Exploring Silent Film, I Feel The Need…The Need For Speed

This fall will mark 40 years since I began accompanying silent films. I’ve played to hundreds and hundreds of them, in a wide variety of venues and in a number of formats. One thing I’ve noticed and that my colleagues have as well is that when a silent movie is being shown “too slow” it’s more work for the accompanist.

I don’t know what this inner metronome is and how I developed it or what it’s based on. You may have experienced the same thing, and many people have their own opinions on what the “right speed” to show silent movies is. What it feels like for the accompanist is the sense that more effort is needed to create or support the film’s drama and forward-motion energy. As if you were not only playing the piano, but also pushing it across the floor.

I’d known what “too slow” seemed like to me, and many of my friends had similar opinions. What stuck in my mind, the question mark over my head if you will, is why the films seemed too slow. The rule of thumb with slapstick shorts I developed years ago is that, once the laughs fall off in a theatrical screening when they’re usually present, you know the running speed’s not right.

But why is that? Why do dramatic silents feel sluggish at a certain projection speed and “better” as a slightly faster one? This is the quest I went on, once I’d come up with a basic but thorough idea of what speeds seemed “right”.

scene from Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) – the Jetson Mills boss (Allan Garcia) orders Mack (Sam Stein) to speed the factory machinery up.

Perhaps it’s because of my background in filmmaking that’s run concurrent with my interested in silent films and with music, that led me to what I’ve turned up. But going down the rabbit hole of trying to understand what making these films was like for the people who made them, what the process was and what really happened on set is what eventually led to my discovering, understanding and grasping what this “look” of Silent Film is, how it works, and how it was executed.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#40) to this one is here.

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Denise

This is something most of us would never consider. As a musician, especially playing against a running film, you were well-positioned to notice this! Very interesting!

Karen Snow

Well, you certainly ended that one on a cliffhanger, guaranteed to make readers who haven’t heard/seen your fabulous lecture on undercranking yell out “WHAT ? WHAT IS THE LOOK?” 🙂