What makes Silent Film interesting?

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By Silent, I mean No-dialogue.

In the film industry, cinematographic works which have no dialogue but only background music and sound effects, had a period of prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, with the growth of “talking pictures”, the artistic quality of silent film decreased in later years, and eventually was replaced by the new “talkies” in the late 1930s. Therefore, what techniques of silent film production should we consider to make it come back and engage its audience?

I came to this question when I joined a group with other three students. We had a four-photo and a short film project called “Melbourne Noir” and each of them needed to shoot in one hour. There were not too many difficulties to say about taking pictures, except for filming, since the only film equipment we had was our mobile-phone, not a professional camera or sound recorder. Then we had to make a decision, silent film. By silent, I mean no-dialogue.

Things started to be uncertain. We were struggling to determine what to film, where to film, and what was the most important factor to make silent film interesting. It may depend on the content, the actor/actress’s performances, post production, including background music and sound effect. Eventually, we reached our conclusion with a mystery but still coherent no-dialogue film. The film not only had to be penetrating, logical, and understandable, but also artistic and attractive. This was a demanding task.

I found that Karlanna Lewis’ (2015) research, ‘Story can make or break any film, but this is especially true with silent movies. With silent films, no room exists for dull expositions.’ This is particularly true. Silent film reaches audience by its visual elements. Hence, an engaging story can not lack of movement and unpredictable ending.

When we shot the first scene of Melbourne Noir film, a decision about one minute footage had been made. Lewis indicated that, ‘Be daring with different editing techniques. Experiment with reversal, slow or fast motion, cuts, collage and layering.’ And a fresh and mystery feeling was created when I added a fast motion on the first seconds of the film, in contrast to the following slow motion footage.

Furthermore, sound and music is also one of the most significant components contributing to the success. ‘In fact, silent movies were once the greatest employer of instrumental musicians’, Lewis said. The emotion of the film has a lot to do with the music, especially when there is no one talking during the whole film, sound must be integrated at the right time, right place and music must have ups and downs to bring dramatics.

However, in my point of view, what makes a most accomplished silent film is the actor. Ray Milland, ‘who had delivered a master class in how to deliver emotion without the need for words’, as Allan Fields (Nuclear physicist/spy for the Soviet Union) in The Thief, a 1952 silent American noir film. I get to know the character and the story through the fear in his eyes and the way he became a thief. With a silent film actor, every gesture, movement, every facial expression must be very subtle and  detailed to make the audience emotional and empathetic, as if they were the characters in that film.

In term, I realize that, to make a successful and interesting silent film, it is required the contribution of many film production departments. A lot of elements need to be in harmony to create a total unity. And to accomplish these factors, students in general and myself in particular need to practice micro and macro research skills, in order to have my product stood in a certain place of the media industry standards.

‘How can the serious screen student resist watching the baby steps, the vitality of childhood, the awkwardness of adolescence, when it is all there, waiting for his attention. How can you love cinema without loving silent film?’

Peter Reiher



Karlanna Lewis. 2014. 8 TIPS FOR MAKING SILENT MOVIES. <http://www.raindance.org/making-silent-films-today-8-tips/.

Keyleigh. 2012. SILENT MOVIES AND THEIR TECHNIQUES. <https://representationsofantiquity.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/silent-movies-and-their-techniques/.

Peter Reiher. 1994. SILENT FILMS – ARE THEY WORTH THE WATCHING?. <http://lasr.cs.ucla.edu/reiher/film_miscellany/silent.movies.html.

Tony D’Ambra. 2013. THE THIEF: SILENCE IS GOLDEN. <http://filmsnoir.net/film_noir/the-thief-1952-silence-is-golden.html/.

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