The Story of Silent Film

In the early days of cinema, the majority of films had no recorded soundscape. Occasionally, films were accompanied by a musical soundtrack, but dialogue between characters or words spoken to the audience were very rare. Understanding the history of silent film is important for anyone who intends to pursue a career in performing arts. Early film actors and film makers were forced to consider how to convey meaning without the use of any noise.

The earliest moving images were projections created using a phenomenon known as the “Persistence of Vision“. This was first noted by Paul Roget in 1928, who realised that if a person was shown a series of still images, the images appeared to merge together. The impression of movement could be created by slightly altering each image. Roget created a device known as a thaumatrope, which quickly spun a disc containing individual still images. This helped to create short sequences of motion. These sequences were most effective for cyclical motion images, such as that of a hare running.

Scientists and inventors were able to build on this idea to create devices that could capture and project short photo-movies. One of the best examples of the recording of one of these photo-movies was done by Eadweard Muybridge, who set up a row of cameras alongside a racetrack, so that he could capture images of every stage of a horse’s gallop.

The medium of film soon grew in popularity as hundreds of people flocked to see these amazing moving pictures. This helped to encourage the industry to progress in leaps and bounds. However, movie makers were still not able to attach sound to their images, so alternatives had to be sought.

The very earliest silent films were often accompanied by a live musician, such as a guitarist or piano player. Thomas Edison would often screen films which were accompanied by an entire orchestra. Special theatre organs were introduced which included sound effect elements, such as galloping horse noise. Music was often improvised by the live performers and sometimes failed to match the action that was occurring on screen!

For a while, intertitles were used to help the audience to understand the action that was occurring onscreen. Intertitles were short text screens which intercut the action to help to further the story. Intertitles could provide descriptive or narrative material (expository intertitles) or character dialogue (dialogue intertitles).

Title writing became an important profession in the film industry, because title writers had to be able to create short, effective intertitles which matched the style of the film. At the first Academy Awards in 1929, there was even an award for Best Title Writing. The award was never issued again, because the use of intertitles fell out of fashion.

During the silent film era, actors overemphasised a lot of their body language and facial expressions. Many of the earliest film stars had originally started their careers as stage actors or Vaudeville performers. They brought a lot of stage acting techniques with them to their film performances. It wasn’t until the mid 1910’s that actors began to develop their own special techniques for creating film performances. Many actors and directors who emigrated from the Weimar Republic helped to introduce new naturalistic acting styles to silent films during in the period between 1913 and 1921.

Most of the films which were produced during the silent era have now been lost. A lot of the earliest films only had a limited release, so very few copies were actually produced at the time. These reels were not stored properly and would often be thrown away straight after the run of the film had finished. Those which are still in existence are often poor quality or missing vital scenes. Many reels were destroyed during war time to extract or recycle vital chemical components. The discovery and preservation of silent era films remains a priority for film historians.

Showings of silent films are still popular events for film buffs. Some local societies will employ musical performers to produce live musical accompaniments for their screenings. These performers may be encouraged to improvise in the style of original cinema music performers. These showings can be really exciting opportunities for people who want to be involved in performing arts.