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Jul 2, 2009 6:50am

blog all clipped passages: what was the right speed?

These are excerpts from an article sent to me by Sha after I made an offhand comment about projection speeds of old silent films, thinking of this old view of San Francisco in particular.

Normally I blog all dog-eared pages in books that I read, but now I'm a Kindle owner so I have to use the built-in clipping mechanism to get the same page-marking outcome. It's better to read on, but not as good to mark books with. Possibly this is a moot point, because I haven't actually purchased a book for the Kindle yet - most of all I read things from the web, via Instapaper's Kindle feature.

The most interesting new thing I learned from this was the existence of a tug-of-war between cameramen, projectionists, and theatre owners, all of whom had a variety of ideas about what looked good on screen, what constituted a correct speed, and what was economical to show. I recommend you read the whole thing, but here are a few good bits.

One transfer to media with invariate speeds:

We used a variable speed telecine machine called a Polygon. Because they are virtually obsolete, suitable Polygons in Britain exist only at the BBC- which has both 16mm and 35mm models. Fitted with a 28-sided prism- 'The Flying Ashtray'- the Polygon enables you to transfer film to videotape at any speed from 4 fps to 35 fps.

On differences in equipment:

An Edison film of 1900 will generally project satisfactorily at 24 fps. Edison's rival, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, used a camera which weighed 1700 lbs. This camera had a motor, and it turned at a speed of 40 fps. ... During the Nickelodeon period, films were projected at whatever speed suited the management. The standard was supposed to be 16 fps.

(Holy shit, what a name: The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company)

On competition between exhibitors and producers:

Projected at the 'correct' speed of 16 fps, a full 1,000 ft. reel of 35mm film would last 16 1/2 minutes. The Essanay Film Company of Chicago tried to beat wily exhibitors by printing the running time of the films on the posters. The exhibitors retaliated by pasting a strip of paper over the line. Some unscrupulous theatre managers could get through a full reel in six minutes! Ten minutes was acknowledged to be 'more usual'. Yet, even today, on standard 24 fps sound projectors, 1,000 feet takes eleven minutes.

On the active role of the projectionist:

A 1915 projectionist's handbook declared- in emphatic capitals- 'THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SET CAMERA SPEED!' The correct speed of projection, it added, is the speed at which each individual scene was taken- 'which may- and often does- vary wildly.' And it declared: 'One of the highest functions of projection is to watch the screen and regulate the speed of projection to synchronise with the speed of taking.'

On getting used to a higher speed:

While filming Annapolis in 1928, cameraman Arthur Miller received a wire from the studio to crank at 24 fps. He did so, and everyone complained that the speed slowed everything down too much- it was particularly noticeable in a dress parade scene of midshipmen.

On optimization for higher projection speeds:

Talking about comedies, Walter Kerr writes: 'Silent films chose, by control of the camera and through instructions to projectionists, to move at an unreal, stylised, in effect fantasised rate.' And he quotes as examples the last two silent Chaplins- both films designed to be shown at sound speed, but photographed at silent speed (whatever that was!). 'The least glance at Modern Times reveals instantly that all of Chaplin's work in the film... has been filmed at a rate that puts springs on his heels and makes unleashed jack-knives of his elbows. This is how the films looked when they were projected as their creators intended.'

The last excerpt in particular makes me think of tuning for low-end media, such as mixing Beatles songs with shitty AM radio speakers or testing hip hop through cell phones. Where will your work be encountered, and what will it feel like when seen or heard there?

Comments (1)

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    Posted by papsas on Friday, August 14 2009 1:45pm UTC

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