The point of doing research is to use what you find out to help you make decisions as to what to film, how to film it and what to do when editing it to make it authentic and consistent to your vision and/or aim. I learnt so much when researching that it would take forever to sort it all out in my head and write it all down, and although it was all very interesting, much of it was not directly specifically relevant to this particular project. So in this research section, rather than just putting lots of information about silent movies, I have tried to explain how I made use of what my research showed me, linked in with what we discussed in class, and how it all informed my decisions about the production (and hence, inevitably, my pre-production) and my post production.
What did I look at?
I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to make a comedy rather than a drama. I had tried to watch Battleship Potemkin (1925), as recommended by our tutor Attila. I can see that it must have been revolutionary for its time, but I really didn’t feel a connection with it, and it wasn’t inspiring any ideas in me as to what to film myself. I’m glad I took a look at it though, since doing that confirmed my initial idea of preferring to make a comedy.
I was already familiar with The Great Train Robbery (1903) directed by Edwin S. Porter, as I had researched it as part of my Year 1 Final Major Project, in which I focused on shots using a moving camera. It was an innovative film since it was the first film to use moving shots, in particular a panning shot, since usually shots were filmed with a stationary camera becasue the large, heavy nature of the cameras available at the time made it very hard to move them, and also because originally early filmmakers thought that a moving camera would confuse the audience. Although cranes and dollies started to become more available by the 1920s, and cameras became more mobile each decade, much of silent film making took place with stationary cameras.
It was interesting to look at The Great Train Robbery (1903) this time from a different perspective to how I had looked at it for my Year 1 FMP, instead focusing on the black and white silent movie nature. I noticed a difference to many other silent movies in that it didn’t have intertitles. This did make it harder to follow the story, confirming what I had already been aware of, that careful use (but not overuse) of intertitles is an important part of a silent movie, and I used it in this way when editing my video.
I liked The Circus (1928) The Lion Cage scene, and I felt it connected with me for several reasons. Firstly, it starred one of the most iconic actors of the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin. I have enjoyed his style very much. Secondly, it confirmed my ideas of wanting to do a comedy.
On the subject of stationary or moving cameras, the brief specifically stated that the film should consist of one stationary shot, preferably a long shot. I love interesting shots and hence very much like filming with a moving camera – I requested and got a slider track for my 18th Birthday, I have a gimbal for my phone and I have investigated Steadicams for my camera. So, this very minimal shot idea was quite a challenge for me. But a good one, since it challenged me to think of a story that could be told without the camera movement that I love. And it made me understand some of the challenges faced by early film makers – and that is before even thinking about all the things that we can do now like green screen, which seems an old technology now in the face of CGI, also camera movement including sophisticated drones and all the editing that can be done in post-production due to digital formats. Black and White Silent film makers produced entertaining films under conditions that we would now consider very challenging.
What else did I learn and apply to my film?
Like many genres, we can, as audience members, identify a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton style “Black and White Silent film” even before Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton make any appearance. Why is that? What are some of the things that allow us to make that identification? I knew I would need to work this out if I was going to successfully create a film in that genre.
Silent films are not silent
One thing that my research showed me is that “black and white silent films” are NOT just films filmed in black and white to be watched with no sound. Roughly from the 1890s to the late 1920s is commonly referred to as the “silent era”, although this can vary depending where you look. However, calling them Silent Films is like calling films Film Noir – they are both terms applied after the actual period that films were being made. The terms “Silent Films” and “Film Noir” are both retronyms, terms created after the events to describe and distinguish something afterwards. So, at the time, silent movies were not thought of as silent, nor were they silent.
There was a music soundtrack for the films played by either a pianist, theatre organist or small orchestra depending on the size of theatre. Sometimes this was from sheet music or sometimes it was improvised to match the action on the screen. This showed me that I would need to consider music for my film, which I discuss later.
Dialogue and Intertitles
However, silent films do have no recorded dialogue, and plot points are often shown by careful use (and not overuse) of title cards, called “intertitles”. Dialogue is often shown this way. So, I realised that I would need intertitles to show the plot and dialogue.
However, another thing I learnt is that not all dialogue is shown on the intertitles, only key dialogue. Often it is obvious what is happening and roughly what is being said without a dialogue intertitle, in which case one isn’t used. In The Lion Cage scene in The Circus (1928) you can see that Charlie Chaplin says more to the lady who he asks to open the cage door than the “open the door, quick!” that appears on the intertitle. In my film, you can see that the Announcer, Charlie Gentle, says more than I have put on the intertitle at that point. Actors frequently did this, i.e. they said whatever was appropriate for the scene rather than the exact words on the intertitle, since this gives a more natural performance, without making the audience read loads and loads of words which take up time and distract from the action. I used this research point to only put what I felt was necessary on the intertitles.
Also, I used it when thinking about what story line I could do, to come up with a story that didn’t need much dialogue. I feel that my Musical Chairs idea works well.
Over exaggerated acting
Leading on from this, both from my research and from class discussions, I also noticed that certain actions are emphasised in a way that they wouldn’t be in more modern films. For example, in The Lion Cage scene in The Circus (1928), when the dog comes along and starts barking, Charlie Chaplin puts his fingers in his ears helping the audience to see that the dog is being very noisy. Obviously, this wouldn’t be necessary if we could hear the dog. Also, when he is trying to creep away from the lion very quietly so as not to wake it, he does an over acting sort of creeping, not how you would do it in real life or in a modern film. In this way, silent films are more similar to modern day theatre productions than to modern day films. This is not surprising since, before silent movies, actors were only used to acting on the stage, and being a fair distance away from their audience and hence having to exaggerate their movements and facial expressions in order to get them across to the audience. I have acted a number of times now on stage as part of my drama school, so this is something that I am used to doing, and have noted that when I acted for college friends last year, in their film projects, it was a very different style of acting since, when an expression is important, the camera can get much closer. So, in modern film much more realistic actions and expressions are normal. With silent films being as ground-breaking as they were, no-one was used to acting any differently, and it took time for this change to happen. So, to recreate the style of an original silent movie, I needed my actors to give more pronounced movements and facial expressions.
This is not a criticism of silent films, since there are many different ways to tell a story without words. I saw a comment that “there are moments when silent films are all the stronger for what goes unsaid“. In the film industry, we can frequently learn relevant lessons from how people still told or tell stories when working under what we would now regard as restricted conditions.
Interestingly, although you could think that doing more closeups would show more of the facial expressions and remove the need for over exaggerated movements, in actual fact there was much less diversity in camera angles and shot sizes that we are used to now. I think that even filming more closeups and variety, it would not compensate for the lack of dialogue. Also, since cameras were so less easy to move then, maybe they just hadn’t got to the point in innovation where they were thinking in terms of variety of camera shots and angles. These idea developments take time. At one point it was unthinkable to film a person in frame without showing their legs and feet too, it was thought that that would be way too disturbing for an audience. We have come a long way since then.
Jerky, fast movements
One other thing that audiences usually notice is the jerky, fast movements of the actors. I had identified that as a characteristic trope that I would need to recreate to make the film look authentic. However, I learnt something very new to me here. These films were not deliberately filmed like that, and at the time were not watched like that. We are all used to the side to side quick “waddle” of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character. However, that is not how his original audiences would have seen him. Our tutor, Attila, explained that, at that time, silent films were mostly shot using hand cranked cameras, at variable speeds, with an average speed of about 17 frames per second (fps). When we watch those films now, we usually watch them at 24 fps which is what gives the amusing jerky and odd effect.
So, I needed to decide what I was going to do with this information. I could see 2 options. Would I film at a normal rate and just leave it like that, to recreate that way it would have been seen at the time? Or would I edit it in post-production, using a 17:24 ratio to speed it up to appear as most people currently associate silent films to be. It is possible to get versions of the films re-edited to play at the correct speed now. However, I didn’t know that prior to doing my research, and I don’t think many audiences would know that. It’s probably something, as yet, known more to people in the industry and keen fans. I decided to go with speeding it up since that would be how most audiences would see it as “authentic” when watching it. And also because I am filming a comedy, and the sped up film had more comedic value. Had I been filming a more serious drama then I would probably have decided not to speed it up.
I have already explained my reasoning behind using a stationary shot above, i.e. it is authentic and also is specified in the brief. However, when thinking about what an audience would recognise as an authentic Silent Black and White Film, I am not sure that most people would notice one way or the other. Unless, of course they are a dedicated fan. But since it was part of the brief, it made sense to incorporate it. The single shot specified in the brief is not necessarily authentic since films of the time would have had multiple shots. But they didn’t have as many cuts as our current films do. The brief also mentioned the video being about 30 seconds. We went over that, but that was with encouragement from our tutor Attila, and I think he was right because the length feels natural for this story – not too long or overdone, and not too short. But a single shot was often about 30 seconds long. Again, moving cameras around for different shots was much harder then than it is now, so there were longer shots and less cuts that in modern-day films.
This research was very key in informing my choice of what story to film. Because of the single stationary shot requirement, when I was thinking through ideas, I was looking for a storyline that would allow this type of filming. So, it needed to take place in a single location. It needed to be tellable without needing shots from any other angles, and without needing any closeups. I am used to using camera movement to help me tell a story, but in this case the story had to be relatable when viewed by the audience from one viewpoint too – this is not the same as taking place in one location since a story can take place in one location but be viewed from many different viewpoints, angles and closeness. Since I had decided on filming a comedy, it also had to be a story with comedy. Quite a challenge. I feel the Musical Chairs story meets all these requirements.
Aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (Academy Aperture)
Although this is the usual aspect ratio for the Black and White Silent films, I made a decision not to use it for my film. My aim was to use my understanding of creative processes and my technical skills to meet the brief and to create a film recognisable to a modern-day audience as sharing the key tropes of Silent Black and White films. I could have used my technical knowledge to produce a film in the authentic aspect ratio. I could have cropped the film in post-production to this aspect ratio. But I risked losing some of the action depending on exactly where on the screen I made the crop. I considered whether to try to film it so that it could be cropped, but that would have unnaturally restricted the actors. I don’t think that an audience would really have noticed what aspect ratio Black and White Silent films are. There are much stronger things that they would be noticing, like intertitles and their style, music, acting style etc. So, I made the decision that the risks out-weighed any benefit. I think that this ties in with the kind of decisions that directors, D.O.P.s and editors are making all the time on actual films, particularly when you include a financial/time element in creative decisions.
Music during credits and start of film.
In my research I had noticed that the music compliments the action on the screen – this is shown particularly well in “The Lion Cage” with Charlie Chaplin. The music changes depending on whether he is trying to creep quietly to avoid waking the lion, in which case the music is quiet, or whether we have reached a particularly perilous part of the action, in which case the music is more fast paced and matches the peril. There are also particular bits of music/sound to emphasise certain smaller moments, for example to emphasise when the lion shakes its ears as it nearly wakes up – there is a little “twitchy” sound as if something is being shaken.
Interestingly I also found out that originally music wasn’t necessarily composed specially for a film. In “The Circus” (1928) the earliest music was chosen by Charlie Chaplin from existing music around in the 1920s that he felt was appropriate. It was a complicated job putting all the different music together to work with the visuals, especially since at the time the final music product needed to be a music score that was playable by a pianist, organist or small orchestra. In the original “The Circus” (1928), Arthur Kay did this for “The Circus” (1928) under the supervision of Charlie Chaplin. But the key was that the music was still tied into the action on the screen. This version was lost then rediscovered in 1993. There were 2 later versions of the music for “The Circus”, one in 1947 by Hanns Eisler and one in 1967 actually by Charlie Chaplin for a new release of the film in 1969/70.
These observations are why I chose one piece of music to introduce the film during the credits at the start and for the start of the action, which was medium paced and non-threatening, then changed to a different piece of music for the actual musical chairs, which had a bit more pace, anticipation and peril. It wasn’t actual Diegetic sound, since Silent films obviously don’t have Diegetic sound in. But it was more appropriate for the action of a game of musical chairs than the music that I opened with, which was deliberate.
In a similar way to the sound added to lion’s ear shakes, I also added a couple of foley sounds at the end, a “slip” as the winner pulls the chair away, a “bonk” as the loser’s legs hit the ground, and the sound of an audience clapping the winner.
Credits and “The End”
I noticed that, unlike films of today, the credits seemed to usually be at the start of the film, and all there was at the end was literally “The End”. I’m so used to Marvel film post credit sequences that this seems really weird to me. However, to be authentic, I did it the “Silent Film” way in my film too.
There are 3 main things here. First is the style of the intertitles and the font choice. I tried to match my choice to what I was seeing in Silent films, both with slightly flowery font and Art Deco motifs. Secondly was my choice to add the “scratched” old film grain effect to the film. Obviously, filmmakers of the time would have been trying to avoid that. However, since they were filming on actual film (rather than digitally) film does get damaged, and so what we often watch these days does have scratches on. Since I was trying to recreate the experience of watching an old Black and White film now, I decided that it was consistent with my aims to add the “scratched” effect in post-production. And thirdly, I also made the intertitles “judder” slightly since they often did. I found out that originally intertitles were literally written on pieces of card that were held up and filmed. They became a bit more sophisticated as time went on, but since they used film and not digital medium they were still filmed. So, again, it is a trope that modern audiences recognise.
“Good” guy vs “bad” guy”
The film is a game of musical chairs. When I first came up with the idea, I had noticed how in many silent comedy films there was often a “good” guy, being chased and /or intimidated by a “bad” guy, for comedic value. Usually the “bad” guy was the bigger of the 2, which is why, as director, I cast Jack (the taller of my 2 actors) to be the “bad” guy, and Harley, the shorter of the two, to be the “good” guy, who gets intimidated by the “bad” guy, and hence who the audience will be rooting for to win the game. In my role as director, I explained this and the intimidating behaviour that I was after from Jack, and Jack had a good idea of including going behind the tall board (which was showing the drawing of a chair and music) and peering round in a threatening way. I liked this idea, it fitted with the atmosphere I was trying to achieve and made me pleased that I had obviously been successful in explaining that atmosphere to my actors. I was also pleased with how Harley acted out what I had asked for, by cowering away from Jack, making himself look smaller than Jack, and moving back away from him. The effect was exactly what I was after recreating from my research.
Black and White
It almost seems to go without saying that a “Black and White Silent Film” needs to be black and white. A class discussion included what black and white images and film made us think of, and “films from the past” was one of the things. I will need to convert the footage onto black and white in post-production. This has certain challenges that I saw when taking my selfies and converting them to black and white, and also my photo essay, i.e. images look very different when converted to black and white. Different parts of the photo are more pronounced in the black and white version to the colour, and some parts of the photo merge into the background if they have similar tones even if they are different colours when in colour.
When taking the photos, I used my phone, since that was part of the instructions. This meant I could immediately look at the black and white version to see the difference. With my selfies, part of the point was to see these effects, so the fact that my friend’s top merged into the background was OK as it illustrated the point. With my photo essay, although it looked ok on the small screen of my phone in black and white, once I got it onto my desktop screen I wasn’t happy with it, since certain things merged that I didn’t want to merge, so I went out the next day and shot the photo story shots again. In retrospect, I think I could have done with even more contrast in my Photo Essay, and would aim for that if doing it again.
When filming, I was going to have to put the footage into adobe premiere before I could see what it looked like in black and white. This was going to add the challenge of not knowing exactly what effect converting it to black and white would have.
Although I did a lot of planning for my story beforehand, and had planned on filming it on the Wednesday, the opportunity to film arose suddenly the day before, so it made sense to take it. I still filmed with the group I had been intending to film with, which was good. I discuss this further in my Production section. On the subject of “Black and White”, I decided, as director, to ask Jack to change his jacket from a black one, which I felt would merge into the background, to the light coloured one that I was wearing. Everyone agreed with this. Had we not done the research and thought about what we learnt in the lesson with Attila, Jack may have merged totally into the background. We had all learnt this, and it was helpful in setting up the lighting in the TV studio and in enabling us to keep the background simple and uncluttered to minimise the chances of similar toned items merging in black and white.
In conclusion, the research I did really helped me in coming up with idea of Musical Chairs, in informing my decisions as to what I needed to do to make my film authentic, and in meeting the brief of this project. I also learnt a lot of useful information to take forward with me to other projects.