Trade-offs in Silent Film

Early film provides a pretty good representation of how images and words can work together to form a collective whole greater than the sum of their parts. Silent films give much more weight to to their (moving) images than they do to their words. That’s because their audience was more interested in seeing a physical event than in reading a novel in a movie theater. The text of the film and the moving images of the film do not appear at the same time, having one of the pair shown directly means that the other will not be shown. This alteration means that there is a trade-off between word and image and this trade-off is, as earlier mentioned, weighted towards the image rather than towards words.

The resulting film from this trade-off is quite similar to the image-heavy interdependent comics that Scott McCloud describes in his chapter on “Show and Tell”. The images come first and the added text is used to enhance and clarify the images. The text has additional limitation. Reading text takes time and the film reel has to allow enough time for the slowest member of audience to read the entire snippet of text. So texts tend to be very brief and words tend to be simple and readily understandable. Despite these intense limitations, the text in silent films is crucial in providing context for the audience to understand what is going on in the film. Dialogue is particularly utilitarian; actors say what they need to say and not a single syllable word. There are no long goodbyes or eloquent greetings in silent film.  Silent films are usually accompanied by a film score that enhances the emotional components found in both word and image. The score tells us how to read the piece and gives us a clue for the tone of an actor’s speech, since bare text is not enough.

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