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    Unspooling the Mystery of Twitter's Epic 'Top Gun' Flip Book

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    So here’s a fun stupid Twitter thing: @555uhz. It’s an account that since late January has been posting nothing but single frames of the 1986 Tony Scott / Tom Cruise movie Top Gun twice an hour, in sequential order, starting from the Paramount logo in the opening sequence. Right now, we’re at the officer’s club with Maverick, and all of the top guns are looking really sharp. I don’t remember how far this is into the movie, but it’s pretty early on.

    To recap, that's two frames of the film every hour since January—with subtitles, no audio—and we're only in the first act of the film. Over the past week, the account—now at over 6,000 followers, with no folowees—has received some notice around the blog world as another one of those weird horse_ebooks / ghost-in-the-machine sort of bots. The slight difference here is the method underlying this madness. Rather than retweeting in iambic pentameter and rhyme or turning recent headlines into schizhophrenic news alerts, for instance, @555uhz is applying some fairly straight-forward math applied to the old format of film.

    The math is this—and hopefully it’s not way more obvious to you than it was to me. Movies typically play at 24 frames per second, with some recent exceptions coming courtesy of Peter Jackson and other filmmakers who think frame flicker is a real problem to humans and we need 48 fps instead (we don't).

    So, if you were to scroll up and down through the account’s tweets until you find yourself watching a reasonable flip book of the movie, you’ve honed in on 24 frames per second. 24 fps isn't arbitrary either; it's thought that the human retina holds an afterimage of something for 1/25 of a second and that's some part of why you see continuous motion in a film instead of discrete pictures and blackness.

    But, the real framerate of @555uhz isn’t 24 frames per second, nor is the Twitter account sampling 24 frames per second. The real framerate is the rate at which the account posts frames to Twitter, just like the real framerate in a movie is the rate at which a spool of film projects images onto a screen. We can figure the Top Gun tweet-rate out easily enough: 48 tweets a day, two tweets an hour. That winds up being 2/60 or .034 frames per minute. Now, convert that to frames per second: .000555. Look familiar?

    Frames per second is a more specific version of the unit Hertz (Hz), and 1 Hz is just one full cycle of some periodic thing (like sound waves, for example) happening in one second. So we actually have .000555 Hz, which converts nicely to 555 microHertz (uHz). That is to say, we’re not looking at a Twitter account: We’re watching a movie at the slightest fraction of the normal speed, and without sound. (If you must enter the dangerzone, there's always this.) 

    Because @555uhz's uses a lower sampling rate of the film, we get 7,000 or so total frames of Top Gun, rather than the original half a million frames. That means, at the stream's current speed of two frames per hour, we can watch Top Gun in a mere matter of months, rather than what would otherwise amount to years. If you've been meaning to see the film, no rush: based on the apparent math behind @555uhz, you have approximately three months left to watch this version of Top Gun.

    There's something funny about dwelling on a random frame of a film—that split-second during the star's close-up you're not meant to see—and there's something didactic too. Unlike the moving image format—certainly an ever more popular one, we're told—we get to dwell on each frame, let the story flow for us at a slower burn. And with each new follower and retweet and favorite, the Hollywood sheen and beating patriotic drive of Tony Scott's fighter pilot epic enters the age of the Internet, breaking apart into a million little pieces. 

    Update: The age of the Internet: On Sunday night, it a number of images on the account have been blocked "in response to a request from the copyright holder"—presumably, Paramount Pictures. @555uhz may or may not be fair use—that's up to the courts to decide. But that doesn't mean this weird robotic flip book isn't a new minor form of art, if not a new medium.