Why is the action in old silent movies so fast?

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Dear Cecil: Why do old black-and-white movies and newsreels move so fast? With our modern technology, can’t we slow them down to make them look normal? Karl M., Richardson, Texas

Cecil replies:

Karl, we need to examine our premise here. You think the Keystone Kops ever looked normal? But more on this in a sec.

One thing you need to know about the old silent movies. Sure, they were shot at slower speeds than today’s movies. But the main thing was that the camera was hand cranked. The only form of speed regulation was the cameraman going “one one thousand, two one thousand” as he rotated the handle. As a result, there wasn’t any such thing as a standard silent speed. Old flicks ran at anywhere from 12 to 22 frames per second, with 16-20 fps being about average up through the early 1920s.

Many old movie hands, far from being annoyed by this, kind of liked it. They thought of the speed of the movie as being like the tempo in music. Near-normal speed might be OK for your basic dramatic exposition. But during the comedy or chase scenes you wanted things to really rip.

With the advent of sound in the late 1920s the industry switched to a standard speed of 24 frames per second. There were two reasons for this. First, it was the average speed of most silents then being made — there had been a steady increase in projection speeds during the 20s as theatre owners tried to cram in more showings per night and movie directors speeded up their cameras to compensate. Second, 24 fps was the minimum necessary to produce decent sound quality. The faster the film’s sound track ran through the projector, the more sound information you got per second, and the better the fidelity.

Some movie projectors made right after the switch had two speeds, 16 (or 18) fps and 24 fps, and the operator could use whichever speed best suited the movie being shown. But nowadays many projectors have only one speed, 24 frames per second. Run a 16 fps silent through a 24 fps projector and the action gets speeded up 50 percent.

Today it’s possible to produce normal-speed versions of the older silents through a process known as stretch printing, in which roughly every other frame is printed twice. The result is slightly jerky but watchable and has been used in contemporary films to achieve a period feel. But it’s tedious and expensive and many film labs hate to do it, so it’s mostly reserved for special projects.

Better results can be achieved with less trouble when transferring silents to videotape. In fact, some of the best versions we have of the old silents (that is, that most closely approximate the way they were meant to be seen) are those specially prepared for TV.

Which brings me back to my original point. The old silents weren’t necessarily meant to move at the same speed as today’s flicks. In some old silents, comedies in particular, things were supposed to be speeded up, the better to enhance the comic effect. Chase scenes in the Keystone Kops flicks, for example, were often shot at 8-12 fps but projected maybe twice as fast. Today the frantic action in these films strikes us as hilarious — but people thought the same thing in 1915.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.