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The Straight Dope




Everything you said about silent movies [April 12] was either wrong or semi-wrong. [The question was why the action moves so fast in silents; I said they were shot at 16 frames per second but today's equipment can only project them at 24. --C.A.] Sixteen frames per second was not the standard speed for films of the silent era. There was no standard speed. Actual speeds ranged from under 16 to well over 24. Buster Keaton's The General (1926), for example, had a recommended projection speed of 30 fps. Projectors in those days were variable speed, and the projectionist merely adjusted the projector speed to suit the movie. Most films of the teens and earlier were shot at less than 24 fps but for budgetary, not technical, reasons--the slower the speed, the less film used. When sound came in in the late '20s, a standard speed of 24 fps was chosen because that was the average speed of silent films being made at that time.

It's true that the earliest films did flicker, but that was due to the design of the projectors, not projection speed. Even a modern 24 fps film would flicker annoyingly if projected on an 1895 projector. The reason is that projectors made in 1895 didn't have a butterfly wheel. A butterfly wheel is a three-bladed wheel that spins in front of the projection gate, cutting off light to the screen three times per revolution. This effectively increases the "flicker rate" of a movie projected at 16 fps from 16 (very noticeable) to 48 (not noticeable at all). This wheel was in common use long before the advent of sound. --Paul Nicoloff, Austin, Texas

I got a lot of letters from film buffs making the same points. The same wrong points.

I suppose I should have said the average speed of silent movies was 16 fps. My point was that the films (the older ones, anyway) were shot at speeds significantly slower than 24 fps and that's why the action moves so fast when they're projected on modern equipment. True, later silents often ran at close to sound speed, but those aren't the films people mean when they talk about the frantic action in old movies.

There is a legitimate basis for saying 16 fps was a standard, if not the standard, for silents. The 1895 Lumiere movie projector, the first commercially viable device of its kind, was intended to run at about 16 fps. When projection speeds were standardized with the coming of sound in the late 1920s, projector makers settled on 16 fps as the benchmark for the "silent" speed setting on their machines. (In practice many upped the silent setting to 18 fps to reduce flicker and fire risk from nitrate film.) Silent films could be run at "silent" speed, "sound" speed, or a combination of the two.

The first movies were not shot at 16 fps just to save film. On the contrary, "the slower film speed allowed [the Lumiere] projector to run more quietly and dependably" (A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast, 1986).

Twenty-four fps was not settled on as the standard speed for sound films simply because that was the average speed of silent movies at the time. While it's true silents had gradually sped up over the years, several historians say the main reason for making the sound standard 24 fps was to provide enough speed for good sound quality. The faster the speed, the more sound information per unit of film and the better the fidelity.

A.E. Krows, writing only a few years after the introduction of sound (The Talkies, 1930), corroborates this: "The normal silent running time [of] sixteen ... frames ... per second proved too slow for the sound-track; so the whole film had to be speeded up by one-half.... As it happened, this worked no great hardship, for most of the 'first-run' theatres projected their silent films about twelve minutes to the usual thousand-foot reel anyway [about 22 fps]; ... and as the flicker of a film, that is so trying on the eyes, may come from slow projection as much as from improper timing of the shutter, the new arrangement is probably a blessing all around." Krows's last remark I think disposes of the claim that it was the lack of a butterfly wheel that made the silents flicker.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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