Friday, February 20, 2009

It's All In The Timing

Ben Model is a musician who accompanies silent movies as well as a silent film historian. He's done some very interesting work taking silent comedies and demonstrating the difference between the speed at which they were originally projected and being projected at a realistic speed.

It was standard in the silent era for films, and comedies in particular, to be undercranked. What that means is that if the film was going to be projected at 16 frames per second, it would be shot at 12 frames per second so that when projected, the images would be faster than life. The term "undercranking" comes from the fact that cameras were literally cranked by hand.

There was no fixed projection speed during the silent era. Projection ranged anywhere from 16 to more than 24 frames per second. Initially, projectors were also hand cranked, but even when they were motorized, they were controlled by rheostats which could vary the speed within a single film.

What's interesting in Model's examples, is how the actors adjusted their speeds so that they would get the desired result on screen. Here is the boxing sequence from City Lights (1931). At this point in time, film projection had been standardized at 24 fps and cameras were motorized due to the need to synchronize with sound. Chaplin still preferred to shoot with an older camera so that he could continue to use silent comedy timing.

There are differences that Model points out. Characters seem to weigh less when in fast motion. This lends a sense of unreality to the physical knock-about that allows it to be funny. When Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd made sound films in the 1930s, their falls appeared painful because they were accompanied by sounds of impact but also because being timed realistically, they looked like real people hitting the ground and the audience viscerally felt the impact.

The speed itself adds comedy to this fight. In real time, it's leaden, but sped up it has a lot more energy.

One thing that the extra speed required was increased clarity. With gestures faster than normal, it was important to do only one thing at a time so that the audience could read the actions clearly and not get confused. In this Model version of a clip from The Adventurer (1917), pay attention to Chaplin and the empty glass in his hands. When the drink is finished, he licks his fingers, puts his fingers in the empty glass and them licks them again and drinks from the empty glass, hoping to find a final drop. There's the rule of threes in operation; Chaplin performs three actions to show that he wants more, but hasn't any. That's all an anticipation of the gag where he tips another man's glass and steal the liquid from it.

Model has other examples available here, including one from Sherlock Junior (1924), starring Keaton. In Chaplin's last silent, Modern Times (1936), he sang a nonsense song at the end, which forced him to shoot at 24 fps. However, before, during and after the song, he cut in undercranked footage shot with a silent camera. Note how different the speed of people's motions are in the two types of footage. While Chaplin's song is funny, it's like he's stepped into a different world where everything is sluggish by comparison. I should note that this clip contains the last verse of the song, one which Chaplin edited out for re-issues and is missing from the latest DVD release of the film.

The animators and directors of the 1930s and '40s grew up watching silent comedies and absorbed the feeling for fast action. Bobe Cannon's smears in The Dover Boys are 4 frames long. Tex Avery talked about bringing in an object 4 frames before it beaned a character. Rod Scribner's animation has the broad energy of silent comedy. The furious anticipations that animated characters go through before zipping off screen owe a debt to the sense of speed that silent comedy introduced. Animation caricatured it, pushing it even further. Fast is funny, especially when it's been combined with movements that read clearly.


Keith Lango said...

Great post. The fast is so silly, but it works. The boxing scene at real time (projected at 16fps, not 24) is laboriously slow. Certainly that choice was purposeful in order to accomplish the tight choreography, but even if they were to zip it up a bit it would still come off as sleepy compared to the undercranked version. A lot of modern animation (especially in films) comes off as 'leaden' and ponderous compared to the more energetic efforts from the past. To make up for that modern animation uses the cut more intensely to bring pace and energy to the film (no doubt an influence from the MTV generation). Modern animation motion is slower, but conversely the editing is frenetic -- a typical scene in an animated film runs 3.5 seconds, or 5 feet. Quite the inverse of the classic cartoons where often scenes would run for 20 or even 30 feet or more, but the actions were much more kinetic. Of the two I prefer the slower cutting/more kinetic motion. Slower cutting lets a character breathe a bit, even if they are moving with great zip.

sunny kharbanda said...

Genius. Thanks for posting this, and thanks to Mr. Model for doing these studies.

I read somewhere that when acting out a scene you want to animate, you should speed it up while animating so it takes two-thirds the time it did in reality. It sounds like an arbitrary rule, but when you watch these clips, it's pretty close to what Chaplin and others were doing.

Of course, a thumb rule like that has to be applied carefully, and will have exceptions. These silent film makers were obviously thorough in their study of timing.

These clips also remind me of the other reason why the golden age animators studied these films. Everything is so clearly staged and set up, they've got you looking exactly where they want you to.

But the undercranking stuff is what really blew my mind. As you said in the title, "It's all in the timing".

David said...


I'm sending this link to all my students.

This is must see material.

Thank you for the links to Mr. Model's clips on YouTube.

Jenny Lerew said...

Undercranking is indeed fascinating and these are great studies. It's used also in quite a few sound films, in fast action sequences-not just in comedies, but fairly often in scenes that require massive fast action--westerns, for example. Even some into the 1940s...although the director generally does his best to make sure it's not so obvious as to seem odd, you can still spot it--or "feel" it.

I love Chaplin, and have since seeing "The Vagabond" in an old print at the Silent Movie Theater in 1977, so I've earned this remark: I've never been able to stand this song scene in Modern Times. Charlie's pantomime is lovely and I like hearing his natural voice--but for God's sake, I can't stand how he has all the patrons laugh uproariously at the end of every verse! Nothing he's doing or (as it's suggested) singing is outrageous enough to warrant that reaction. And of course he has to have lovely Paulette beaming at his success as's IMHO an egotistic mistake that undercuts the real laughs we in the movie audience might otherwise have, and reminds me of when MGM spoiled the Marxes with having extras laugh at Chico and Harpo in their scenes instead of recoil in disgust, as in the Paramount films. But that's OT.

And you can tell Mr. Mo-del I still prefer Kovacs. That's a joke, son. ; )

Paul said...

that's a really illuminating history. thanks for the post!

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
Very interesting post. My understanding is that Chaplin improvised City Lights before the cameras - that they would try and retry story ideas - that there was no actual script for the feature.
That being the case, Chaplin would have had ample opportunity to explore the effects of vari-speeding the camera for comedic effect.

Ben Model said...

Hi -- Ben Model here!

Glad to see these studies have proved fascinating to animators. I've often thought that the current use of undercranking -- or at least of increasing the speed and pace to create comedy which wouldn't be present if done in real time -- is in Family Guy. A great deal of the humor is the sheer speed, and if the show's lines were delivered the way non-drawn humans speak, and there were regular pauses, the jokes might fall flat or not have as much punch.

These studies of mine came from something I remember seeing the step-printed version of A Dog's Life years and years ago, as well as the notion that regular film when run too fast looks too fast, but silent film is always run 35%-50% too fast and everything reads properly. Click here to see the study of "A Dog's Life", where you can see the gag that Chaplin created can only exist in this sped-up 'universe'.

Silent film should really be called silent-faster film.

Ben Model