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Silent Era vs. Modern Cinema Era Research Paper



There are various salient features that help to distinguish the silent era from the modern era film industries. Both of them however incorporated the use of various elements like motion pictures and high quality visuals. On the other hand, the one factor that is indistinguishable in both is the issue of sound. While the silent era was actually silent without any sound effects, the modern era is actually known as the “talkies”, since the audience can hear live dialogue between the actors. The emphasis of the essay is the lack of the sound factor in the silent films which marks its greatest difference in comparison with modern day films.

Overview of the Silent era

The silent era in the film history is an era in which majority of the films were characterized by pictures but with no sound. The silent era started during the 1920’s, a period that saw the motion pictures grow to maturity even before the advent of the talking pictures. One of the key defining characteristics of the films created during the silent era is that it was not possible to synchronize the sound that accompanied the motion pictures (Kahn 2013). What this meant therefore is that the idea of dialogue among the various actors was highly impossible in the films. To ensure that the viewers understood what was happening in the films, most of the meanings were edited in titles and run as screen shots on the screen so that viewers could be able to understand the plot along with the events of the play.

It should however be noted that silent films were not really silent in nature since they would normally be accompanied by live music. One of the reasons for this was to enable the audience attain and understand the various cues from the movie. The main reason for doing this is that music was noted to be a highly essential element in any movie (Schuchman, 2004). In small town cinema halls and film theatres, there was usually a pianist who would play various piano keys and music to relay a certain mood or tone in the film. Other larger cities would have an entire orchestra that would get to play music.

Modern films

These are films that were created after the 1920’s. One of the features that characterizes these kinds of films is that they are sound incorporated. This means that the message by the various play actors can both be seen and heard at the same time.


One of the misconceptions about silent movies is that they were largely primitive and for this reason, not many people desired to watch them. However, this is no longer the case since most of the films that were produced during that period were actually of very high visual quality just like the ones watched in the modern day and age. The only big difference between films from the silent era and the ones from the modern era is that films in the silent era lacked sound unlike those from the modern era that were popularly referred to as the talkies (Schuchman, 2004). One of the greatest challenges for the silent films was that they suffered from lack of sound. This factor therefore necessitated the need to solicit the services of an interpreter.

Another challenge for these films is that they tended to be rather long and for this reason, many interpretors would often be incorporated. Part of the reason for this is that is was quite difficult for one interpreter to carry out the all interpretations required for the whole of the film, due to the length of time involved. On the other hand, modern day films are known for their good sound effects (Sosin, 2012). This, therefore, implies that there is no need for an interpreter.

Actually for the films that have been set in other languages besides English, both translation and editing are normally carried out and as such, the audience is still able to clearly understand the message of the play. In addition, the sound used in the dialogues is easily synchronized with the people meant to carry out the translation, and hence the impeccable sound features of the film. The vice versa is also true with the silent films.

Even though the silent film era is characterised by the silent films, they never really were silent in nature. This may be because of all the participation that they encouraged and derived from the audience. While most of them might not have had movie sounds there was external sound to bring life to the audience. The aim of using the pianos and the orchestra at movie theatres while showcasing the films was to ensure that the audience was encouraged to actively take part in the film.

For instance, in order to create fun, viewers were encouraged to cheer the heroes, to boo the film villain, and to tap their feet as they accompanied the live music. This was one form of entertainment and a way of getting the audience thrilled by the movie scenes. Such a spectacle has totally been erased by the advent of sound films, being that, satisfaction and thrill is derived from the movie itself (Wlaschin & Bottomore, 2008).

Most of the times the movie sound alone was enough to send the audience into a frenzy. In fact, owing to all the action and drama that takes part in the modern day films, the intent is to be as quiet as possible so that the audience can relate with the actors’ dialogue. Any form of exterior noise other than that from the movie will mean that an important message is missed.

Another thing about the silent movies is that they had poor speed regulation. This is because it was difficult to determine a standard silent speed. In any case, the speed regulator was the cameraman as it was his duty to rotate the speed handle on his camera. This meant that a movie would run from the range of about 12 to 22 frames in a second at an average of about 16-20 fps. The reason behind the high movie speed was to ensure that it kept up with the live music tempo that would be played at the theatres (Wurtzler, 2012).

This was however, before the discovery and invention of the talking movies. This is an indicator that sound is a crucial differentiation factor for the different movie eras under analysis. With the introduction of sound in the 1920’s ,it was easy for the movies to be filmed as a standard of about 24 frames in a second. The reason for the apparent speed standardisation was because of the need to ensure that both the sound and the pictures are synchronised. It was therefore necessary that the camera man coordinated the film speed with the actors’ dialogue.

One major characteristic of the films in the silent era is that it was quite hard to synchronise the sound with the dialogue being carried out by the actors. This therefore meant therefore that onscreen titles would often be relayed on the screen as screen shots for the audiences. For this reason, films during the silent era tended to be highly subjective in nature as they would often highlight the key dialogue between the actors and at times infer the dialogues with the use of their own comments for the audience. This therefore meant that the films had to incorporate the use of graphics and illustrations (Sosin, 2012).

At times, decorative abstracts would also be used whereby a commentary would be provided on the actors and their actions. Such an effect is not necessary in modern day films for the simple reason that the audiences are able to derive and arrive at their own judgment regarding a scene from the words of the actors in the play; they can be able to understand the situation at play and thus, get along with the theme being presented.

It has been noted that music is one of the most important effects and compliments to sound. This is due to its ability to create a certain feeling and mood in the viewers even when the words cannot be understood. For this reason, most of the films in the silent era incorporated the use of music in the plays so that the audience would be oriented with the feelings and the moods of the actors. For instance, sad music would be played when a sad instance in the film is taking place. Through the music being played at the scene, the audience would then be in a position to understand whether the vent was a happy one, a sad one, a good one or a bad one (Schuchman, 2004).

Usually when watching a motion film in a movie theatre in the small towns, the inclusion of a pianist in such a film would help to draw the audience to the mood of the play (Khan, 2013). The large city theatres would on the other hand make use of large organists and orchestras to enhance the music effect. This way, they would manage to draw the audience to the tempo of the play. For instance, to show that a crucial scene was happening, bass plays would often be used.

Other sounds that would be created in the films included the use of cymbals, and sound effects of galloping horses, among others. Such is the positive nature of the modern day films that they do not require the use of improvised music in the movies. Most of the sound effects that are required to draw the tempo, shape the mood of the viewers and their feelings would be drawn from the movie itself (Sosin, 2012).

It is simply easy to have emotional connection with the actors by the manner in which they present themselves, the words that they say and how they say them. Unlike the silent era where most of the music classicals compiled music or theatrics, the modern day films use various sound effects within the film to draw the audience to a greater understanding of the plot. In fact, modern plays even incorporate various genres of music that would not display a theatrical feeling. Instead, a real life atmosphere or scene is normally created.

Sound is a vital element that shapes the acting techniques to be incorporated by an actor. In the modern day films, one can clearly hear and understand the words that the actors are relaying to their audiences and for this reason, there is no need to use various gestures or expressions as words speak volumes. It is easier to express how one feels when they can be able to talk than when they have to use various gestures and cues to make you understand as facial interpretations could be misinterpreted and could be understood differently from otherwise clear words (Wurtzler, 2012).

This was one of the defining limitations of the silent films. Seeing as the silent films were characterized by muteness, it was highly necessary that the actors go out of their way to express their feelings, emotions and the plot of the play to the audience (Wurtzler, 2012). There was the need therefore, for the actors to exhibit strong body language. Such kinds of expressions are not necessary and in fact can be termed as being overrated in the modern day film industry since actors can clearly be heard and understood. This means that the message is easily passed through verbal communication. The use of such features could only make the film highly unbearable.

An additional feature that the silent era films required is that the films needed to be shot at varying speeds. This is due to the various standardization challenges faced by the actors during the shooting session. This was the case because there was no intention to ensure synchronization and thus, scenes and recordings could be played back over and over again. In the case of the modern film however, it is very important that the recording and the playback of sound be done at simultaneous speeds to enhance the standard of the film. This helps to overcome instances of poor synchronization (Wlaschin & Bottomore, 2008). The rationale behind this is that scenes in the films have to correlate with the words and dialogue among actors.


On the whole, the advent and rise of sound films has brought about many changes in the film industry. Prior to the advent of sound films, actors were often required to ensure that their audiences could decipher the plot of the play. Most of the plays and films were mainly theatrical in nature, as opposed to real. This was actually one way through which fictitious drama would be showcased. However, with the invention of sound in the film industry, it has become necessary that the actors be fluent and articulate in their words as this is the main form of communication with their audiences. On the other hand, even though the synchronization of sound and motion has helped to develop the film industry, the role of the silent films in this achievement cannot be underestimated.

Reference List

Kahn, E. (2013). Getting A Close-Up Of The Silent-Film Era. The New York Times, p. 21.

Schuchman, J. S. (2004). The Silent Film Era: Silent Films, NAD Films, And The Deaf Community’s Response. Sign Language Studies, 4(3). 231-238.

Sosin, D. (2012). Sound and Silents. Clavier Companion, 4(6), 40-42.

Wlaschin, K., & Bottomore, S. (2008). Moving Picture Fiction of The Silent Era, 1895-1928. Film History, 20(2), 217-260.

Wurtzler, S. J. (2012). Sound and Domestic Screens. Cinema Journal, 51(2), 153-157.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Silent Era vs. Modern Cinema Era." May 26, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/silent-era-vs-modern-cinema-era/.


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