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Scientific slowdown

Warp-speed photography
By CASSANDRA LANDRY  |  October 22, 2008

FASTER THAN A SPEEDING WATER BALLOON: Stop-action photography requires action worth stopping, so Time Warp host Jeff Lieberman takes one to the face in the name of science.

In the industrial heart of South Boston, behind an unassuming door labeled “Time Warp,” a man slices eggs, tomatoes, and tatami mats at high speed with a samurai sword on a recent Saturday afternoon. This, it seems, is how TV is born; Time Warp being the name of a new Discovery Channel series that slows down ordinary, and extraordinary, events using high-speed stroboscopic photography.

Fittingly, they’re off to a slow start. So far, host Jeff Lieberman and high-speed photo expert Matt Kearney have watched a popcorn kernel pop, a crash-test dummy in action, a punch to the face, and a blender full of lighters turn into a fireball.

To engage viewers in super SlowMo, of course, you need a charismatic host. So Time Warp producers approached Jim Bales, director of MIT’s Edgerton Center — where fast-flash photography was born — who led them to Lieberman and his samurai sword. Lieberman, a 30-year-old former student of Bales’s, embodies the definition of “geeky chic.”

A musician and photographer, Lieberman holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and math, a master’s in mechanical engineering, and another in media arts and sciences. He’s currently working toward his PhD in robotics.

“We need to elevate the public’s sense of awe,” says Lieberman of the show. “I do a lot of artwork and a lot of science, and that was exactly what they wanted — someone who’s going to be able to think about the photography as art and also be able to analyze what we see.”

Each week, Kearney plays Costello to Lieberman’s Abbott, pitching water balloons into the host’s face, attempting to break dance, and lapping water like a dog — all in the name of science.

“I could not wait to volunteer, because if there was going to be a high-speed show on TV, I wanted to be the one getting the footage,” says Kearney. “And then I ended up drinking water out of a dog bowl, and all this stuff. I wasn’t supposed to be in the show at all! The two of us were having a kind of a drag of a time until we started talking to each other, and then we started having fun. He understands it, and I can make fun of it.”

The balance of Lieberman’s scientific expertise and Kearney’s technical knowledge works. “If I actually have to think about how to talk about it with him,” says Lieberman, “then it's how I want to talk about it to the audience.”

Online viewer feedback played a part in selecting Time Warp’s targets. Another never-ending source of ideas for the two has been, no surprise, YouTube.

“As long as people have stupid ideas, cameras, and YouTube,” says Kearney, “we’ll never run out of things to film.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, but I’m still astounded. This show has allowed us to point [cameras] at all kinds of crazy stuff that ordinarily we wouldn’t get to see.”

Lieberman and Kearney both want to take the show on the road for location shoots — any place from the Great Barrier Reef to the streets of Las Vegas.

“Vegas . . . I’m seeing high-speed debauchery,” jokes Kearney.

“Right,” agrees Lieberman, grinning. “High-speed debauchery.”

Time Warp airs weekly at 8 pm on the Discovery Channel.

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