Old News Reels

From TyperTrphy:

Dear Cecil,
It is possible that there is nobody who hold you in higher esteem than I. Having said, that, I must take serious umbrage with your answers on P.67-68 of “Straight Dope Tells All”. Your reason for the increase to 24 frames per second of movie film is that moviehouse owners wanted to cram more showings into each night, AND, that it was necessary for better sound reproduction.
Both assertions, sadly, are completely wrong. First of all, the greedy theatre owners. Let’s say I shoot a movie at 16 fps. ( I can do this, I am a professional cameraman, with a gob of credits, and 3 Union Cards. Honest. ). I make a lovely movie, although a wee bit on the long side. Say… Dances With Wolves. I PROJECT this movie at 16 fps as well. It will run 3 hours.IF I SHOOT IT AT 24 FPS ( or, 25 fps, the European standard, but let’s not get into THAT mess ), and project it back at that same frame rate? IT STILL RUNS 3 hours. You captured and replayed each second of images at the same rate. NO time is saved by the greedy owners, who had to show the prints at the speed at which they were shot ( nominally ).
Second. Sound quality being what it was then, there is absolutely NO difference in quality between sound played back at 18 fps and 24fps. Shall we say, no DISCERNABLE sound. My Great Uncle Raymond was a projectionist in the silent era, died of Gray Lung disease from the carbon arcs used to illuminate silent films. He worked for YEARS at the Reeves Sound Research Labs on Long Island. Trust me here, Uncle Cecil…
The reason to shoot and project at 24 is very simple. It is based on a theory called Persistence of Vision. That is to say, what amount of frames per second can be shown to a human where there will be LITTLE OR NO perceptible flicker? After years of easing upwards slowly, 24 fps was found to be the LOWEST speed useable. Why strive for the lowest possible speed? Because, Producers are MUCH cheaper than the aforementioned theatre owners. Raw stock costs a LOT of money. Shoot at 24fpt instead of 30 fps? You save…hmm…20% ?? Lotta dough there.Period. Sound has nothing to do with it, nor does greedy theatre owners.
There are systems out there ( Notably Douglas Trumbull’s ShowScan System, and IMAX ) that both film and project at a higher frame rate per second. The image SIZE is also MUCH larger.65mm Negative is used to photograph these films ( sometimes using the film horizontally instead of vertically ). The combination of a larger negative, and an increased frame rate gives the brain a MUCH larger amount of information to process per second of viewing time.Voila’- a “COOL” new process is born.
I do love your mind, but, oh god you dropped the ball here.
With respect,

The rest of the posts from this thread (originally on General Questions):

Greg Charles
Member posted 07-15-99 05:19 PM

Cecil never makes mistakes, but occasionly little Ed will screw
something up while transferring it to print. However, even Ed is no
idiot. I’ll have to go home to reread this answer, but there’s just no
way he thought that a movie shot at a higher frame rate would be
replayed in less time. I’m sure you must have misread that. The part
about the sound quality I’m willing to accept.

Member posted 07-15-99 05:43 PM

Greg, I concur with you that Typertrphy is misunderstanding Cecil’s
words. I’m looking at TSTDA right now, and on p.67 he says:
“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 . . . Old flicks ran at anywhere
from 12 to 22 frames per second, with 16-20 fps being about average up
through the early 1920s.”

Then, on p. 68, he says:

" . . . 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 being made–there had been a steady increase in
projection speeds during the '20s as theater owners tried to cram in
more showings per night and movie directors speeded up their cameras to

I think that last sentence is the key. The way I interpret this is that,
whatever the actual frame rate of the handcranked film, projectionists
were playing it back at 24 fps. This probably provided for a film that
didn’t take up too much time per showing, but that also didn’t
constantly look like the Keystone Kops on crystal meth. In response,
directors said, “Fine, if you’re gonna play 'em at 24 fps, I’m gonna
shoot 'em at 24 fps, and you won’t be able to add a showing by speeding
up my movie.”

And, just for fun, here’s a site that calls into question the whole
“persistence of vision” theory, stating that it flatly contradicts what
we know about the anatomical functions of the eye and brain. (It also
mentions that you can get away with 16 fps if you use a three-bladed


Member posted 07-15-99 06:09 PM

ROFL- nothing like taking on Obi-Wan to rile up the masses. First of
all, the persistence of vision “theory” is a reality. It is kinda hard
to argue. One’s eye sees what one’s eye sees. Period. ( Let’s leave
David Copperfield out of it for the moment ). That “key last sentence”
?? Read IT AGAIN !" Movie directors speeded up their cameras to
compensate". HUH? Okey. Look, as I said, you shoot a film, approximating
18 fps. ( Let’s leave stunt/humor shows like Keystone Cops out, most
films were meant to be seen at a “realistic” life speed ). The greedy
mega-corporate theatre owner speeds it up by 33 %. Who would stand for a
delicate emotional scene played out LIKE the Keystone Cops? NOBODY.
Owners had to adjust, and as the accepted framerate rose, so did the
shutter speed on the projectors. ( If you think I am kidding about
delicate emotional scenes, rent “Broken Blossoms”, and get a hankie
Now, I surely understand wanting to defend Cecil. But- both the “sound
quality” supposition, and the “greedy theatre owner” suppostion are
I want to visit the persistence of vision site, however. Standing my
ground is different from being pig-headed. I’ll do the former, and try
like hell to never indulge the latter.
My recent credits include " Limp Bizkit" music video, “Polaner All-Fruit
Spread” commercial, and the Montel Williams movie currently under
production.) I ain’t BS’ing, folks. Movie cameras, I know. As for the 16
fps/ three-bladed shutter theory, it just didnt pan out ( snicker ). The
Butterfly method devised by Arnold and Richter in Germany is the most
balanced, and logical design. 24 fps, 180 degree shutter. Live with it,
or (shudder) shoot videotape.
Still, this is fun !

Member posted 07-15-99 10:25 PM

Could you please pass the jelly?

Typertrphy, you sound like an excellent source of primary information. Did projection speeds really move up during the silent era? I was under the impression that silents were shot at 16 fps and the transition to 24 was made for sound. Period.
I’ve seen interviews with cameramen of the period who said they would “undercrank” a chase scene to give it a little more zip.
This seems like it would be a useless exercise if the frame speed was changing in theaters.
And Capra complained about the increased speed of 24 fps because it required more lighting…but sound required the increased speed. Are these stories more from the publicity department than from the real sources?

Much as I have contradicting a guy with a union card, I must. I worked on 16MM movie projectors for many years. They all had a speed selector switch where you could select either “silent” or “sound” speeds. As part of our repair procedure we had to run each projector at both settings for many minutes. In no case did I ever see any flicker at either setting, sound or silent.

These old RCA projectors did have a 3-blade shutter, which chops up the light 3 times faster than the very very early projectors.

Now about sound quality, I know a bit about this too. The highest frequency tone you can record and reproduce is DIRECTLY proportional to the film speed. If 16 frames per second gives fidelity up to 5KHz
(typical for the 1930’s), 24fps would give you 7.5KHz. Now 5KHz is medium fidelity, somewhat better than phone-line quality, but still not Hi-Fi. 7.5Khz is better, good enough for movie music. Plus it allows the sound sensor optics to be another 33% out of adjustment without sacrificing the sound quality very much.

Anyway, to summarize, flicker at 16fps might have been a problem with very early projectors. It hasnt been since at least 1940 (thats the oldest projector I ever repaired).

Sound quality is better at 24fps. Maybe not noticeable unless you’re doing a side-by-side comparison, but there’s no denying the basic technical facts.

For What It’s Worth,


Well, sorry about the Union Card comment, that was snide- albeit, true. I was also a 16mm projectionist in film school, and yes, there were two settings.
As for the sound quality assertion, you are assuming a 90’s ear for 30’s audiences. The filmspeed had nothing to do with sound quality. Do you really want to debate this ( Separate thread time…). I mean, the DAT recorder used on the AT&T Commercial I shot today was INCREDIBLY slow as far as Inches Per Second of tape used. Would you really assert that the quality is therefore INFERIOR to that of old-style Nagras, where you ran at ( I think…) 15 ips??? Speed and recording quality are tied, but not in the way you assert.
I still stand by my thoughts. Greed had NOTHING to do with it. Theatre owner greed, at least. :slight_smile: However, I sure am enjoying this a lot. Nothing like rigorous discourse.

Typer who is WICKED sore from the day’s hot shooting…Thank god it was a 16mm camera, and not a 35mm one

Doug Bowe-
To this day, I undercrank when the D.P. requests it. It makes for more frantic shots, obviously. I did a movie in Miami last summer that included a 3 minute shot. It had 5 speed-ramps in that ONE shot. That is to say, the camera was shifted in frames per second shot WHILE the camera was running. The iris ( for those of you just WAITING to tell me that such an effect would require more light ) was adjusted in synch with the filmspeed. Interesting effect, not at all to my tastes. But, I was not there to debate, I was there to shoot it, and shoot I did…all night for 4 nights. :slight_smile:

I may not work in film, but I have worked in sound recording, and you should stick to comparing apples to apples. You can’t compare analog open-reel tape speeds to DAT speeds and expect to have a point.

It sounds like you’ve got this all settled now, but just to confirm, yes, TyperTrphy misunderstood my remarks about silent films.

As for flicker, this was NOT a factor, or anyway not a major factor, in the decision to standardize film speed at 24 fps. I got into a long debate about this years ago with film buffs, many of whom had seen silent films projected at 16 fps, and they were virtually unanimous in declaring that 16 fps did not produce noticeable flicker, at least when projected using the proper equipment. Furthermore, there was general agreement that 24 fps was the minimum needed for acceptable sound quality, given the relatively primitive state of sound reproduction technology at the time. I had a couple film journal articles making basically these points, but Little Ed showing his usual genius for organization misfiled them. Suffice it to say that the version of this column appearing in SDTA is a fair statement of the facts.