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Moving Pictures: At a Constant Speed

hand crankIn March of this year I watched a fascinating special feature on the new Criterion blu-ray of The Kid (1921) by Ben Model who showed how silent comedy filmmakers would vary the cranking speed of their cameras to enhance the action and the laughs. More recently, I came across a 1925 article by Wesley Trout in The Exhibitor’s Trade Review from September 1925, which I likely would not have noticed if it were not for Model’s feature. In this article, Trout reprints excerpts of a letter from G.L. Chanier of the Pathe Exchange, who addressed the matter of “proper speed” for motion picture projection. In his letter, Chanier pointed out that a previous article in the Review had erroneously suggested that projection speeds should correspond to the rate at which a particular scene was filmed. In this respect, Chanier noted (as Model suggested) that: “Very often cameramen crank their camera faster or slower in order to get certain effects when the picture is projected at normal speed on the screen”, and as such, “These effects would be entirely destroyed if the projectionist were increasing or cutting down the speed of his machine”.

Interestingly, Trout seems oblivious to Chanier’s explanation, and declares that “I don’t believe you quite understood the article as to just what I mean about correct speed for projection”, and remained fixated with the problem of “overspeeding” the projection. Amusingly he makes an Appeal to Authority by way of former US President Wilson, who had once remarked that “I have very often been in a picture theatre and seen myself in motion pictures, and the sight has made me very, very sad” (Klaus Ming May 2016).

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2 comments on “Moving Pictures: At a Constant Speed

  1. Thomas Sorensen
    05/13/2016

    Interesting that they did not have a motor to control cranking speed at this time. It seems a hopeless task to control the speed manually.

    • Klaus
      05/13/2016

      Despite the difficulty, it seems that camera operators of the day were quite adept at both keeping constant cranking speeds, and varying it when directed to do so. If you have a chance to see Model’s special feature on this, I highly recommend it. Here’s an example of what he is talking about as he deconstructs a scene from Buster Keaton’s The Goat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQIJZ5zX6nw

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This entry was posted on 05/12/2016 by in Film History, Silent Film Musings.
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