Shhh… silence in film making

An interesting recent development has crept into film-making. We are probably all aware of the trajectory of cinema history… from the first ‘short’ of a train arriving in the station that had the very first cinema-goers running for the doors, believing the train would crash through the screen; through the silent era; the ‘talkies’ and then the Hollywood blockbusters we know today. And yet… there has also been an interesting journey back the other way: back to deliberate use of silence, instead foregrounding the visual aspect of storytelling.

The current success of the film A Quiet Place is, therefore, intriguing. While not, strictly speaking, a silent film, A Quiet Place does indeed pivot around the role of the silence in the narrative and (and without recourse to plot-spoilers!) the commensurate danger that might come from accidental noise. Indeed the film opens in a grocery store, post ‘event’, where all foodstuffs have been removed… apart from one aisle: the aisle that contains crisps and other noisy consumables. The role of silence is eerie… indeed the film is so quiet that the cinema auditorium itself becomes silent, so that the very crunch of popcorn sounds cacophonous, even our own movements and bodily noise heightened, rendered aurally offensive.

Other examples are found through the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Last year’s Wonderstruck, directed by Todd Haynes, features a principal character called Rose, a runaway child who also happens to be deaf. In 2014, the film The Tribe went one further. Based in a boarding school for deaf and mute children, the film was entirely conveyed via sign language;v the film didn’t even feature subtitles, to help the audience understand. Elsewhere, the Pixar film Wall-E begins with a gorgeous 40-minute silent sequence, and then think back to The Oscars of 2011, where five major gongs (including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Film) went to a silent film, The Artist. And it wasn’t only the critics… the film also made over $130 million around the world.

The age of silent film

The silent era lasted from the tail-end of the twentieth century to almost the 1930s. So why, almost a century after actors started talking in films, should this style of presentation be making a comeback? After all, technology usually involves an essential forward progression; we rarely go back. So having turned the volume up, why turn it back down? Well, if you are looking to make a powerful, but elegant impression with your web video, these are ideas you might want to think about. Perhaps in a quiet room.

Fundamentally there will be a message within your film and that might be communicated more effectively, when told simply. And that might be better managed using a purely visual medium. So remove the chatter and focus on the message. In such cases, cues might be taken from silent cinema, such as the films mentioned above, that have been able to tell complex stories without dialogue. Strip back the special effects and focus, instead, on how you frame your film and convey that message.

That also carries over to the narrative flow of your film. Remove dialogue and all of a sudden we are compelled to tell the story in other ways – we are forced to ‘show’ rather than to ‘tell’. It is rather similar to the elegance found in black and white cinematography – sometimes simple is better – and the same holds true for the soundtrack. A film without dialogue isn’t entirely silent – the use of suitable music can also assist in the total immersion in the experience, a more classy, and effective, medium for conveying your message, and telling your story.

Perhaps, in this current age of noise and bleeps and phones going off left, right and centre, there is a real place for quiet… a place where we can turn down the volume and might, instead, revel in the purely visual. Forced into quietness, other truths are revealed. Perhaps it is time to give everyone’s ears a rest and, instead, revel in the silence. Perhaps it is time for the quiet… where shhhhhhh happens.