David A Cox on Thu, 18 Apr 2002 17:17:17 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Plugging into Bourgeois Time: The Meaning of "Speed Ramping"

Plugging into Bourgeois Time: The Meaning of "Speed Ramping".

By David Cox, 2002

Many ads and films these days use a process Ive heard described by
industry insiders as as speed ramping in which characters and events are
shown to speed up and slow down suddenly. It is a "look" which for film
makers and critics of my generation (37+) is associated with experimental
film  particularly the Bolex and the 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. 

These days 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 techniques of traditional film, including the familiar
scratching of film, dust and light leak effects, when the material has
been shot on 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 1:185 aspect ratio.

These now commonplace digital techniques that 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. 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,
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 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
you film to the mall instead of send prints via fed ex does not alter the
basic social relations between the film maker and the audience (believe it
or not once a key motivating factor behind those film makers who now
promote 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 mesmirising sound,
and to capture the romance of photochemistry, if not its actual working
means is enough for most young film makers. 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 concievable aspect of
the audio visual experience are so volumous 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. You can't get
a plug in that will make a film engaging when it was not so at the script

Many film-makers have exploited the dramatic potential of over-cranking
and under-cranking movie cameras. Martin Scorsese is for example famous
for slowing action way 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
convertable car. We cut to a close up of the Mafiosis 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 the character through the eyes of
another character. We therefore identify with the character doing the
looking, in this case a young mafioso wannabe, who ogles the rituals of
gangster life as a ticket out of the banality of his home life. 

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. This concern with the "codes of movement of people in
space" based on social conventions he 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, where 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
during cinema's 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 differering 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

So many ads are made today which show people getting into and out of cars
and environments suddenly speeding up then slowing down that it is
difficult to keep count. "Flash frames" and other things are digitally
added to these sequences to suggest that the sequences have been shot on
film (whether they have or not) and the slowness of the film through the
camera has overexposed that film. It is becoming a clich  a kind of
standard off-the-rack technique whose cultural origins actually lie way
back in 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 the experimental film ouvre of film
makers like the surrealist Renee Clair whose "Entre Act" celebrated a
complete collapse of time/space relations. Hans Richter's "Ghosts Before
Breakfast" (1927) cinematically celebrated Dada's deliberate undermining
of conventional time and space relations.  At around the same time in
Russia was the camera fetishist Dziga Vertov, whose "Man With a Movie
Camera" (1929) toyed with frame rates as breathlessly as  it did with
camera platorms. Jean Coctaus films "Orpheus" (1949) and "Testament of
Orpheus" (1960)

The way the shaky camera works in mainstream film and video texts is to
connote a subjectivity of view  the "fly-on-the-walls" view of events.
These are not staged rehearsed and scripted events, we are meant to
conclude, rather natural ones which we just so happen to be privy to. When
Roman Polanski introduced the handheld camera into contexts which in
Hollywood terms were not "motivated" as such in films such as "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. Godards 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 shakey 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
'premiere' plug in, it is like loading and using a flight simulator, 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 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 something is lost. 

The hand-held "Shakey-cam" 'look' is linked to "speed ramping": both
privalege the dynamism of action within the frame as a means of dramatic
emphasis. Both connote a measure of viewer subjectivity: Im watching from
a documentary perspective  this 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

In a nutshell: The role 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 space, non-inear editing and other
computer plug in culture elements have made time also able to be similarly
chopped up and manipulated. Events can happen which defy measurement  how
can the effect of a new technology like a Lexus or a Motorola phone be
shown in terms of ordinary time and ordinary space? These commodities are
altering the 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 couple with this an observation about the perceived social
relations in the texts which employ 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 at April 2002) illustrates this
point well. To make a point about the relationship between catching the
flu and the reduction in productivity the illness gives rise to, the
central figures (the ones whose lives will be at risk if they catch the
Move very slowly at a dream-like pace down escalators etc while others
move around them, a blur in the camera lens.

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. Put simply, if you
have power in our 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

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 shoes
the bullets trajectory in slow motion then goes back to normal speed ("The
Matrix"). Someone is passed in the street, and we see a rapid series of
photographs of that persons 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 sytem. When ads use these same techniques,
it is to achieve an inverse effect: to privalege 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 tranform your social life, this
expensive mobile phone will liberate  you from alienation and win you a

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 anyones control, like a phantom on the loose. As
Marx alluded in "Das Kapital" commodities go from being like a collection
of wood on the floor to a sceance table, to bounce around the room,
quickly, and back to wood again in an instant.

David Cox, 2002 


Biskind, Peter, Raging Bulls and Easy Riders: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock
and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

Vertov, Dziga, Chelovek s kinoapparatom  (1929) (Man with a Movie Camera), 

Scorsese, Martin, Raging Bull (1980)

Scorsese, Martin, Goodfellas (1990)

Deren, Maya, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Cocteau, Jean, Blood of a Poet, The (1933) (USA)

Cocteau, Jean, Orpheus (1949)

Cocteau, Jean, Testament of Orpheus AKA Testament d'Orphe, ou ne me
demandez pas pourquoi!, Le (1960)

Powell, Micheal, Pressburger, Emeric, Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The

Powell, Micheal, Pressburger, Emeric, Red Shoes, The

Polanski, Roman, Chinatown (1973)

Tykwer, Tom, Run Lola Run AKA Lola rennt (1998)

Wachowski, Andy and Larry, Matrix, The (1999)

Fincher, David, Fight Club (1999)

Ritchie, Guy, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Marx, Karl, Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy 

David Cox is a film maker, writer and lecturer in digital screen
production at the school of Film Media and Cultural Studies, Griffith 
University, Brisbane.

email: dcox@netspace.net.au


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