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Silent Film Tips

Duncan Corbin

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I'm going to shoot a short silent horror film this fall and I'd love to capture the feel of an old print that's been dragged through Hell and back. My two questions are: what would be the best frame rate to use and how can I get a blown out look like you'd see in a film from the very early 1900's? Should I overexpose the film or ask the lab to mess with the print?

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Just be aware that they didn't originally look thar way, if you look at a restored film the picture quality is pretty good.


What you see commonly see with some old films is the build up of contrast due to copying through many generations. I guess you could ask the lab to distress the interpolative to give it some black scratches. although I suspect they'll want you to sign a disclaimer regarding the damage. .

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To echo Brian's comment, and this is a HUGE generalization, they didn't look all dupey and blown-out originally.


What people now characterize as the "silent film look" is dependent upon a number of technical flaws; some introduced in duplication, some in the original distribution of the film:


1. Scratches, dirt, speeds that appear incorrect, high or low contrast, etc. are typically artifacts of copying the only extant material AFTER it has been beat to death in general release. You can easily reproduce these aspects by,

  • Shooting at 18 fps and playing back at 24fps.
  • Take your print, roll it out in a hallway loosely, sprinkle dirt and nails over it, walk back and forth over it and then rewind it through your hand with gentle pressure on the film in a cleaning cloth; You will get scratches, but you don't want too many. Where the print is creased, take a warm clothes iron and "smooth" it back to flatness between two sheets of heavy craft paper.
  • Chop out random sections of a few frames each. Don't over do this; just occasionally or it will look very fake.
  • If you are shooting a negative, only do the above to a print; with reversal, you have to be much more careful.


Density pulses and contrast build-up are harder to re-create.


Contrast build-up can be accomplished by (all assuming b&w film) ;


Negative: Shoot with a heavy green filter on pan stock, print very light and push the hell out of the print. Set your printer lights at 6 to 8 trims BELOW typical good exposure and process the film at the highest gamma available. Tests will have to be done to ensure a "good" result.




Overexpose your stock by a 1 or 2 stops, process normal and print light; avoid hitting dmax in your shadows.


Reversal: Shoot with heavy green filter and rate such to overexpose by 1/2 stop (yeah, that's a real hard thing to do, but...)


The best option for density pulses is to hand-process on a rack, agitating the hell out of the film. The portions of the film that pass over the rack bars will become more dense and impart the typical density pulses you see in a badly duped film of the 1910's through 20's.


I didn't have a lot of time to type this out, but you get the drift; it takes a lot to abuse film to make it look so bad. That should be an indicator of just how GOOD the original silent films looked when new.

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I agree with the others telling you not to underestimate the quality of silent films or the filmmakers.


A Buster Keaton film properly exhibited is a Swiss watch. The timing and pace are brilliant.


I would recommend getting your hands on a really good print/scan of any or all of these films:




You have to remember that these were cutting edge films in their day. All the special effects were done in-camera.


Pay close attention to the staging and framing. They're all unique from one another, but generally staging was still very theatrical in the early 1920s.


The performers may seem like they're overacting by today's standards, but keep an eye peeled to how physical the acting is. These actors are telling the story with their bodies, not their voices. That's surprisingly tricky to do well. I would recommend assigning a movement coach to your cast. Make sure they understand the language of gesture.


I think some of these movies are still pretty unsettling, even now. Especially the Lon Chaney films.


I mean if you want to do a parody, that's another thing altogether.

Edited by Timothy Fransky
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  • 4 months later...

The point was already made about how the films of the Silent Era were not intentionally herky-jerky, with blown out contrast, and a lot of dirt and scratches , but I've never seen the point made better than in Kevin Brownlow's and David Gill's great documentary series "Hollywood", in Episode 1: "The Pioneers".


Watch starting from about 02:16 mark - to - 05:42 (Actually , watch the whole thing ! It's good ! Sad that it's unavailable on DVD or BluRay ... apparently there are copyright issues that prevent it from being released . There are earlier Laser Disc and VHS copies floating around . The YouTube link below is from a VHS copy, so it is actually not the best quality either, but watchable.)






(and of course , everyone on this forum should love Episode 11 "Trick of the Light" , all about the cameramen, cameras, developments in lighting techniques, and trick photography. The information on how they pulled off some of those trick photography shots is incredible.


) Edited by David T. Nethery
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Are you shooting in 16mm film? 35mm film? Digital?


A common mistake I see when people try to make something look like it was shot in the early Silent Era is to use a range of focal lengths -- most of those films were shot with a 50mm in 4-perf 35mm Full Aperture. Occasionally you might see a 35mm or a 75mm shot in the later Silent Era. So you have to plan on sets and locations that allow you to shoot head to toe on a 50mm equivalent.

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This is the trailer for the incomplete 16mm film I shot the day before the weather took a turn for the worse. Great news is that I got the look I wanted all while using every bit of advice you all gave me! I used a ton of inspiration from countless silent films while also mixing in my own style to create this picture.

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From my experience viewing silent films that were projected on the original nitrate base have a brilliance and clarity that outshines safety film. Such films were shown on rare occasions at the Museum of Modern Art many years ago. Probably against the law now

The silent films, especially from the 1920s in the US and even into the thirties in much of the world, had a fluidity of camera work (with some rareexceptions) that was not regained until the Italians after WWII.

Just a passing note, but many of the earliest restored films in the US were not restored from negatives or movie prints, but from photographic prints of each frame used for copyright.

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I think Super-8 is pushing things a bit simply because these old movies were shot on 4-perf 35mm so it's hard for Super-8 to replicate that depth of field quality. You're better off with 16mm and a fast lens (something near a 24mm, hopefully f/2) and then beating it up somehow, depending on the level of degradation that you want. There were some deeper focus Silent Era movies, like "Greed", but it's not so hard to stop down when you're shooting in the desert or in full sun in general, even with the slow stocks of the time. But otherwise, most of these Silent Era films did not have a lot of depth of field for interiors, it's just that because they mostly shot head-to-toe, it was hard to tell. And by the later Silent Era, shallow focus close-ups because stylistically desirable, often they'd even put a scrim behind the actor's head to soften the background outdoors.

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So many people today have a hard time wrapping their heads around how Silent Film Makers uses such slow film stock and got acceptable depth of field because of several factors:


So many faulty assumptions are based upon our current understanding of how to process film by time, temperature, set gamma and aim points. That did not exist in the silent era, period.


Go back and look; Jones and Crabtree didn't start codifying SMPTE processing standards until well into the late 1920's.


Depending upon the era, the rawstock was largely blue sensitive and was processed shot by shot by the cinematographer himself by direct inspection. Light meters and development to time/temperature only became dominant when the sound track demanded a consistent result to remain audible. The use of arc light and Hewitt-Cooper Lights (more or less mercury vapor jacked-up to extreme) lights allowed mid-aperture exposure on lenses easily on sets.


Most cameras had an integral punch and each shot was punched at the head and tails of the scene so it could be processed by hand, by inspection and in what strength/type developer the cinematographer deemed proper. The concept of "pushing" or "pulling" a scene was just a normal part of processing, not a deviation from "normal".


Clarence Brown even had a way to "dodge and burn" release prints by hand and did it on the first release of "Intolerance".


Their World and ours is not the same. We don't work with their tools because we are so separated from the medium by the light meter and standardized film processing. It was an art because it was a CRAFT.


We don't do craft anymore...



I don't mean any disrespect to the masters of cinematography in post silent era; I just want to draw a distinction between how silent era cinematographers were both cursed and blessed by being unbound from any set standard other than it should meet their artistic vision.

I really shouldn't say we don't do craft anymore, but should say we don't do craft the same way...

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I was just saying that Super-8 has more depth of field on average than 35mm, so I don’t think it’s a good choice for replicating the look of a Silent Era movie. I don’t think most interior scenes in Silent Era movies are particularly deep focus, not when you look at a true close-up.

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I only have the DVD of "The General", not the blu-ray, but here are some frames that show the depth of field of a night interior:








To my eye, it looks like 35mm film shot with a 50mm at f/2.8-4.0 range. I don't think you could get this effect in Super-8.

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I wasn't trying to single anyone out and I apologize if it appears that I did...


I agree that Super 8mm would probably not be a good medium to simulate a motion picture from the silent era.


"The General" is a pretty late era Silent Film that had much of the nascent technology that would very soon be pressed into Sound Film Production. Again,as you state, it is very difficult to generalize (pun not intended) about Silent Film technique without specifying an epoch, genre and even nationality you are trying to emulate.


There are as many examples of deep focus cinematographic shots as there are selective focus shots throughout Silent Film History.


Here are some films I have timed that are worth watching for amazing cinematography:


"Hotel Imperial" (1927) Bert Glennon

"Intolerance" (1916) G. W. Bitzer

"Corporal Kate (1926) Henry Cronjager - wild process shots!

"The Wedding March" (1926) Roy H. Klaffki and Ray Rennahan (wild diffusion and technicolor sequences)

"Safety Last" (1923) Walter Lunden


There are many more I can't think of at the moment, (I estimate I have timed about 200- 250 silent films) but unfortunately few are available on DVD and can only be seen through the 35mm print loan program of the Library of Congress. Many are very obscure by their very nature and a lot are heavily damaged and incomplete but the sheer variety of cinematographic styles represented is staggering.




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Like others have said, t depends on what era silent films you want to emulate. To emulate a silent film, and fool someone into thinking the film is from that era is actually kind of difficult. Also many of the silent films were hand cranked, and tends to give the motion of them a different look, as well as they used all kinds of films speeds.


Looking at your film, the first thing that struck me was the costuming, certainly not period.


I have made 2 silent films, and really never got the look right. It sounds so easy, and heck those original filmmakers didn't know as much as we know now, but they did know how to make films, with their equipment, and if not sounding to insulting, their equipment's limitations. The filmmakers minds had no limitations however.

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You really want to make an authentic 1915 silent film?


1. 35mm Hand Cranked camera with lenses collimated to blue light. Use a 45-50mm lens mainly. 80 to 100mm optional. Nothing wider than 40mm. A Parvo or 2709 would be ideal but you could press an Eyemo into service, provided you treated it like a Mitchell BNCR that weighed 150 lbs. NO HAND HELD, NO MOVING CAMERA unless you bolt it to a compact car and push it. Abel Gance was an exception to the rule, so you ignore him; he's not a typical silent film maker... Frame shots in Extreme long shots, Establishing set shots and at the knees to the top of the head. Closeups are RARE in the early films. You can only shoot a few...

2. Shoot on 2366 Intermediate B&W lab stock and rate at ISO 6. You get 2 takes per shot maximum. No 100 to 1 ratios. Blow a shot? Cut around it...

3. Caucasian actors will need pancake makeup. Max Factor still makes it. Caucasian skin photographs very dark on blue sensitive film; red doesn't register.

4. Get a lot of reflectors, a large mirror and several large silks to diffuse the mirror. Shoot everything outside you can. Make open air sets with silks over the top. Exposure is determined by on-set tests. Learn to "bottle" test and judge exposure from a wet negative. Remember YOU process the film yourself that night...

5. Process by inspection under an OC safelight in a pin rack for a negative density typically 1/2 more dense than our current "normal". Expect Dmax in scenes to hit 3.0 but no more than 3.6 d transmission.

6. Cut the neg into a single strand with handles on each end of shots, strike a one-light dupe and use that to edit.

7. Write bridging title cards, photograph on same 2366 but soup in positive developer for contrast and strike a one lite for editing.

8. Edit film with title cards to your satisfaction, meanwhile taking notes as to which scene or scenes you wish to tint or tone various colors.

9. Break down negative into as many printing rolls as you have tints or tones. If you have a typically mono film with title cards that are sepia and a night sequence that is blue, you will have 3 printing negatives.

10. Time each negative reel and strike show quality prints from each.

11. Send the tinted reels to be tinted in dye baths.

12. Cut the tinted reels into the mono release print reel in proper order. Every Silent film that had tints/tones was a spliced print - every one...


Make 3 of these a week on average - about 1000 feet each.


You've done it.

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Just use the 7366/3366 variation of the 5366/2366 Intermediate stock; same thing. Process as a negative in either Dektol or TD-3. If you have to use a normal lab, if they insist on processing it in the negative machine, push it 2 stops but expose "normally". If they will run it in the positive machine (Higher contrast), try "normal" ISO of 6.


NOTE: a lab might balk at running intermediate stock through their positive machine, as the anti-halation dye could color their developer...


Run a short test. Always run a test...

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