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The Beauty of Silent

Posted by Team APATA | May 13, 2020

Over the past few weeks or even months, its likely you have upped your intake of online content, but have you checked out silent movies? If not, you might be missing out on one of the leading accounts found on twitter @silentmoviegifs by Don McHoull (@dmchoull) where you can tap into visually compelling and feel good hilarity from the earliest days of film. Not only are there classic greats packaged as GIFs with everything from stop-motion animation, to the earliest camera tricks of Hollywood and epic stunts, but McHoull provides amazing insights into Hollywood’s cinematographers, which whether you are into performing arts or not it is a real treat. An age-old art that never loses its touch and a skill base beautifully demonstrated for students to learn and embrace today as part of their craft for onstage and film application.

For the last four years, Don McHoull has been faithfully uploading gifs from silent era films. Not surprisingly, the account heavily features the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Fritz Lang. McHoull also routinely adds context and supplemental information to the clips, fostering greater appreciation for the filmmaking process and talent of the period’s most famous actors. Looks easy…but it is most definitely not!

The art of silent embraces slapstick, clowning and combat – a type of physical comedy characterised by broad humour, absurd situations, and vigorous action. Far more than mere funny man or woman and extensively uses acrobats, stunt performance, acting and even magic to achieve masterful uninhibited action and perfect timing. Today contemporary physical comedy is a must-have in your repertoire and portfolio, where developing the unique skills of this art form, whether an emerging performer, professional or teacher, will strengthen skill base and performance.

Today, when most people hear the words “silent comedy” they probably think of things like Charlie Chaplin’s silhouette framed in the sunset or twinkly piano music playing over barely decipherable grainy images and, perhaps, people getting kicked up the arse. A lot. However, behind the music and hand-cranked camera shots lie something else entirely – precision, acute timing and flawless performance.

The greatest silent film actor of all time is the brilliant Buster Keaton, a man great with the camera, great with the acting and a master who could star in the most astonishing risk scenes without blinking.  Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, to Joe Keaton and Myra Keaton. Joe and Myra were Vaudevillian comedians with a popular, ever-changing variety act, giving Keaton an eclectic and interesting upbringing. In the earliest days on stage, they traveled with a medicine show that included family friend and illusionist Harry Houdini. Keaton himself verified the origin of his nickname “Buster”, was given to him by the famous magician. At the age of three, he fell down a flight of stairs and was picked up and dusted off by Houdini, who said to Keaton’s father Joe, also nearby, that the fall was ‘a buster’. Savvy showman Joe Keaton liked the nickname, which has stuck for more than 100 years.

Rounding out the top ten includes Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normond and Mary Pickford (don’t forget the ladies), Larry Semon and Ben Turpin.

Chaplin was an excellent actor, composer, producer and director, whose full name was Charles Spencer Chaplin, born in London in 1889, to a family of artists. He began acting in musicals and pantomimes as a child. Considered to be one of the most pivotal stars of the early days of Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin lived an interesting life both in his films and behind the camera. He is most recognized as an icon of the silent film era, often associated with his popular character, the Little Tramp; the man with the toothbrush mustache, bowler hat, bamboo cane, and a funny walk. Someone once said to Chaplin: “Your camerawork is not very interesting,” and he replied: “It doesn’t have to be. I’m interesting.”

Silent movie special effects were seriously creative. Imagine…I know what I want the shot to look like…now to work out how to achieve this effect? Before CGI and computer graphics, Hollywood had to get creative to make special effects work. A lot of the stunts in early films look downright dangerous, especially when you can’t imagine how they were pulled off but with clear effects there were several tricks that cinematographers created to give the illusion of realistic danger without hurting stars like Keaton or Chaplin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there were still plenty of knocks, bumps and bruises along the way during shooting scenes.

Visual and special effects have a long history, having been around since the dawn of filmmaking. Here are some great examples from silent films where the techniques used behind the scenes are still relevant today.

There are two terms used today for executing complex visual scenes: special effects (SFX) and visual effects (VFX). Special effects, also called practical effects, are all done in camera. Visual effects are those that require extra manipulation of the footage to achieve the final result. (CGI, masking, etc.). However, before 1970 the term SFX was used for both cases. Here are special effects from old silent films made completely in-camera.

Watching silent film is essential for learning and enhancing one’s craft in the performing arts regardless of your discipline. As a student these marvelous works of art in part teach storytelling and narrative economy, editing techniques and the importance of movement and stillness, the importance of the mise-en-scene (placing on stage) and objects, precision, timing, and flawless performance.

Silent film still lives in Australia. Roaring Twenties Cinema will be holding an online screening featuring Buster Keaton Friday May 15th 7:30pm. The Silent Cinema Program usually held monthly at Metro Arts Theatre is curated by Brisbane’s Joel Archer, who is keeping the program alive via facebook. Simply follow the Roaring Twenties Cinema Brisbane page and join the ‘watch party’ via the posted link on the night. Feel free to make a donation and keep an eye on their future events to tune in to classic films from the silent era.

FYI – Did you know that the world’s longest running silent film theatre is located at Pomona on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. The Majestic Theatre in the heart of the Noosa Hinterland, currently in hiatus, is a not for profit, small community theatre and cinema that has been in operation for almost 100 years.

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