Questions from the Google: How do I make my own silent movie?

Here’s a query that has shown up a lot lately:

“How do I make my own silent movie?”

Well, kids, there are hundreds of ways this could go wrong but here goes.

Instead of focusing on filmmaking techniques, I am going to focus on the most common mistakes modern moviemakers trip over when trying to make a silent film.

1. Sound is not something that is missing.

When you listen to podcasts, do you feel that they are incomplete because there are no visuals? Of course not. We recognize that podcasts and radio are very different from television.

Well, you need to bring that perspective to silent films as well. It is a visual art that tells its story (gasp!) visually.

canadian-miss-prissy-britches
The gestures say it all
2. Cool it with the title cards.

Too many modern silent films fall into the trap of jamming in title cards wherever possible. Real silent films trusted their audience to get the point without too many titles. Plus, silent movie fans knew to read lips. Some of the best dialogue never made it to the title cards.

3. Lay off the gimmicks.

That jittery, sepia “silent film” effect is cute and all but it’s a cheesy way to get your point across. Also, you can try writing your title cards in highfallutin’ English to make things feel old-fashioned but actual silent movies often kept things simple.

red-mill-BABY

4. Put thought into the music.

Silent movie music is a huge part of the experience. Don’t just lay a track of some bozo pounding out ragtime.

5. Watch as many silent movies as you can.

It’s amazing how many people ignore this advice. You see, the popular conception of a silent movie has almost nothing in common with real silent movies. You need to watch the real deal to get the details right.

And finally, here is a little video I made about common pitfalls.

16 Comments

  1. Ian Chodikoff

    A funny thing, visual representation: We have so many methods of disseminating visuals yet many people have asked me how can a silent movie carry a sophisticated plot without sound. Your video–and commentary–is actually helpful to orient people how to watch this art form. If more people knew how to “read” a silent film, then I wonder if there’d be a new way visually communicate with our smartphones. We’d evolve from Selfies to Silents.

    P.S. On another topic, in advance of Hillary Clinton vowing to release any information the government has on UFOs, do you know any silent films with UFOs as a subject matter? Beyond anything like Méliès’s outer space journeys and the amazingly accurate Frau im Mond, I can’t think of any films where aliens visited us, kidnapped us, or otherwise showed their faces. Why does this makes me less inclined to believe in aliens?!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Glad you enjoyed! Yes, people really need to experience silent film in order to understand their power. I hope lots more viewers give them a shot.

      Regarding aliens in silent film: I’m not sure if these count as UFO films but here are some of the other alien-oriented sci-fi films of the silent era. Enjoy!

      A Trip to Mars (1910)
      An Excursion to the Moon (1908)
      A Trip to Jupiter (1909)
      Aelita Queen of Mars (1924)

      (I’m sure there are more but this is what I can remember now.)

  2. Ian Chodikoff

    Thank you! You’re a master. Although these and other films are about us venturing to other planets (with the exception of Aelita which is some kind of utopian/dystopian dream-up with gorgeous costumes), maybe I should rethink my question…

    What was the first film where we were spooked by visitors from another planet–with or without almond-shaped eyes? (Could this morph into your November theme?) I know of Algol (1920) but this seems to be a moral tale, and neither E.T. nor an Alien.

    Now I won’t be able to go to sleep knowing there might be non-CGI’d pre-1950s Panavisioned aliens wearing Max Factor make-up clawing at my window, like Orlac no less.

  3. Joe Thompson

    Hi Fritzi. Excellent advice. When I made Super 8mm movies with my friends, we watched a lot of silent movies. We learned from our early efforts that it is hard to play things visually that people will understand. I think audiences are not as accustomed to watching carefully. I liked your subtitling example done with the Thomas Meighan. I have seen that sit down gesture a lot more in silent movies than in real life.

  4. nitrateglow

    One of my favorite web shows Renegade Cut had an episode (I forget which one) where the host Leon Thomas said that nowadays people expect films to convey the most information through dialogue rather than through image. We “listen to” rather than “watch” movies, or something like that. I agree. And that’s a shame. Film is a visual medium. It never needed words to begin with.

  5. Birgit

    This was a great lesson that I hope others see because you hit the nail on the head. So many have no clue about the silent film and how it looked and sounded which is such a shame

  6. popegrutch

    Nicely done, and very succinct. The one thing I’d add (and this goes for all filmmakers, really) is: Learn to EDIT! Before you even get serious about writing or shooting a movie of your own, download some public domain clips and a free video editor (Vimeo’s is good enough) and try re-editing them to see what you can do. Learn what it does to change the timing and juxtaposition of images. Make a boring clip funny, intercut things that used to be separate, make a slow scene go faster, draw out the tension by cutting away from action. Silent films are easier to re-cut because you don’t have to worry about the soundtrack, but that doesn’t mean there’s no skill involved. If you’ve learned the skill before you shoot, you’ll know how important it is to give yourself options during the filming process.

  7. Ian Chodikoff

    All of this goes to reinforce the basic fact that great storytelling is an art. And great storytelling can be incredibly rich and sophisticated: Better (not) said than done! And never overstate the obvious. Folks like Carl Dreyer wanted to whittle down the intertitles to practically zero.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, and lots of intertitles were actually seen as a hallmark of low budget silent films. Poverty row studios would cheaply pad out their runtime by adding unnecessary title cards.

Comments are closed.