The Artist, won an Oscar. This marked the first time a silent movie has been nominated for an Oscar in more than 80 years; the last silent movie to be nominated was The Patriot in 1928, the second year the Academy Awards were given.
Despite the decrease of interest in silent movies in recent years, many industry leaders agree that making a silent movie teaches the most important elements of film production. Many consider the art of motion pictures to have matured in the silent era (1894 to 1929) and many argue aesthetic quality decreased when talkies were first introduced.
The success of The Artist stems from a number of causes; The Artist is a film-lover’s film and tribute to early Hollywood, it explores the film-making craft and business, it follows a relatable story with nostalgia for a simpler past and it has timing on its side. The 1920s transition to talkies—a source of much conflict for the protagonist, silent-movie actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)—parallels the transition to digital today.
Silent, dialogue-free movies have universal appeal – and they can be marketed, and sold, around the world because there are no language barriers. They are also a great exercise in technique, and there’s no reason not to be able to make one as entertaining as any film with sound.
If you want to try your hand at creating a silent film, here are 8 pointers to keep in mind.
Watch old silent movies (like Charlie Chaplin’s) to get ideas. Watch the dancing films of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to learn more about body expressivity. Even try watching a favourite contemporary movie with no sound to see how much of the story gets across.
If you can, bring your camera with you as much as possible, and record short movement clips. Store these in a folder to draw on for future projects.
Story can make or break any film, but this is especially true with silent movies. With silent films, no room exists for dull expositions. Spend as much time as possible creating a story that can be told well, or even told best, through visuals (such as actions, appearances and behaviours). Focus on movements and gestures, and borrow from dance and mime. Large, exaggerated motions translate well to silent films, but balance these also with subtlety (i.e. a raised eyebrow, a quivering lip—especially when paired with a close-up shot).
Choose actors with an interesting appearance or diverse look. Speech is not as important as physical expressivity; look for actors who tell the story with their bodies, emoting with gestures and faces. You might select actors who have a knack for physical comedy, or even dancers. Consider too the number of characters you need, and the possibility (and budget savings) of a silent film following just one protagonist through a single-character story.
4. Camera and Set
Because visual elements are the core of silent movies, camera quality is crucial. Set also plays an important role in the story, so consider contrasting locations to follow the plotline and using existing locations since background noise does not matter.
5. Cinematography Techniques
Silent films are an opportunity to experiment with colour tinting or black and white films. A mix of both can speak volumes and set the tone of different scenes, but be sure to maintain some consistency.
Try playing with different camera angles and zoom levels. Some cinematic techniques, such as a blurred haze or iris-in and iris-out, are historical elements of silent films.
Embrace the fantastic. Silent films are excellent chances to explore the minds of characters and enter their imaginary dream worlds, which can be portrayed through different tints and colours (or lack thereof)
6. Sound and Music
Although sound in a silent movie may seem like an oxymoron, scores almost always accompanied early silent films. In fact, silent movies were once the greatest employer of instrumental musicians. Some critics argue that any sound detracts from the pure aesthetic qualities of silent films, but instrumental or wordless vocal music can add to the mood of the movie. One option is hiring a composer to collaborate on your film project, which enables you to create the precise score you desire. Make sure you can match your story length to the length of your score – leave yourself room in the edit.
Consider other repetitive audio too, such as a heartbeat, heavy breathing, traffic noises, nature sounds, clocks ticking, bells or anything you record yourself.
7. Editing and Final Touches
Be daring with different editing techniques. Experiment with reversal, slow or fast motion, cuts, collage and layering. With silent films you have more room to play because there is no dialogue to worry about.
Title cards can be a big assistance with silent movies. Early silent movies designated a title writer, separate from the scenario writer. Have at least an opening title and ending credits. Intertitles can be used for transitions, such as “later that day” or “ten years earlier,” or to explain a complicated piece of the story. Be wary of over-titling, though—remember you are making a motion picture, not writing a book.
8. Test your Film
Run your film by a variety of test viewers to make sure they understand anything you want them to understand, and edit according to their feedback. Consider too your intended audience; what appeals to critics may be lost on mainstream viewers, who tends to like movies that are what they expect: flash, pop and some cleverly quotable dialogue.
When people talk about making a silent film, they either mean making a film without sound, or a film that looks like an early twentieth century silent era movie (look at Canadian independent filmmaker Guy Maddin for a good example of these). The Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) has it’s 31st edition in October this year. (At the same time as Raindance, see how un-partizan we are?)
By making your own silent film, you will not only prove and improve your visual storytelling skills, you will come to appreciate that much more of the history of cinema.
Want to make a silent film on the go? Consider MacPhun’s Silent Film Director. Besides a number of special features like high-quality effects, silent tracks, movie projector background noise and the ability to incorporate photos, the application (available in the U.S. App Store’s photography section) includes an option to enter a mobile movie in its YouTube Contest