up water. Really, I’m not being droll. By watching the process at super slow speeds, you can see precisely how it works—the tongue, it is but a ladle.
Many Dogs Shaking Off Water
Man's best friend looks a lot more disgusting in slow motion.
The Fastest Animal on Earth Running
This one is quite long, but it's worth every second. You can even see how they made the video at the very end.
Airbags Are Pretty Intense
Here’s why you should never rest your head against the dashboard when sitting shotgun.
A Milling Bit in Action
Industrial processes are especially interesting in slow motion. This video shows the precise trimming process of a face mill.
The Tire Shake of a Top-Fuel Dragster
Dragsters are designed to take off really, really quickly, and they need really big, really soft tires to gather the necessary traction. At these slow frame rates, the wagging, “shaking” effect of the tires is on full display... not the mention, the awesome explosion from the exhaust.
Getting Punched in the Face
Don't let the humorous undulations of a face in mid-punch convince you that violence is fun. But mild violence at 5,000 fps is hilarious, especially when you have such a punchable face.
A Nuclear Explosion
The first few milliseconds of a nuclear explosion—or really anything moving that quickly—are actually much to fast too capture with a single high-speed camera. However, scientists have managed to create composite videos from multiple cameras, giving the illusion of a single high-fps image.
This video, taken from a Cold War era test, shows the initial fireball of a nuclear explosion, and it’s quite frightening.
[Hero image: Creative Commons, Niels Noordhoek]