What Was the Silent Movie Era?

The silent film era, which occurred from 1894 to 1929, is considered to be the starting point of the movie industry, as silent movies were considered to be the first films produced that bears similarities to the movies that we know today. Besides being the pioneers, many silent films in the late 1890s and early 1910s feature filming, editing, and acting techniques that were revolutionary and timeless since many actors, directors, editors, and producers still use those technique even today. To know more about this important period in cinema history, here are some details about the silent film era.

Before the Silent Film Era

Before the most popular silent movies were made, many inventors struggled in finding ways to record and project moving images on a screen. Historians believed that the first step towards the invention of films and cinema was taken in 1877, when Eadweard Muybridge set up a row of cameras on a horse racetrack and took pictures of one specific horse racer every time he is at the center of each camera. The result of the photos taken was a proto-movie that showed the horse’s movement on the racetrack.

In 1888, the first short film was created by Louis Le Prince and was titled “Roundhay Garden Scene.” The 2-second short film featured Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, walking around a garden that belonged to his parents-in-law Sarah Whitley and Joseph Whitley, who are also featured in the movie walking around the garden. Another woman was also seen in the film, and she was known as “Annie Hartley,” who is believed to be Louis Le Prince’s friend. The Roundhay Garden Scene is considered the oldest surviving film.

The first real motion picture, consequentially serving as the predecessor to silent movies, was known as “Workers Leaving the Factory” and was directed by Louis Lumière in 1895. There are three versions of the short film that was recorded, and these versions were filmed during different seasons, which meant that Lumière originally intended the film to show how the factory and its workers looking during different seasons of the year.

Workers Leaving the Factory by Lumiere

The Birth of the Silent Film

The silent film era started when celluloid film, which allowed faster and more efficient production of images captured using motion picture cameras, became widely available in several countries around the world. The stability in the production of celluloid film was brought by George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, who sought ways to improve the quality and the fast production of photographic dry plates used to stabilize celluloid film for cinemas.

Ben-Hur a perfect example of a Classical Hollywood silent film

Although many historians still debate when the silent movie era actually started, most of them agree that the era began in 1894, right after William Kennedy Dickson received a patent for “motion picture film” when he was employed by renowned inventor Thomas Edison. Beside William Kennedy Dickson, there were also other producers and directors that filmed their short movies in the same year, like Birt Acres, Etienne-Jules Marey, and Charles-Emile Reynaud.

Notable Styles and Movements of the Silent Film Era

There were four notable film movements that began during the silent movie era, and these movements are considered to be influential in the current state of modern cinema. The first and most popular movement was Classical Hollywood, which refers to the style of filming that was created in the United States, particularly in Hollywood, California. Classical Hollywood cinema stood the test of time because of its innovation in narrative, as the movies were more story-driven compared to earlier silent films that only feature movements and expressions from the actors as a form of entertainment. In fact, Classical Hollywood remained in the spotlight after the silent movie era, as it survived until the 1960s.

The second movement was the French Impressionist, which focused more on the stylistic and aesthetic nature of film rather than narrative, although there are some French movies that were narrative-driven. The French Impressionist cinema conveyed most of the film’s stories through visual effects, as many directors following the movement believe that silent movies are more effective in making the audience feel the emotions on the screen through visual art. Unfortunately, because of the birth of the sound film era in the 1930s, the French Impressionist movement slowly faded away from the spotlight since many directed adopted a more story-driven approach to filming that was amplified thanks to the incorporation of sound.

Soviet Montage was the third movement that focused on the editing aspect of the film, as many Soviet directors argue that editing specific parts of the film is essential in creating a cohesive story or narrative. This movement is considered to be one of the most influential in modern cinema, as they have revolutionized how film should be edited, as many silent film directors during the era were not believers in the art of editing, which was considered tedious and time-consuming. However, the narrative styles of Soviet Montage and Classical Hollywood were vastly different, as Soviet Montage focuses more on the “story of the masses” while Classical Hollywood has a more individualistic approach in storytelling.

The fourth movement was German Expressionism that featured similar but more exaggerated approach to film to French impressionism. Like the latter, German Expressionism focused on adding “visual art” to films, although the art used were more distorted than French Expressionism that each scene would look “surreal.”  As such, the background of many German films feature distorted buildings, painting, and structures, and some scenes even feature strange dances that convey emotions for the actors.

Sound in Silent Films

Despite being called “silent” films, some movies that were produced in that era weren’t actually meant to be entirely silent, as the films would sometimes feature music, although the music is played live by an artist, a band, or an orchestra. In addition, the live music would often follow what is happening on the screen. So, if there is someone hitting a person with a stick, a sound would be produced by one or two instruments. Furthermore, some musicians would even mimic sounds of items, vehicles, and contraptions used in particular scenes of the movie.

End of the Silent Movie Era

The silent movie era started to come to and end and led to the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Putting sound in films has already been experimented even before the beginning of the silent movie era. However, creating a film with sound was proven to be difficult, as the equipment needed to provide sound for films in the cinema were proven to be too expensive for most theatres. It is not until 1927, when Warner Bros revolutionize the industry after producing the Vitaphone, a sound-on-disc technology that was more advanced and much cheaper than any sound formats or systems during that time. The Vitaphone was first used in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which is considered as the first commercially successful movie with sound. Following the success of the film, many film studios began competing as to who can produce the most successful sound film in the 1930s, thus leading to the abandonment of silent films.  Its hard to believe this where it all started when today we have the ability to do real time video on YouTube with amazing effects and heavily CGI based films.