“Undercranking”, the Key to the Silent Film Universe

I don’t know when I first noticed the aspect of Silent Film that I quasi-retroactively refer to as “undercranking”. It’s also unclear when actors and directors in silent movies started using it. But it does appear to be ubiquitous in practice from a certain point in the early or mid-‘teens through the rest of the silent era.

It is, namely, this:

If you run film (or video) faster than normal speed, it looks like footage that’s being played back faster than normal speed. Silent Film is projected at faster-than-taking speed, and yet it doesn’t look that way. Everything registers, clearly,

It’s the difference between what Benny Hill was doing or the undercranked sped-up bits in Richard Lester films and any silent film comedy made before 1930. If you really look at it.

I don’t know when my awareness of and curiosity about this first began to percolate in my brain, but there’s a definite moment of curiosity while I was in film school that stuck with me — running in the background — that I’ll get to in an upcoming post in this series. I can tell you from searching in my iCal for a particular event that I’ve spent the past ten years or so researching this, looking for clues and pulling back the curtain to understand this phenomenon.

There isn’t much documentary evidence, but a few smoking guns have turned up, and I’m now certain that what we see in Silent Film is a deliberate practice, one that everyone was in on and one that I have figured out how it works, both in theory and in practice.

Ben Model at Ohio University Zanesville, giving his talk “Undercranking: The Magic Behind the Slapstick” in October 2010, at the Charlie in the Heartland conference. (photo by Joe Clark)

The first time I presented a talk on the subject, after I’d posted some video explorations YouTube and gotten a lot of positive comments, was at the “Charlie in the Heartland” conference, a Chaplin-centric conference organized by Lisa Stein-Haven and held at the Zanesville campus of Ohio Univeristy in 2010. The response to my talk and demonstration was overwhelmingly positive, and what clinched it for me was when, after my talk, people came up to me to chat. My NYC silent comedy co-horts and others gathered around along with David Shepard (Film Preservation Associates and Blackhawk Films) and David Robinson (author of the go-to biography “Chaplin: His Life and Art”).

My silent comedy pals agreed with my theories and findings and, David Robinson said “How did we miss this all these years?!”

The following string of posts will cover what I’ve discovered about “undercranking” in Silent Film.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#39) to this one is here.
The next post (#41) is here.

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Robert Towers

Excellent article. I have been enjoying all of them. Thanks for taking the time and effort.