by David Cox
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Many ads and feature films these days use a process described by industry insiders as "speed ramping" in which onscreen characters and events are shown to suddenly speed up and slow down. It is a "look" which for filmmakers and critics of my generation (over 35) is associated with experimental and avant-garde film, particularly the types of films made with Bolex and Arriflex 16mm cameras which enable real-time shutter speed manipulation while the camera is running. When you film someone at 24 frames per second, and then slow the frame rate down to 12 frames per second while the camera is running, two things happen. 1)The person appears to speed up (fewer frames to cover the same action means that at a constant frame playback rate of 24 fps the action appears faster); and 2) unless the aperture of the camera is altered to keep the exposure consistent with the frame rate, the film gets overexposed, as more light is allowed to land on the slowed down film.
Now computer based non-linear editing and post-production tools are used to manipulate the speed of the images, as well as the other spin-off effects associated with multiple speed coverage of shots. Computers can mimic many of the attributes of traditional film, including the familiar scratching-of-the-emulsion, various dust and light leak effects, when the material has in fact been shot on digital video. I've lost count of students who ask me how to make their miniDV sourced video material look as if it had been filmed on 35mm panavision, with 1:1.85 aspect ratio.
These now commonplace digital techniques are used to connote the "look and feel" of film and have often been developed to help blur the distinction between video and film material, or computer generated film material such as 3D computer graphics. The aim is to create a naturalistic sense that material has been photographed in the most analogue and traditional ways possible. There can almost be said to be a fetishism of the attributes of traditional film, with the details of the passage of film through a gate, sprockets, film grain speckles, flickering image quality and all the other attributes which have lent film its status as the domain of "true professionals". The fetishism of film is to some extent the fetishism of motion picture-making as a profession. 'If only I could make my material look like that of the professionals, then I too might have a chance at mainstream success...' What is seldom questioned however are the assumptions and values which lie behind the mainstream industry-- its use of budgets, its use of labour, and the crippling distribution system which not even the biggest mavericks of the (Hollywood) century have been able to crack, Coppolla, Lucas, Speilberg --none of them.
The much lauded and hyped George Lucas led broadband digital distribution model, in which high definition video is piped into auditoria via complex digital networks, still presumes the maintenance of relatively high budgets, and populist mainstream film material. Just because you can pipe your film to the mall instead of send prints via FedEx does not alter the basic social relations between the filmmaker and the audience (believe it or not once a key motivating factor behind those filmmakers now promoting digital distribution*).
The combination of the Internet, the laptop and the camcorder still represent the cheapest means to make films, and data-projectors and films-on-disk and the Internet itself are still the best way to distribute them. But the whir of the shutter through the gate is a mesmerising sound, and to capture the romance of photochemistry, if not its actual working means is enough for most young filmmakers. All power to them. Speed ramping, digital compositing and other tricks represent a dizzying array of potentialities which only digital production can offer at low cost. The choices of compositing, and altering every conceivable aspect of the audio-visual experience are so voluminous they often obscure for newcomers in particular the basic requirements of film: to encapsulate a worldview, to move, to entertain, and to provoke to action. A plug-in will not make a film engaging that is not interesting at the script stage.
Many filmmakers have exploited the dramatic potential of over-cranking and under-cranking movie cameras. For example, Martin Scorsese is famous for slowing action down mid-story to emphasize details of a character's clothing or jewelry, typically as they enter a room or get out of a car. This has the effect of cinematically underscoring the psychological effect the filmed person has on another character. For example, in the opening of the film Goodfellas (1990) the young mafia wannabe sees the subject of his idolization getting out of an enormous convertible car. We cut to a close up of the Mafioso's foot in slow motion hitting the pavement, then another close up shows the rings on the finger of the Wiseguy as he shuts the door of the car.
'Slow-mo' is in this sense used to indicate a fetishisation of the subject. A way of suggesting that the subject is able to hypnotize the viewer with his or her actions; we the audience see and experience a character through the eyes of another character. We therefore identify with the character doing the looking, in Goodfellas, 'we' are a young mafia wannabe, who ogles the rituals of gangster life as a ticket out of the banality of his working class existence.
Scorsese also seeks to capture the elaborate 'dance' of people as they position themselves in relation to other people as part of a complex set of social codes. Scorsese's concern with the "codes of movement of people in space" based on social conventions was largely learned by watching Powell and Pressburger films; especially The Red Shoes (1948) and The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). The DVD of the latter includes a running commentary by Scorsese, in which he lovingly describes the meaning of tiny gestures of the hand or the body in codified social environments such as ballrooms and fencing halls. Knowledge of the psychology of motion of the camera and of actors through space is of course the bread and butter of the director's art. Blocking a scene, positioning actors and props to maximise dramatic effect is what a generation of directors have passed on as cinematic history.
Altering film speeds to emphasize a social detail is all part of the tricks of the trade for Scorsese, whose elaborately constructed interiors: bar-rooms, restaurants, cars, casinos etc., are privy to often dizzying camera moves, frame rates and ballet-like actor's movements. In Raging Bull(1980), the famous fight sequence in which De Niro is knocked around the ring at differing speeds, seeks to subjectively place the viewer in the boxer's place. With each blow, time seems to accelerate and decelerate as consciousness eases in and out with the shutter speed. Fast, then Slow in an Instant.
Today Scorcese's cinematic strategy has become the basis of advertising culture with many ads showing people getting in and out of cars, and environments suddenly speeding up and slowing down. "Flash frames" and other techniques are digitally added to these sequences, thus suggesting that the sequences have been shot on film (whether they have been or not) and the increased slowness of the film through the camera has overexposed that film as, simultaneously, its imagery speeds up. The flash frames have not been trimmed: we're watching rushes, camera original film, we are 'with' the filmmakers. We share their privileged position.
It is becoming a cliche, a kind of standard off-the-rack technique, the cultural origins of which actually can be traced to early film history.
The "shaky camera" look in commercials made their widespread appearance in the mid 1980s, and then with Hill Street Blues and similar TV programs. These 'cinema verite' have origins in both the French New Wave period of the 1950s and 1960s, and before then in the experimental oeuvre of filmmakers like the surrealist Renee Clair whose Entre Act gleefully celebrated a complete collapse of time/space relations. Hans Richter's Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927) also cinematically celebrated Dada's deliberate undermining of conventional time and space. At around the same time in Russia the camera fetishist Dziga Vertov, whose Man With a Movie Camera (1929) toyed with frame rates as breathlessly as it did with camera platforms. It remains one of the few surviving artifacts of history which convey some sense of what it must have been like to be part of the Russian Revolution for a young artist: a sense of breathless abandon and willful experimentation. Watching it on DVD is thrilling.
Jean Cocteau's films Orpheus (1949) and Testament of Orpheus (1960) also experimented wildly with camera speed effects to suggest the passage from the world to hell and back. Given his politics in relation to the Nazi occupation, not surprising at all.
In mainstream film and video texts the "shaky camera" functions to connote a subjectivity of viewpoint--a fly-on-the-wall perspective on events. We are meant to conclude that these are not staged, rehearsed and scripted events, but rather natural ones to which we just so happen to be privy. When Roman Polanski introduced the handheld camera into contexts which in Hollywood terms were not 'motivated' as such in films like Chinatown (1974), the effect was to "Europeanise" American films, drawing them closer to the fine art formalist conventions of Europe.
Smaller lightweight Arriflex 16mm cameras had enabled film-critics-turned directors like Jean Luc Godard to literally run down the street with his camera to follow his subjects through the streets of Paris. Godard's films were greatly admired by many of todays most revered directors such as Coppolla, Lucas, Altman, and Scorese, and the documentary look in the 1970s was closely linked to notions of social justice, artistic credibility, and critical legitimacy. Today, the 'shaky cam' look is more likely to be a 'plug-in' for editing software than properly fully understood as long standing cinematic conventions which have a cultural history. Just another "look", in the digital grab bag of historical samples. Stripped of historical contexts, they float freely as postmodern fragments of the past, like bits of songs in a rap single: the "super 8 look", the "16mm black and white documentary" look, the "forensic record" look" etc. Fashion thus transforms cultural critique into stylistic gesture, and like most modes of gentrification, robs a place and a culture of its memory, in order to increase rents and make the place nicer for the middle class.
Selecting styles becomes a process of consumption, rather than a thought out praxis based on a familiarity with technology. When you choose to make video look like film by means of an adobe plug-in it is like using a piece of flight simulator software; you obtain the experience of flying but seldom actually source the knowledge of how to fly a real plane. You miss what it is like to handle film itself, to physically load a heavy film camera. You do not need to use a light meter, or understand the alchemy of knowing how to expose a photochemical surface, rather than an array charged couple devices. These somewhat arcane experiences have been left aside, done away with like the offending wallpaper in a soon-to-be renovated yuppie apartment, like the pool tables and juke boxes of renovated bars, and the radical politics which once went hand in hand with particular styles of film making. Something is gained, but more is lost.
The hand-held "shaky-cam" 'look' is linked to 'speed ramping': both privilege the dynamism of action within the frame as a means of dramatic emphasis. Both connote a measure of viewer subjectivity: I am watching from a documentary perspective. The ad warning about speeding on the roads, or selling life insurance must be *really happening* and time is going fast and slow, and this lets me see just how well the wheels on the Nissan really can grip the highway, and attract the attention of the "pretty girls"! So much for how the ad man himself imagines his audience. What is the broader meaning of this barrage of visual speed maneuvering in popular culture? What does speed manipulation suggest at a socio-economic level? Why is speed ramping being used in every other student film and every ad on TV? Why is it in every mainstream film from Run Lola Run to The Matrix?
The function(s) of time itself in contemporary culture has been radically altered by the role played by technology and communications. Time is represented in ways consistent with its effects on people in our society. Time is a fluid, changeable, negotiable entity. It is measured and chopped up and sold like every other commodity. We are living in Bourgeois time -- hence like commodities themselves, how time appears and is thought is available on the marketplace as well: some products offer fast time, others slow time, others both.
Time, in order to be of value to those who buy and sell commodities has to be demonstrated to be as fluid as onscreen space. Just as computers have enabled layering of elements in screenal space, non-linear editing and other computer plug-in culture elements have made time also able to be similarly chopped up and manipulated. Movement within the frame. Movement of the frame: Like the words in the software used to write the script, audiovisual elements can be reworked at will.
Production, pre-production, post production - meaningless today when the three stages of filmmaking collapse into each other, melting in the digital soup. Some of the highest paying jobs in the business are set aside for those with file-management skills.
Events can happen which defy measurement. How can the effect of a new technology like a Lexus or a Motorola phone be demonstrated in terms of ordinary time and ordinary space? These commodities are altering social relations between people; separating people from each other, making each person both the subject of analysis and the entity doing the analysis. Such products when shown in commercials have a supernatural effect on the lives of those who use them.
One may combine with this an observation about the perceived social relations in texts employing speed ramping. In commercials, the effect is often used to indicate that for those effected by the product, time operates at a different scale, or rate. Often a figure will be shown moving at slow motion while all around them the rest of the population is moving a lightening speed. An ad promoting the importance of flu immunization on Australian Television (as of May 2002) illustrates this well. To make a point about the relationship between catching the flu and the reduction in productivity to which the illness gives rise, the central figures (the ones whose lives will be at risk if they catch the flu) Move very slowly at a dream-like pace down escalators etc., while others move around them, a blur in the camera lens. In one of the few commercially released films out of the USA to overtly honour Guy Debord in its credits, Koyaanisquatsi, time lapsed urbanism indicated 'life out of balance' in the western world. That film was released in was the early 1980s and the idea then was rather fresh. Today it is more than commonplace. It is mainstream. The Spectacle outdoes itself.
In other ads, noticeably for cars, speed ramping is used to illustrate the effect the appearance of the car has on those watching it. Here speed ramping is an index of social desirability, where the speed of the subject usually a car moves quickly, then slowly, as it is being noticed by the 'right' people. The car, like the social space the owner is supposed to occupy, has been transformed into an object of desire, and that desire is represented in terms which associate attraction with kinetic dynamism. Social mobility in our post-industrial culture is often closely associated with spatial mobility, those who are in a state of constant movement, international, interstate travel are the decision makers, the executives, those who govern the economic and social status quo. When ads and films and other texts such as videogames indicate a suspension of the general laws of time and space, it can often be read as a dramatization of this idea of social-as-spatial mobility. In addition, the impact and nature of electronic communications augments this sense of dynamic transience, where lack of physical fixity, of geospatial specificity corresponds to notions of power and capital as non-fixed, virtual entities. If you have power in society, you use time in a different way from the non- decision makers; clocks and timetables do not apply (in the same way) to you, rather you are buffeted by the invisible winds of commerce, and globalised exchange. For you, time can move in both directions, and at varying rates of speed.
This is a myth of course, but one which over time has been symbolized and codified via an almost formulaic set of visual signifiers. In motion pictures such as Run Lola Run (1999) , Fight Club (1999), Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) , The Matrix(1999), characters are shown in a complex set of oppositions to the society around them. They are generally on the run, or in some other way alienated from the world around them.
For these put-upon, usually young and desperate anti-heroes and the audience who are invited to identify with them, kinesis and movement is strongly linked to a sense of personal liberty or freedom from the constraints of contemporary society. In contrast, those they work for, and those who pursue them can seldom fathom why the main characters wish to move out of their proscribed social constraints. At key moments in these films, the frame rate can rapidly alter to underscore the drama of the moment. Time is made to operate at a different scale momentarily in order to illustrate a single cinematic event. Someone is shot, the camera shows the bullet's trajectory in slow motion then - in an instant - goes back to normal speed (The Matrix). Someone is passed in the street, and we see a rapid series of photographs of that person's life as it has been influenced by that one encounter (Run Lola Run), or the act of passing them makes the whole of reality stop altogether (The Matrix).
These characters are influencing bourgeois time relations --they are interrupting the 'natural' social order, and penetrating the world masked by the clock, the boss, and the system. When ads use these same techniques, it is to achieve an inverse effect: to privilege the viewer-as-consumer and to invite contemplation of the 'magical' and supernatural effect a product has on the life of the owner. This car makes time slow down, and heads turn. This fruit juice will transform your social life, this expensive mobile phone will liberate you from alienation and win you a promotion.
The role of speed ramping thus represents a set of contemporary audio visual conventions in which screen time is no longer fixed, but like life itself in a digitized, networked society, is negotiable, up for grabs. One can read into speed ramping a visualized set of conventions which dramatise anxieties about the collapse of conventional modernist notions of time and space. In our globalised, economically rationalized digital economy, even time itself cannot escape the effects of capitalism gone haywire, no longer in anyone's control, like a phantom on the loose. As Marx alluded in Capital commodities go from being like a collection of wood on the floor to a seance table, to bounce around the room, quickly, and back to wood again in an instant.
* Back in the early 70s Lucas was making films such as THX-1138, that were damningly critical of a near-future sterilized shopping malled McWorld. Today his 'purely digital' Star Wars installments are both ideologically and technically, neat extensions of the logic of the mall as white, middle class sanctuary, and THX is now best known as Lucas' brand name of a global system of standardised sound playback.
Biskind, Peter, Raging Bulls and
Easy Riders: How the Sex, Drugs and
Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
David Cox is a filmmaker, writer and lecturer in digital screen production at the school of Film Media and Cultural Studies, Griffith University, Brisbane. His films include Puppenhead(1990), and Otherzone (1998)