Let’s start with what we are presented with, what we are literally looking at, when we view a Silent Film. Because it is a purely visual medium, although aided and abetted as needed by the music, it’s the visual cues that are the way that we’re getting any information. This is a question I pose to elementary school kids when I present Silent Film to them.
If there’s no way for us to hear the actors talking, how do we know what’s going on?
The performers move in ways that help or allow us to understand the story being told to us. There’s the use of facial expressions, and the use of gesture. There are intertitles — which were originally called “sub-titles” — giving us bits of dialog, of exposition, of information about the scene we are watching.
These are the most obvious, and are the answers I always get from the students. There are also the elements of film itself — photographic composition, camera placement and how close or wide the shot is, lighting, production design, and cutting.
I’m going to cover each of these aspects in detail, in a few posts for each, as there are subtleties and nuances to these. There were also developments and refinements to all of the above that occurred throughout the silent era from the early ‘teens through the advent of talkies.
But one of the most important elements of Silent Film, perhaps one of its unique properties, is this:
There is no wasted screen time in Silent Film.
You can’t get up to go to the bathroom, come back some minutes later, and ask your seat-mate “what’d I miss?”. Not just because you’ll get a scathing shushing, but even if you (quietly) sneeze a couple of times and look back up at the screen, you’ve missed something. You are always being fed information, some kind of data that you need for your right-brain to stitch together.