Saturday, September 15, 2007

Criterion vs. Bordwell - Time and a Frame of Film

There is a fascinating post up ("Reality at 25/24 Frames per Second") on the Criterion Collection's blog "On Five," in which Peter Becker discusses a problem with transferring Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, Rainer Werner Fassbinder) because Fassbinder shot it at 25 frames per second for easier transfer to the European "PAL" television standard, which has a frame rate of 25 frames per second (instead of the theatrical standard 24 frames per second).

What would David Bordwell say, I wonder? Bordwell has written a fascinating article ("My name is David and I'm a frame-counter") about the care that some directors put into the exact timing of certain scenes, and how that pacing can be changed by the various home video transfer processes.

Criterion's concern is over DVD image quality, and I concur that I would not want to see the blurred frames or the unnatural movement that attempting to preserve the correct pacing would produce. However, I'm also a big fan of silent films, and I cannot stand when silent films are transferred at an improper frame rate, resulting in sometimes ridiculously faster movements, completely undermining the performances of the actors.

Not being technically informed enough to wade into this discussion, I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the decision Criterion is making here, because it is a single frame per second of difference, unlike when a silent film shot at 16 frames per second is outrageously presented at 22 or 24 frames per second.

But I really want to hear what David Bordwell might have to say about this perplexing conundrum (and enact the matchup promised in this blog entry's title!). I certainly know he'd like to see the correct pacing of the film footage at its originally intended projection speed, but would he give them a pass on this? Would he prefer some interpolated frames and blurring?! I can only guess that interpolated frames might be a higher crime, and that a 1-frame-per-second adjustment is probably a forgivable misdemeanor in David's book.

(Note: In David Bordwell's article, he mentions that this 25-frames-per-second film shooting rate is not uncommon in European productions because of the television transfer considerations. So this is not a unique problem. It just becomes more noticeable with especially long films like Berlin Alexanderplatz (15 1/2 hours), or Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr) that Bordwell mentions in his article (7 1/2 hours).)

David Bordwell, along with Kristin Thompson, writes an excellent blog here. Together they are also the co-authors of my indispensable film school book Film History: An Introduction as well as Film Art: An Introduction. A personal favorite blog entry by David Bordwell is "Shot-consciousness", in which he encourages everyone to look at how the shots in a film are framed, and how to appreciate shot composition as an integral part of the art of cinema.
(Since they are usually long, I recommend printing out Bordwell's articles for more leisurely reading and less online distractions.)

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