Panic at Twenty-four Frames Per Second

Dead Birds is a documentary about the aboriginal people of New Guinea. Behavior Modification shows early attempts to treat autism. Orange is an erotic film in which a man peels and eats an orange. Slowly.

I worked my way through undergraduate school as a film projectionist, screening movies for the university’s classes. It didn’t pay much, but had other benefits: flexible hours, easy work, interesting subject matter. The only problem was that I was assigned to show the most popular films in the college’s library so many times that after only a few months on the job it became impossible for me to stay awake while they were running. At some point I trained myself to fall asleep during the opening credits of these films and wake up just before the loose end of the trailer began to flap against the projector stand.

Color Chromatography demonstrates—you guessed it—color chromatography. Sirene is a 1968 animated short about the destruction of the natural environment. A Normal Birth shows a normal (human) birth; at least three people would faint during each showing. This is Marshall McLuhan. I assume no explanation is necessary.

Behavioral Studies of Obedience was a favorite of the psychology department: a sixty-minute film summarizing experiments by Dr. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, in which an actor posing as a doctor was able to persuade some of the study’s subjects to administer what they believed were painful, even lethal electric shocks to another actor in an adjacent room. The telecommunications and film department couldn’t get enough of Why Man Creates, an Oscar-winning twenty-five-minute short by famed film title designer Saul Bass. I must have shown that movie more than 700 times in the four years I worked for audio/visual services, sometimes four times a day. The film professors also ordered older classic feature films for their classes—Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dark Victory. And two evenings a month the student union would sponsor a more contemporary feature film—Easy Rider, Woodstock, Last Tango in Paris—at one of the campus’s bigger venues: outdoors in the Greek bowl or in a large hall in the student center.

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I’m telling you all this because it’s important that you believe I know what I’m talking about. Because if you’re a film buff, as I am, what I’m about to reveal will sour your future film-viewing experience as sure as there will always be a dirt-blackened piece of Bazooka imbedded in the carpet under your theatre seat. Yet all you need do to continue enjoying classic films is to read no further. Turn three pages and go on to the next story or essay or poem in whatever journal you’re holding in your nervous fingers. That’s what I’m advising you to do.

Why would I offer you information so disturbing, so disruptive, that it would merit this warning? My reason may be as simple as the fact that misery loves company. Or you may imagine me as Mephistopheles, seducing you, as Faust (whose story has been made into no less than four different movies) was seduced, with an appeal to your obsessive thirst for esoteric knowledge. After all, here you are, still reading after I’ve advised you to stop. What can I do in the face of such determination? How can I deny you what you’re willing to risk so much to discover? But I’m not a monster. I’ve given you an out.

Now your curiosity begins to get the better of you. Your heart quickens; you feel you must read on. A true film buff, you thrill to the obscure and thrive on the arcane. While viewing Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women in Love, only you among your friends noticed that sliced bread was used in a scene that takes place in 1920, eight years before pre-sliced bread was commonly available. In Casablanca, guns switch from one hand to the other or disappear entirely between takes. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ hand shifts from his left pocket on one side of a cut to his right on the other faster than you can pop a Junior Mint. These are the kinds of things you search for, and revel in.

But this story has nothing to do with trivia. You can find that stuff on the Internet.

By now you suspect I may be teasing you, that I’m dangling my “secret” in front of you as though it were an unreleased clip from Terry Gilliam’s latest attempt to film Don Quixote. I may as well forge ahead, you think, see what it’s about. Maybe you’re so sound of mind that you needn’t fear what I might say. I could be over-exaggerating (though I assure you I’m not). Wouldn’t it be wiser to be safe, to heed my warning to stop? What secret could possibly be worth the risk of ruining one of life’s great pleasures? Don’t be the Sam Spade of this story; don’t carry things too far. This is your last chance.

 

There are just two things you need to know in order to see a film as a projectionist sees it:

  1. The largest film reel that fits on a 16mm projector (the kind I operated) holds sixty minutes worth of film. 35mm reels hold less—maybe thirty minutes—because the film is twice as heavy. Since full-length feature films are longer than sixty minutes, they’re always on more than one reel, sometimes four or more.
  2. To achieve a smooth, apparently continuous film screening, two projectors are used. The first is for odd-numbered reels, the second for even. The projectionist handles the “switchover” from the active projector to the one loaded with the next reel.

So, how does a projectionist know exactly when to switch?

Before I answer, here’s another question: did you notice anything unusual near the bottom of the first page of this essay? Did anything catch your eye, distracting you for a second or two, perhaps diverting your attention, interrupting the flow of your thoughts? If not, go back and look now. Do you see the black circle near the right margin about three inches from the bottom of the page? What if I told you that from now on, every print book or journal will have a black circle like this one after the final paragraph of every chapter or story to signal that you should go on to the next page? In fact, just to make sure you don’t miss it, there will be a “warning” circle two inches above the final one. How long do you think it would be before your subconscious begins to keep a constant watch for that warning circle? Would it distract you from what you’re reading?

This is the solution film distributors came up with to solve the switchover problem. A small hole is punched in one frame of the film ten seconds before the end of each reel. When that frame passes through the projector at a speed of twenty-four frames-per-second, a small white dot or flash appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. This GET READY! warning is followed ten seconds later by another flash: SWITCH! And the projectionist flips the switch on the second machine, where the next reel has been cued-up at the first frame.

No doubt you’re thinking, a twenty-fourth of a second? That’s what all this is about? Big deal!

I admire your confidence, but yours is the reaction of someone who has never noticed the dots, or perhaps thought they were just random scratches in the film. All that has changed as of this moment. Now that you know what they are, you’ll always see them. Soon you’ll find yourself obsessed by the watch for dots, your heart drumming in your chest at the “GET READY!” signal, your nerves tightening. It seems too long to be just ten seconds. A panic sets in. Did you miss it? Suddenly, the second flash, SWITCH!, and you relax, you can breathe again, and you return to the film with fitful attention, almost ignoring the plotline, impatient with the dialogue, silently estimating, over and over, the interval until the next reel change. And so you’ll become, like me, an anxious addict, counting the minutes, twitchily waiting for the next visual twang, finding relief, at last, only in a brief flash of light.

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I’ve dragged you to the brink of the abyss, but the final step you must take yourself. I have one last instruction for you, one I know that, having come this far, you will not be able to resist. The next time you’re watching an old movie, keep an eye on the upper-right-hand corner of the screen starting at the twenty-five minute mark. I’ll bet you’ll see switchover dots. And, having once seen them, will never be able to not see them again.

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Jim Brega Jim Brega earned his BA from San Diego State University and an MFA from the University of Illinois. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Lime Hawk, Hippocampus Magazine, Red Savina Review, Plenitude, and r.kv.r.y. He lives near San Diego. You can find more of Jim’s work on his blog: jimbrega.com.