It’s almost a cliche now but it’s worth repeating. Silent films were never silent. Music remains an essential component of the silent film experience and that is our topic of discussion today. We are going to salute the talented men and women who create the music of the silent movies.
It’s happened to the best of us: We purchase a shiny new silent film, start to watch it and only then discover that the release is bad, bad, bad. Maybe the thing was transferred at the wrong speed. Maybe the soundtrack is atrocious. Maybe some genius decided to re-tint the thing and now it looks like you are watching a movie that had a Jolly Rancher melted onto the print, we’re talking eyeball-searing.
Of course, you didn’t want a bad release but you are stuck with one. Perhaps the copy was too cheap to turn down or it is the only way the movie is released in your country. For whatever reason, you are stuck.
(If you want tips on minimizing this risk, check out my article on choosing silent movie versions.)
Sure, you can kvetch away but you still have a lemon on your hands. All is not lost! Here are some ways to make your folly at least bearable.
Foolish Assumption: I am assuming that the discs, tapes and digital versions of the silent films in question are legally yours and that these fixes will be for your personal use only. If you want to fix up a silent film release for redistribution, well, that is a whole other kettle of fish and not one I will be discussing at this time. If this is your goal, study up on the copyright laws of your country and be very careful.
Fix #1: The Wrong Speed
Silent movie cameras were almost always hand-cranked so speeds varied but they usually ran at a considerably lower frame rate than talkies. Sound movie cameras, on the other hand, were mechanically cranked and 24 frames per second is the standard speed. If you play a silent film at sound speeds, you will end up with a movie in fast-forward.
This is a problem you will likely run into most with cheapy budget editions of silent films. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do.
(You may also occasionally find a silent film that is transferred at a slow speed. The fix will work for this as well.)
Adjust the playback speed on your movie player
Some DVD and Blu-ray players have this function built in but I have had better success using player software on my desktop or laptop. I have listed links to instructions for some of the more popular players:
If your player is not listed, a quick search engine query should tell you whether it can adjust playback speed. There is no exact speed that will work 100% of the time. Eyeball your film until you find a speed that seems to be the most natural. If your player does not support this function, remember that the VLC player is free for legal download.
(Please note that I am just trying to send you in the right direction, I do not offer tech support.)
Of course, this solution will completely ruin the musical accompaniment. Then again, any company that would release a silent movie at sound speed is not likely to be too concerned about music. The film likely has a canned score anyway. No great loss.
And this leads us to…
Fix #2: The Wrong Music
(I think that the single most despised score would have to be the Michael Polher soundtrack for The Penalty. I know I am going to get grief for this but… it kinda grew on me.)
Most silent film veterans agree that music is half the experience and bad soundtrack is truly disastrous. The most common flaws are canned music that does not fit the action, a score lifted from a different film, a repetitive score or a score performed by, say, a goth metal band. (Yes, really.)
Never fear! Help is on the way!
Call in a professional
Sure, you can press your musical friends and family into service but silent film accompaniment is a very challenging skill. You can hire a professional to play for you live but that could get expensive.
The next best thing? Silent film accompanist Ben Model has set up a site that sells full silent movie scores. He has music for, just to name a few, The Love Light, Beyond the Rocks, The Cameraman and, yes, The Penalty. The scores for some Fatty Arbuckle shorts are offered for free download, should you care to sample the wares.
Mr. Model’s scores are matched to specific DVD releases. Other artists have released silent film scores but these are often recordings of live performances and not synced to any disc. Gothic cabaret pianist and singer Jill Tracy prepared a suitable creepy complete soundtrack for Nosferatu and the band Viola Dana has released selections from their excellent score for The General.
So you’re not a musician, don’t know any accompanists and Mr. Model has no score for your movie of choice. What to do now? This is where you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Dig through your music collection and look for something that will fit the film. Another movie’s soundtrack can work well if you mix it right.
Not a soundtrack collector? No money to become one? Musician Kevin McLeod offers soundrack music for download (using a Creative Commons attribution license) and is sure to have something that will work. The Free Music Archive is another good place to look, though the selection is eclectic and the rights and licenses on their material varies. Be sure to read the fine print.
I realize that you are doing what the budget companies do, cobbling together a score. But you are going to be using only music that you like and are likely to show more care than someone who just wants to release an old movie on the cheap. Anyway, it’s better than having Little Annie Rooney‘s dad die to the tune of Jingle Bells. Yes, that did happen.
Once again, this is assuming that your work is for your own personal use and not for redistribution.
One final note. Budget disc companies are unlikely to mend their ways but if you run into an inappropriate score from a larger company like Kino-Lorber, Image, Flicker Alley or The Criterion Collection, be sure to send a polite and specific email or letter detailing your concerns. These companies take silent films very seriously and your feedback may help them produce better discs down the road.
Fix #3: The Wrong Color
Most silent movies were not meant to be black and white. Elaborate tinting and toning made them both colorful and beautiful. Unfortunately, many copies of silent films do not have those colors. This can be especially problematic for movies that rely on color as a plot device, like turning a day-for-night shot a gorgeous blue.
Unfortunately, some film restoration can get… overzealous and we end up with tints and tones that are far, far too bright.
This fix is easier on a television set. Your settings menu should have a section that deal with saturation. You will likely want it somewhere in the 30-70% saturation range. Once again, eyeball things to see if it looks good to you.
Changing your computer’s color settings can be complicated and cause you problems. It is best to deal with the issue within the player software itself. Once again, here are the instructions for some of the more popular players.
WinDVD (does not support)
What if you have the opposite problem? Your silent movie was meant to have color tints but it is black and white. Now all the “night” scenes are ruined! What to do?
Well, this leads up to…
Fix #4: The Nuclear Option
What do I mean? I mean taking the thing to pieces and fixing it yourself.
Once again, I am assuming that this is for personal use only.
Video editing software will allow you to tint a film, slow it down, add a new score, everything. It is a heckuva lot of work but if the film is really important to you, it may be worth it.
I use Sony Vegas, mainly because it is what I am used to. (Not a fan of giving money to Sony but too lazy to learn a new program.) If you don’t have much spending money, Lightworks is quite popular, works for Windows, Linux and Mac (coming soon) and it is cheap. How cheap? Free. (And the Pro version is just $7.99/month as of this writing) I have not used it but I hear it is professional-grade with a fairly steep learning curve.
We silent film fans are a resourceful lot!
My damaged, fuzzy, decayed 8mm print…
I am sorry to say this but print damage, fading and blurriness are not really things that the amateur film fan can handle. Fixing these issues requires a professional-grade computer and some very specialized software and equipment. If you have any DIY fixes that use everyday software and tools, I would be glad to hear about them.
My favorite silent film releases done right!
It is commonly said that the phrase “silent movie” is a misnomer. To be properly appreciated, a silent movie needs appropriate musical accompaniment. But what is considered to be an “appropriate” type of music? No two silent film fans are going to quite agree on that but here are some basic guidelines.