Becoming a Superhero on Celluloid


What our friend never took the time to learn is the nature of 35mm celluloid motion pictures. Film is exposed while running through the camera gate in a continuous row of separate and unique frames. Each frame is a different picture in itself. Only when you put them together and run them through a projector do you get the illusion of movement. The average person talking or moving about a room could be shown quite naturally while being photographed by a camera with a film speed of 25 frames per second. This is, incidentally, the speed at which most video and television programs are projected. Watching television you get a feeling of realism but you don't get a "larger than life" impression. This is due both to the film speed and the size of the screen.

Film shot for theatrical release, on the other hand, is usually shot and shown 24 frames per second (f.p.s.). To make normal acting and speech look good on the screen, one must speak clearly, move distinctly, and slow down one's actions just enough to allow everything to register. At the same time, you must not appear either mechanical or methodical in anything you do or say. Each action must be both natural and observable. You make yourself "observable" by correctly angling your body toward the camera lens. You become "Natural" on screen by making every movement appear continuous without thinking about continuity.

Now what about fighting on film. If you must slow down to act properly, then you probably have to slow down to fight properly, right? The answer is yes and no.

Let's suppose you are really as fast as lightning and can execute a complete punch, out 1 and back, in 1/10 of a second. If you were being filmed at 24 f.p.s., your punch would take up 2.4 frames altogether (1/10 of 24). Since this means you would take 1.2 frames to punch out and 1.2 frames to retract, you would already be into the second frame when you made contact, and you'd be back in a normal position by the third frame. In this blur of motion, we would never see you hit your opponent. Upon close examination of the three frames, all we would see is a slight displacement of your elbow and forearm, the rest being out of focus.

Now suppose you get smart and decide to halt that blinding fist briefly upon contact. Not an easy thing to do, remember, for a highly trained killer. With the film still running at 24 f.p.s., your 1/10 of a second punch -- including a fraction of a second to hold the punch at the point of contact -- takes 3.4 frames: 1.2 frames to punch out, one frame to hold and 1.2 frames to retract. Now you've already used up the greater part of four frames, or 1/6 of a second. Not bad; but you're a perfectionist, aren't you? And the fact is most fighters will use up ten frames of about 2/5 of a second to execute the entire motion clearly. Even a novice could move faster by just punching uniformly and without the extra acceleration. So what's the solution to this mind-boggling problem? Simple -- just start slowing the film down!

With the film running along at the new rate of 20 f.p.s. you can now apply your super l/l0-second punch, plus register a hit, while using only one frame to retract--a total of three frames. When this is played on a projector at the normal 24 f.p.s. speed, your three-frame hit takes only 1/8 of a second. Now you're not only a superstar, you punch in the movies like a superstar! In truth, you could have used seven frames to complete your punch, which will still appear as a super 3/10 of a second punch to the audience. For the best results, hold your strike for 1/10 of a second (two frames at 20 f.p.s.) so that the audience doesn't have to work hard to see the hit.

Most directors and fight choreographers in the Far East shoot their kung-fu action sequences at 21 to 22 f.p.s. This makes the action appear somewhat slower than it would at 20 f.p.s., but it compensates by filling in the extra details of body motion - which are just as important. As a general rule, slowing down the film shooting speed makes any motion appear faster but discontinuous, and sometimes almost animated. (Remember the old Keystone Kops films, shot at 18 f.p.s.?) It shouldn’t surprise you to know that most of Bruce Lee's action sequences were shot between 20 and 22 f.p.s. to speed up the action -- but then again that's show business!