What Am I Looking At When I Look at “Film”

by Heath Beck 

You’re sitting in a large dark room filled with strangers staring at a giant screen or in a small dark room with three or four other people (because they’re the only folks who would go downtown with you on a Saturday afternoon to see Killer of Sheep [1977]).  On this screen images flash before you, your mind interprets, and there’s your movie.  What’s so special about it?  What exactly is it you’re looking at?

The word “film” has many meanings.  Of course, one is the final product you’re seeing in that dark room.  Another meaning is the physical strip upon which images are captured.  That physical strip (film) contains a support layer on one side, and a light-sensitive emulsion that registers the images on the other.  As in still cameras, the film comes in long strips with perforations on either side called sprocket holes.  We’ll use the 35mm film strip as our example since it’s the professional standard.  It measures 35mm wide and has 16 frames (individual rectangles that register the separate images) per foot of film and four perforations per frame.  Why 16 frames?  Well, that’s when we pass through the cinematic looking glass and into the magical world of optics and optical illusions.

When the eye registers an image, even for a brief fraction of a second, the retina has already sent that information to the optic nerves.  Think of when you see something and then blink and you can still vaguely see that image with your eyes closed.  This is what’s commonly known as the persistence of vision.  In the case of film, with the rapid succession of images, the illusion of movement occurs when the projected images reach a certain speed.  At 16 frames per second (fps), the illusion of motion is achieved.  16 fps remained the standard for silent films,  though early hand-cranked model cameras would have the occasional speed fluctuation.  The standard for sound films is 24 fps, though some filmmakers choose to use other speeds.

At any rate, “film” is also used as a verb when the raw film stock (the unexposed filmstrip) moves past the camera lens and shutter and records the action in front of the camera.  Thus, the act of “filming.”  After filming, the film is taken to a film lab where the emulsion is chemically processed and the images appear on the individual frames.  When the film is projected at 16 fps or greater, the audience interprets movement.

So, now you know why you’re seeing what you see.  When getting into the study of film, the film frame becomes a vital tool in understanding the flow of images. 

The individual frame reveals much about the choices that filmmakers make when creating the final product.  First, there’s the shape of the frame.  Widescreen hasn’t been around since the start of films.  When films were first produced, they were in a rough square-shape.  This shape is what’s known as the Academy Standard or 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  1.33:1 breaks down like this: for every 1.33 units in width (that could be millimeters, inches, feet, whatever), there is one equal unit in height.  That’s apart from more inventive tricks like the climatic war scene from Abel Gance’s epic silent film Napoleon (1920) where three 1.33:1 frames were filmed and then projected side-by-side, or the inclusion of integrated optical audio tracks which caused films like Sunrise (1927) to have their frames shaved to 1.20:1.  In general, Academy Standard was the only shape audiences saw.  Then this marvelous little invention called the television came along and kept moviegoers at home.  With the sudden decline in box office sales, studios needed to invent gimmicks to bring people back into the movie houses.  Enter widescreen.

I could gush for hours about how much I adore widescreen.  Its look, its versatility, its power.  But instead of going on and on about how great widescreen is, I’ll default to what is the single best editorial on widescreen available.  From one of my favorite sources of all things home video, The Digital Bits, the “Ultimate Guide to Anamorphic Widescreen DVD for Everyone!” by Bill Hunt.  “Hang on a second there, Heath, this is about DVDs not film.  What’s the big idea?” you may ask, but trust me on this one.  Since the inception of home video in the mid- to late-1970s, the introduction of DVD in 1997, and various other contributions (more on this much later), widescreen has found its way from the cinema to the home.  As such, the consumer at large needs to know what s/he’s viewing at home.  The same ideas apply to widescreen as pre-widescreen film.

Celluloid film dominated the medium until the past few decades and the introduction of Digital Video (DV).  Instead of spending obscene amounts of money on developing thousands of feet of film, DV allows for a more budgetary-minded production.  The trade-off, however, is picture quality.  Look at any film shot in DV against one shot on film and the differences are obvious if not glaring (a personal favorite is Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon [2006] which mixes DV with film in a very postmodern kind of way).  Again, more on that later.

At any rate, that pretty much wraps up the technical background for your future film viewing.

Until next time,

Class dismissed.

~ by jwoodall on December 18, 2008.

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