What is overcranking? Is it just a relic of filmmaking’s past? Or is it something that we still do today? We’re going to answer those questions by exploring the history of overcranking in film – then we’ll break down some overcranking examples from movies and YouTube videos. By the end, you’ll be ready to overcrank shots in your own videos.
Science Behind Overcranking
First, let’s define frame rates
Here’s a cinema secret: most films are recorded and played back at 24 frames per second. That means each second contains 24 individual images, aka frames. When a shot is recorded at under the cinema-standard 24 frames per second, we say the shot is "undercranked." When it’s played back, it will appear to play at super-speed.
When a shot is recorded at over the cinema-standard 24 frames per second, we say the shot is "overcranked." When the shot is played back, it will appear to play in slow-motion. Here’s a great video that explores cinema frame rates in further detail.
Not every film is recorded at a standard-rate of 24 frames per second; some are recorded at 30, 48, even 120. The most important point is that most films have a plurality frame rate – that is to say that a single frame rate, whether it be 24, 30 or otherwise, is more frequent than any other frame rate.
For the frame rate to go faster or slower than the standard simply means to undercrank or overcrank.
What is overcranking?
Overcranking is when the frame rate of a shot is higher than the standard used throughout the rest of the film. Since the cinema standard frame rate is 24 frames per second, we usually refer to any video shot at more than 24 frames per second as overcranked. During the Silent Era, anything over 16 frames per second was considered overcranked.
Exploring the origins of overcranking
Overcranking began in earnest as a method for slowing down motion pictures. Matter of fact, undercranking was much more popular in cinema during the Silent Era; even long into the Golden Age. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that overcranking was widely popularized.
Still, many of the best directors of all-time like Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein toyed with slowing down the motion speed for dramatic effect. If you’re familiar with Soviet Montage Theory, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Eisenstein was one of the first big-names to test out overcranking with a big-scale movie. That film would be Battleship Potemkin and that sequence would be the Odessa Steps. Let’s review.
Eisenstien helped proliferate undercranking, overcranking, and overtonal montage with the Odessa Steps sequence. Years later, Kurosawa subtly used overcranking in Seven Samurai. But perhaps the best early example of undercranking and its effect on cinema can be found in Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old – which takes archival footage from the Great War and restores it, frame rate included.
As Jackson explains in the video, videographers used to hand-crank film so there was a massive discrepancy in the speed at which film was recorded. Considering the fact that this footage was taken during the Great War, we have to assume that few shots were cranked at the same speed. Thus, Jackson and his team had to edit the footage to create a standard frame rate.
History of Overcranking in Hollywood
Slow motion in Hollywood
For all intents and purposes, overcranking and slow motion are the same thing. Well, perhaps more clearly: overcranking is the process through which slow motion is achieved. Semantics aside, slow motion has had an enormous effect on Hollywood cinema.
Perhaps no film had a greater influence on the popularity of slow motion than The Matrix. Let’s check out the famous “bullet time” scene to see how overcranking made it seem like Keanu Reeves was dodging bullets in real time.
Pretty cool right? Nowadays the “bullet time” slow-mo effect has become somewhat of a cliche – but at the time it was revolutionary. If you want to see how this scene was created, check out the video below.
After the release of The Matrix, Hollywood went kind of crazy with overcranking. The problem with overcranking is that if it’s used too frequently, it can nauseate the viewer. This is because our eyes like to see smooth motion – it’s the same reason why video games with unlocked frame rates can cause motion sickness in players.
No movie has ever done a worse job of overcranking (and undercranking) than Tony Scott’s Man on Fire. Don’t believe me? Check out this next clip.
Watching this scene gives me a migraine. Maybe that’s what Scott intended – but I’d like to think he wasn’t a sadist. The point is that movies have a standard frame rate for a reason: without a standard frame rate, things seem to jump from place to place devoid of motion rules. Overcranking can have a visceral effect like it does in The Matrix if it’s used sparingly.
Slow Motion in Modern Video
Overcranking is everywhere
Overcranking isn’t only used in movies; it’s used in product shots, sports replays, and other videos as well. Perhaps you’ve seen overcranked videos on The Slow Mo Guys YouTube channel. If not, check out some awesome footage that was recorded at 1000 frames per second below.
As cameras have gotten more and more functional, slow motion shooting has become easier and easier to shoot. Well, in principle it was always easy (you just cranked fast), but in practice it was difficult because cameras were few and far between!
We also see slow motion videography used in sporting events to review important plays.
The NFL uses a lot of cameras (115 in fact for the 2019 Super Bowl) and most of the cameras are extremely high quality. Oftentimes when a play is reviewed, we’re shown an overcranked slow motion replay. This helps us see the play in unprecedented detail.
How to Write Slow Motion in a Script
Overcranking isn’t always conceived in production – sometimes screenwriters make a purposeful point to add it to their scripts. But how do screenwriters write slow motion in a script? Fear not, we’re going to answer that question by looking at examples from The Lord of the Rings, 300, and more. By the end, you’ll know how to write slow motion in scripts.