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Speakeasy: Charlie Chaplin to Vande Bharat Express, a history of the sped up video

On speed, velocity, acceleration and other superpowers.

Train 18, country’s first engine-less semi-high speed train during its media preview at Safdarjung Railway Station, in New Delhi. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

On Monday, Piyush Goyal got up to speed on Twitter by posting a video of a Make in India product, a train named the Vande Bharat Express, whizzing past the camera at “lightening speed” (sic). Lighten up, the fake news police advised. It hadn’t taken them long to call out the trick: a speeded-up video run at 2X.

Posted by a minister, and prefaced by the famous phrase, “It’s a bird… it’s a plane…” it did not take long to spark off a whole string of jokes on Goyal’s speed, velocity, acceleration and other superpowers. Such as, “It’s lunchtime. What Piyush Goyal calls dinnertime.” This, too, was tweeted. But seriously, much of the comedy we find in early cinema owes to the speed of film rather than the prowess of the actors. We see Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops at 1.5 times the speed at which their contemporaries saw them — overclocked, to borrow a term from computing. The speed makes the action jerkier and intensifies slapstick, as well as chase scenes, which have been the staple of early comedy from the Keystone Cops to Tom and Jerry. A kick in the pants at the speed of sound is much funnier than a plain kick in the pants. It is dreadfully sobering to learn that in Chaplin’s time, audiences generally saw him perform in real time. They didn’t have half the fun we do.

In the silent era, films were generally shot at 16 ft per second and were intended to be projected at the same speed. But the first cine cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, and the actual speed depended on the whims of the person cranking the equipment. In fact, if you look closely, you can sometimes detect changing frame rates within a film, matched with the tempo of the action. The movie theatres also did their bit, with projectionists speeding up the film so that they could hold more shows per day. Such creative freedom seems surreal, at a time when cinema is delivered by encrypted thumb drive and is played, essentially, by a computer. But well within living memory, the projectionist was a plenipotentiary personality, solely endowed with the power to play the fight scenes three times over. And every time, the crowd roared.

The frame rate of cinema was globally standardised at the rate of 24 frames per second by the advent of sound. The rate of 16 was too slow to render sound accurately, and, besides, all cameras and projectors had to run at exactly the same rate, or sound would turn into noise and become incomprehensible.

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Directors and cameramen lost the creative freedom to crank faster or slower at will, to slow down or speed up the action right from behind the camera rather than at the editing table. But they held on to the stratagem as long as they could. Chaplin’s City Lights, which was shot silent in the sound era, was still filmed on cameras cranked slow.

Speeded-up video continued to flourish for a specific purpose — to depict very slow natural phenomena like the budding of a flower, or the passage of the constellations across the night sky. Stills taken at regular intervals are strung together to make film, and it has remained a popular trick, especially in documentaries. And curiously, the jerkiness of archival film shot at 16 frames per second and played at 24 frames per second has become a mark of authenticity. We don’t think it’s odd when Mahatma Gandhi trots about energetically in satyagraha newsreels. We think that’s what he looked like to audiences in his time, though they actually saw him walking just like you and me.

Now, to return to Piyush Goyal’s train, which started this train of thought. No aspersion on the Integral Coach Factory, which may indeed have the technical capacity to design very fast trains (whether our inadequately maintained tracks can take the strain remains a matter of life-and-death suspense). But after seeing so many promotional images posted by government sources, allegedly of excellent highways in various states, which turned out to be images of highways in other nations, the recipients of such communications are bound to exhibit a little willing suspension of belief.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Speakeasy: How Fast Is Your Train?’