TURN MUTE ON
The history of film is full of evolution. Over a century of technologies and techniques have built on one another to always improve our viewing experience. It started with moving pictures, followed by music and voices, then colour, Panavision, surround sound, home cinema, IMAX, 4K digital and most recently immersive 3D.
In all the excitement you may not have noticed that Silicon Valley have ushered in the next revolution in film that is now served about 8 billion times a day.
Welcome to the Mobile Age of Silent Movies.
OMG SAD FACE
I won’t pretend not to be disappointed by this film format. This isn’t why I went to art school.
There are no TED Talks describing a utopian future where film is rendered silent again.
This is a pragmatic format engineered by social media companies trying to sell advertising space without irritating users too much.
This has become the moment when our scripts and production values aren’t defined by a controllable number of screen types or viewing channels. Film today is delivered to any type of screen in all sorts of native formats and now has to work without audio as well.
In this era of cinematic maximalism no normal filmmaker is experienced at working within these restrictions, if they’re even thinking about them. This is a media procurement decision that creative work needs to react to otherwise the quality will stink and our craft is undermined.
Thankfully our industry loves a small box of creative tools to work with. I think we should embrace this eccentric turn of events and make epic silent films.
So, does anyone remember how to make silent movies?
SSHHH. DON’T SPEAK.
Watch normal TV sometime and you’ll notice how words there are in ads. Blah, blah, blah. Advertising doesn’t shut up.
Marketers appear to be stuck in a 1960’s mindset that they should use pictures and sound to explain their product or service!
Facebook users say that has to stop.
If Marketers ask for “mobile first” film they’ll have to sacrifice a few spurious “reasons to believe” in favour of a story viewers might notice and understand on their phones.
Remember that if you’re Facebook mobile first, audio is second.
The “creative response” to this engineering solution has been generally poor. It’s mostly clickbait with a striking opening visual followed by titles. Horribly lazy stuff. The hope that programmatic buying will solve this underestimates the public’s ability to skip an ad.
But all’s not lost.
THE SILENCE OF THE MOVIES
People like Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Joon-ho Bong and Akira Kurosawa have already done the hard work of perfecting filmmaking within severe technical limitations.
I’ve pulled out three aspects that we could apply to our films to make them better.
“I have to think like Bugs Bunny, not of Bugs Bunny.”
- Chuck Jones
Chuck Jones was the director Loony Tunes for 50 years and learned how to distill his characters so that you knew exactly where you were in any Bugs Bunny cartoon as soon as you saw who was involved. He asks two questions.
What do they want and how does that make them act?
- Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone to eat carrots so he only fights when provoked.
- Daffy Duck wants glory and recognition so he always starts the fight.
- Wile E Coyote wants to eat the Road Runner so he never gives up.
- John Lewis heroes want to share the joy of Christmas so they always give a thoughtful gift.
- The Most Interesting Man in the World wants to live life to the fullest so he does.
In the vast majority of advertising films we rarely think beyond the message we need to convey. We just write the words. But if you invent some simple motivation for your characters they’ll communicate better.
This may be a self-evident concept but it’s one we miss too often when we’re trying to cram a lot of messages into a piece of communication.
“I’m not trying to be sexy. It’s just my way expressing myself when I move around.”
- Elvis Presley
When you can’t use voices to direct the viewer’s attention and explain what’s happening you need to use action to do that job. Subtitles are a poor substitute because reading your way through a film on your phone is rarely satisfying.
Two directors who use movement and the camera brilliantly are Joon-ho Bong (Korea) and Akira Kurosawa (Japan). Books are written about this subject but here are a few things to consider when writing a script:
- You can use movement to direct attention
- We look at who is speaking or being spoken to
- Put the focus character closer to the light or closer to the lens
- The eye is attracted to movement
- Put important things in the centre of the frame
- How are the characters turned to camera?
- We look where others look - your characters can show the viewer what to focus on
- How the character moves is determined by what they’re thinking, and how they move tells the viewer what they’re feeling
My point here is that dialogue is useful but the story should be told with action. You have to see the story happen.
“There are moments in many of his movies that are just poetic…”
- Billy Crystal (talking about Buster Keaton)
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
- Henry David Theroux
Buster Keaton had a rule for his films. If the stunt couldn’t be done in one shot he’d drop the stunt. No cuts, no compromises.
He was selling a spectacle to his audience. There was no canned laughter to tell you something was funny. No dramatic voice telling you how to feel. He could only use square black and white pictures presented in sequence so he had to make sure the picture grabbed you by the eyeballs.
Visual storytelling usually works better from one particular angle. If you change the angle of the camera, you change the story and it might not work as well or it may work better.
Wes Anderson is obviously influenced by Buster Keaton. I think that’s why people remember the pictures in his films so vividly. They’re very clearly thought through. And if Wes Anderson can learn from silent movies so can we.
My lesson from Buster is that you have to see the joke, not hear the joke. Show drama don't tell drama.
Then when you do add sound to your film it will be so much more powerful.
THE GREAT SILENCE
It’s a strange world where silent movies make a big comeback but I think creative people have to go with the flow and put the effort into making great silent movies again.
For further reading I suggest Every Frame A Painting which is great series about film and editing.