Silent film

Scene from The Birth of a Nation (1915), the highest-grossing silent film in the United States.

A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. The silent film era lasted from 1895 to 1936. In silent films for entertainment, the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, mime and title cards with a written indication of the plot or key dialogue. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, synchronized dialogue was made practical only in the late 1920s with the perfection of the Audion amplifier tube and the introduction of the Vitaphone system. During silent films, a pianist, theater organist, or, in large cities, even a small orchestra would often play music to accompany the films. Pianists and organists would either play from sheet music or improvise; an orchestra would play from sheet music.

The term silent film is therefore a retronym—that is, a term created to distinguish something retroactively. The early films with sound, starting with The Jazz Singer in 1927, were referred to as " talkies", "sound films", or "talking pictures". Within a decade, popular widespread production of silent films had ceased and production moved into the sound era, in which movies were accompanied by synchronized sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.

The vast majority of the silent films produced in the late 19th and early 20th century no longer exist. A September 2013 report by the United States Library of Congress announced that a total of 70% of American silent feature films are believed to be lost. [1] There are numerous reasons for the loss of so many films; most were destroyed on purpose, but many others have been lost unintentionally. Out of a desire to free up storage space, film studios would often destroy silent films decades after their theatrical runs, perceiving them to have lost their cultural relevance and economic value. Due to the nature of the nitrate film stock on which many silent films were recorded, many have deteriorated over time or been lost in accidents such as fires, as nitrate is highly flammable and can spontaneously combust when not stored properly. Many films not completely destroyed survive only in fragmentary form or in badly damaged prints. Some lost films, such as London After Midnight have been the subject of considerable interest by film collectors and historians.

Elements (1895–1936)

Roundhay Garden Scene 1888, the first known celluloid film recorded. The elderly lady in black was filmmaker Louis Le Prince's mother-in-law and she died a week after this scene was taken.

The earliest precursors of film began with image projection through the use of a device known as the magic lantern. This utilized a glass lens, a shutter and a persistent light source, such as a powerful lantern, to project images from glass slides onto a wall. These slides were originally hand-painted, but still photographs were used later on after the technological advent of photography in the nineteenth century. The invention of a practical photography apparatus preceded cinema by only fifty years. [2]

The next significant step towards film creation was the development of an understanding of image movement. Simulations of movement date as far back as to 1828 and only four years after Paul Roget discovered the phenomenon he called " Persistence of Vision". Roget showed that when a series of still images are shown at a considerable speed in front of a viewer's eye, the images merge into one registered image that appears to show movement, an optical illusion, since the image is not actually moving. This experience was further demonstrated through Roget's introduction of the thaumatrope, a device that spun a disk with an image on its surface at a fairly high rate of speed. [2]

The three features necessary for motion pictures to work were "a camera with sufficiently high shutter speed, a filmstrip capable of taking multiple exposures swiftly, and means of projecting the developed images on a screen". [3] The first projected primary proto-movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge between 1877 and 1880. Muybridge set up a row of cameras along a racetrack and timed image exposures to capture the many stages of a horse's gallop. The oldest surviving film (of the genera called "pictorial realism") was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two-second film of people walking in "Oakwood streets" garden, titled Roundhay Garden Scene. [4] The development of American inventor Thomas Edison's Kinetograph, a photographic device that captured sequential images, and his Kinetoscope, a viewing device for these photos, allowed for the creation and exhibition of short films. Edison also made a business of selling Kinetograph and Kinetoscope equipment, which laid the foundation for widespread film production. [2]

Due to Edison's lack of securing an international patent on his film inventions, similar devices were "invented" around the world. The Lumière brothers (Louis and Auguste Lumière), for example, created the Cinématographe in France. The Cinématographe proved to be a more portable and practical device than both of Edison's as it combined a camera, film processor and projector in one unit. [2] In contrast to Edison's " peepshow"-style kinetoscope, which only one person could watch through a viewer, the cinematograph allowed simultaneous viewing by multiple people. Their first film, Sortie de l'usine Lumière de Lyon, shot in 1894, is considered the first true motion picture. [5] The invention of celluloid film, which was strong and flexible, greatly facilitated the making of motion pictures (although the celluloid was highly flammable and decayed quickly). [3] This film was 35 mm wide and pulled using four sprocket holes, which became the industry standard. This doomed the cinematograph, which could only use film with just one sprocket hole. [6]

From the very beginnings of film production, the art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the "silent era" (1894–1929). In artistic innovation alone, the height of the silent era from the early 1910s to the late 1920s was a fruitful period in the history of film — the film movements of Classical Hollywood, French Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Soviet Montage began in this period. Silent filmmakers pioneered the art form to the extent that virtually every style and genre of film-making of the 20th century had its artistic roots in the silent era. The silent era was also a pioneering era from a technical point of view. Lighting techniques such as three point lighting, visual techniques such as the close-up, long shot, panning, and continuity editing became prevalent long before silent films were replaced by " talking pictures" in the late 1920s. Film scholars and movie buffs claim that the artistic quality of cinema decreased for several years, during the early 1930s, until film directors, actors, and production staff adapted fully to the new "talkies" around the late 1930s. [7]

An early film, depicting a re-enactment of the Battle of Chemulpo Bay (Film produced in 1904 by Edison Studios)

The visual quality of silent movies—especially those produced in the 1920s—was often high. However, there is a widely held misconception that these films were primitive and barely watchable by modern standards. [8] This misconception comes from the general public's unfamiliarity with the medium and technical carelessness. Most silent films are poorly preserved, leading to their deterioration, and well-preserved films are often played back at the wrong speed or suffer from censorship cuts and missing frames and scenes, resulting in what may appear to be poor editing. [9] [10] Many silent films exist only in second- or third-generation copies, often copied from already damaged and neglected film stock. [7] Another widely held misconception was that silent films lacked color. In fact, color was far more prevalent in silents than in sound films for decades. By the early 1920s 80% of movies could be seen in color, usually in the form of film tinting or toning (i.e. colorization) but also with real color processes such as Kinemacolor and Technicolor. [11] Traditional colorization processes ceased with the adoption of sound-on-film technology. Traditional film colorization, all of which involved the use of dyes in some form, interfered with the high resolution required for built-in recorded sound, and thus were abandoned. The innovative three-strip technicolor process introduced in the mid-30s was costly and fraught with limitations, and color would not have the same prevalence in film as it did in the silents for nearly four decades.

Intertitles

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) used stylized intertitles.

As motion pictures eventually increased in length, a replacement was needed for the in-house interpreter who would explain parts of the film to the audience. Because silent films had no synchronized sound for dialogue, onscreen intertitles were used to narrate story points, present key dialogue and sometimes even comment on the action for the cinema audience. The title writer became a key professional in silent film and was often separate from the scenario writer who created the story. Intertitles (or titles as they were generally called at the time) often became graphic elements themselves, featuring illustrations or abstract decoration that commented on the action.[ citation needed]

Live music and sound

Showings of silent films almost always featured live music, starting with the guitarist, at the first public projection of movies by the Lumière Brothers on December 28, 1895 in Paris. This was furthered in 1896 by the first motion picture exhibition in the United States at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. At this event, Edison set the precedent that all exhibitions should be accompanied by an orchestra. [12] From the beginning, music was recognized as essential, contributing to the atmosphere and giving the audience vital emotional cues. (Musicians sometimes played on film sets during shooting for similar reasons.) However, depending on the size of the exhibition site, musical accompaniment could drastically change in size. [2] Small town and neighborhood movie theatres usually had a pianist. Beginning in the mid-1910s, large city theaters tended to have organists or ensembles of musicians. Massive theater organs were designed to fill a gap between a simple piano soloist and a larger orchestra. Theatre organs had a wide range of special effects; theatrical organs such as the famous " Mighty Wurlitzer" could simulate some orchestral sounds along with a number of percussion effects such as bass drums and cymbals and sound effects ranging from galloping horses to rolling rain.

Film scores for early silent films were either improvised or compiled of classical or theatrical repertory music. Once full features became commonplace, however, music was compiled from photoplay music by the pianist, organist, orchestra conductor or the movie studio itself, which included a cue sheet with the film. These sheets were often lengthy, with detailed notes about effects and moods to watch for. Starting with the mostly original score composed by Joseph Carl Breil for D. W. Griffith's groundbreaking epic The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915) it became relatively common for the biggest-budgeted films to arrive at the exhibiting theater with original, specially composed scores. [13] However, the first designated full blown scores were composed earlier, in 1908, by Camille Saint-Saëns, for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, [14] and by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, for Stenka Razin.

When organists or pianists used sheet music, they still might add improvisational flourishes to heighten the drama on screen. Even when special effects were not indicated in the score, if an organist was playing a theater organ capable of an unusual sound effect, such as a "galloping horses" effect, it would be used for dramatic horseback chases.

By the height of the silent era, movies were the single largest source of employment for instrumental musicians (at least in America). But the introduction of talkies, which happened simultaneously with the onset of the Great Depression, was devastating to many musicians.

Some countries devised other ways of bringing sound to silent films. The early cinema of Brazil featured fitas cantatas: filmed operettas with singers performing behind the screen. [15] In Japan, films had not only live music but also the benshi, a live narrator who provided commentary and character voices. The benshi became a central element in Japanese film, as well as providing translation for foreign (mostly American) movies. [16] The popularity of the benshi was one reason why silent films persisted well into the 1930s in Japan.

Score restorations from 1980 to the present

Few film scores survive intact from the silent period, and musicologists are still confronted by questions when they attempt to precisely reconstruct those that remain. Scores used in current reissues or screenings of silent films may be: A) complete reconstructions of composed scores, B) scores newly composed for the occasion, C) scores assembled from already existing music libraries, or D) scores improvised on the spot in the manner of the silent era theater pianist or organist.

Interest in the scoring of silent films fell somewhat out of fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. There was a belief in many college film programs and repertory cinemas that audiences should experience silent film as a pure visual medium, undistracted by music. This belief may have been encouraged by the poor quality of the music tracks found on many silent film reprints of the time. Since around 1980, there has been a revival of interest in presenting silent films with quality musical scores, either reworkings of period scores or cue sheets, or composition of appropriate original scores. An early effort in this context was Kevin Brownlow's 1980 restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927), featuring a score by Carl Davis. A slightly re-edited and sped-up version of Brownlow's restoration was later distributed in America by Francis Ford Coppola, with a live orchestral score composed by his father Carmine Coppola.

In 1984, an edited restoration of Metropolis (1927) was released to cinemas with a new rock music score by producer-composer Giorgio Moroder. Although the contemporary score, which included pop songs by Freddie Mercury of Queen, Pat Benatar, and Jon Anderson of Yes was controversial, the door had been opened for a new approach to presentation of classic silent films.

Currently, a large number of soloists, music ensembles, and orchestras perform traditional and contemporary scores for silent films internationally. [17] The legendary theater organist Gaylord Carter continued to perform and record his original silent film scores until shortly before his death in 2000; some of those scores are available on DVD reissues. Other purveyors of the traditional approach include organists such as Dennis James and pianists such as Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, Philip C. Carli, Ben Model, and William P. Perry. Other contemporary pianists, such as Stephen Horne and Gabriel Thibaudeau, have often taken a more modern approach to scoring.

Orchestral conductors such as Carl Davis and Robert Israel have written and compiled scores for numerous silent films; many of these have been featured in showings on Turner Classic Movies or have been released on DVD. Davis has composed new scores for classic silent dramas such as The Big Parade (1925) and Flesh and the Devil (1927). Israel has worked mainly in silent comedy, scoring films of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase and others. Timothy Brock has restored many of Charlie Chaplin's scores, in addition to composing new scores.

Contemporary music ensembles are helping to introduce classic silent films to a wider audience through a broad range of musical styles and approaches. Some performers create new compositions using traditional musical instruments while others add electronic sounds, modern harmonies, rhythms, improvisation and sound design elements to enhance the viewing experience. Among the contemporary ensembles in this category are Un Drame Musical Instantané, Alloy Orchestra, Club Foot Orchestra, Silent Orchestra, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Minima and the Caspervek Trio. Donald Sosin and his wife Joanna Seaton specialize in adding vocals to silent films, particularly where there is onscreen singing that benefits from hearing the actual song being performed. Films in this category include Griffith's Lady of the Pavements with Lupe Velez, Edwin Carewe's Evangeline with Dolores del Rio, and Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera with Mary Philbin and Virginia Pearson.[ citation needed]

The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive digitizes music and cue sheets written for silent film and makes it available for use by performers, scholars, and enthusiasts.

Acting techniques

Lillian Gish, the "First Lady of the American Cinema", was a leading star in the silent era with one of the longest careers, working from 1912 to 1987

Silent film actors emphasized body language and facial expression so that the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. Much silent film acting is apt to strike modern-day audiences as simplistic or campy. The melodramatic acting style was in some cases a habit actors transferred from their former stage experience. Vaudeville was an especially popular origin for many American silent film actors. [2] The pervading presence of stage actors in film was the cause of this outburst from director Marshall Neilan in 1917: "The sooner the stage people who have come into pictures get out, the better for the pictures." In other cases, directors such as John Griffith Wray required their actors to deliver larger-than-life expressions for emphasis. As early as 1914, American viewers had begun to make known their preference for greater naturalness on screen. [18]

Silent films became less vaudevillian in the mid 1910s, as the differences between stage and screen became apparent. Due to the work of directors such as D W Griffith, cinematography became less stage-like, and the then-revolutionary close up allowed subtle and naturalistic acting. Lillian Gish has been called film's "first true actress" for her work in the period, as she pioneered new film performing techniques, recognizing the crucial differences between stage and screen acting. Directors such as Albert Capellani and Maurice Tourneur began to insist on naturalism in their films. By the mid-1920s many American silent films had adopted a more naturalistic acting style, though not all actors and directors accepted naturalistic, low-key acting straight away; as late as 1927, films featuring expressionistic acting styles, such as Metropolis, were still being released. [19] Greta Garbo, who made her debut in 1926, would become known for her naturalistic acting.

According to Anton Kaes, a silent film scholar from the University of Wisconsin, American silent cinema began to see a shift in acting techniques between 1913 and 1921, influenced by techniques found in German silent film. This is mainly attributed to the influx of emigrants from the Weimar Republic, "including film directors, producers, cameramen, lighting and stage technicians, as well as actors and actresses. [20]"

Projection speed

Cinématographe Lumière at the Institut Lumière, France. Such cameras had no audio recording devices built into the cameras.

Until the standardization of the projection speed of 24 frames per second (fps) for sound films between 1926 and 1930, silent films were shot at variable speeds (or " frame rates") anywhere from 12 to 40 fps, depending on the year and studio. [21] "Standard silent film speed" is often said to be 16 fps as a result of the Lumière brothers' Cinématographe, but industry practice varied considerably; there was no actual standard. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, an Edison employee, settled on the astonishingly fast 40 frames per second. [2] Additionally, cameramen of the era insisted that their cranking technique was exactly 16 fps, but modern examination of the films shows this to be in error, that they often cranked faster. Unless carefully shown at their intended speeds silent films can appear unnaturally fast or slow. However, some scenes were intentionally undercranked during shooting to accelerate the action—particularly for comedies and action films. [21]

Slow projection of a cellulose nitrate base film carried a risk of fire, as each frame was exposed for a longer time to the intense heat of the projection lamp; but there were other reasons to project a film at a greater pace. Often projectionists received general instructions from the distributors on the musical director's cue sheet as to how fast particular reels or scenes should be projected. [21] In rare instances, usually for larger productions, cue sheets produced specifically for the projectionist provided a detailed guide to presenting the film. Theaters also—to maximize profit—sometimes varied projection speeds depending on the time of day or popularity of a film, [22] or to fit a film into a prescribed time slot. [21]

All motion-picture film projectors require a moving shutter to block the light whilst the film is moving, otherwise the image is smeared in the direction of the movement. However this shutter causes the image to flicker, and images with low rates of flicker are very unpleasant to watch. Early studies by Thomas Edison for his Kinetoscope machine determined that any rate below 46 images per second "will strain the eye". [21] and this holds true for projected images under normal cinema conditions also. The solution adopted for the Kinetoscope was to run the film at over 40 frames/sec, but this was expensive for film. However, by using projectors with dual- and triple-blade shutters the flicker rate is multiplied two or three times higher than the number of film frames — each frame being flashed two or three times on screen. A three-blade shutter projecting a 16 fps film will slightly surpass Edison's figure, giving the audience 48 images per second. During the silent era projectors were commonly fitted with 3-bladed shutters. Since the introduction of sound with its 24 frame/sec standard speed 2-bladed shutters have become the norm for 35 mm cinema projectors, though three-bladed shutters have remained standard on 16 mm and 8 mm projectors, which are frequently used to project amateur footage shot at 16 or 18 frames/sec. A 35 mm film frame rate of 24 fps translates to a film speed of 456 millimetres (18.0 in) per second. [23] One 1,000-foot (300 m) reel requires 11 minutes and 7 seconds to be projected at 24 fps, while a 16 fps projection of the same reel would take 16 minutes and 40 seconds, or 304 millimetres (12.0 in) per second. [21]

In the 1950s, many telecine conversions of silent films at grossly incorrect frame rates for broadcast television may have alienated viewers. [24] Film speed is often a vexed issue among scholars and film buffs in the presentation of silents today, especially when it comes to DVD releases of restored films; the 2002 restoration of Metropolis (Germany, 1927) may be the most fiercely debated example.[ citation needed]

Tinting

Scene from Broken Blossoms starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, an example of sepia-tinted print.

With the lack of natural color processing available, films of the silent era were frequently dipped in dyestuffs and dyed various shades and hues to signal a mood or represent a time of day. Hand tinting dates back to 1895 in the United States with Edison's release of selected hand-tinted prints of Butterfly Dance. Additionally, experiments in color film started as early as in 1909, although it took a much longer time for color to be adopted by the industry and an effective process to be developed. [2] Blue represented night scenes, yellow or amber meant day. Red represented fire and green represented a mysterious atmosphere. Since blue represented night scenes and consequently sensual or explicit scene, this resulted in erotic movies being known as "blue movies." Similarly, toning of film (such as the common silent film generalization of sepia-toning) with special solutions replaced the silver particles in the film stock with salts or dyes of various colors. A combination of tinting and toning could be used as an effect that could be striking.

Some films were hand-tinted, such as Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1894), from Edison Studios. In it, Annabelle Whitford, [25] a young dancer from Broadway, is dressed in white veils that appear to change colors as she dances. This technique was designed to capture the effect of the live performances of Loie Fuller, beginning in 1891, in which stage lights with colored gels turned her white flowing dresses and sleeves into artistic movement. [26] Hand coloring was often used in the early "trick" and fantasy films of Europe, especially those by Georges Méliès. Méliès began hand-tinting his work as early as 1897 and the 1899 Cendrillion (Cinderella) and 1900 Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) provide early examples of hand-tinted films in which the color was a critical part of the scenography or mise en scène; such precise tinting used the workshop of Elisabeth Thuillier in Paris, with teams of female artists adding layers of color to each frame by hand rather than using a more common (and less expensive) process of stenciling. [27] A newly restored version of Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, originally released in 1902, shows an exuberant use of color designed to add texture and interest to the image. [28]

By the beginning of the 1910s, with the onset of feature-length films, tinting was used as another mood setter, just as commonplace as music. The director D. W. Griffith displayed a constant interest and concern about color, and used tinting as a special effect in many of his films. His 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, used a number of colors, including amber, blue, lavender, and a striking red tint for scenes such as the "burning of Atlanta" and the ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the climax of the picture. Griffith later invented a color system in which colored lights flashed on areas of the screen to achieve a color.

With the development of sound-on-film technology and the industry's acceptance of it, tinting was abandoned altogether, because the dyes used in the tinting process interfered with the soundtracks present on film strips. [2]

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