Making a Modern Silent Film Using Gold Rush as an Example

         Films have evolved over a hundred years since the first silent film cameras were set up to record images of train passengers boarding trains. While techniques and technology have evolved, the need for solid storytelling has not; and, while many remake older movies into modern blockbuster extravaganzas, few remake silent films, and almost no one makes silent films anymore. If one were to make a silent film today in the style of Gold Rush (1925), the quintessential Little Tramp silent film starting Charlie Chaplin, one would have to be familiar with Gold Rush and know what has changed technically since it was filmed, before determining how an entertaining, new silent film would be put together.

         Gold Rush is an interesting and entertaining movie that a filmmaker must be familiar with to make a modern silent film successfully. The story flows in episodic segments that are uncommon in today’s three act films. As a silent film it relies heavily on sight gags and other visual forms of humor to keep an audience engaged. As an archetypal and well-made silent film, Gold Rush offers many excellent examples of how film makers in the silent era used their limited technology to create engaging stories. Many technical aspects of film making have changed since Gold Rush was made. Firstly, for scores we can now record master quality sound in digital formats and with enveloping, epic surround sound—rather than playing a record in front of the theatre on an old Victrola. Secondly, film and digital media have progressed to the point of having not only color film but of having also stereoscopic digital projections, much as IMAX and James Cameron are working with today. With the advent of the new form of glasses-based 3D in theatres today and with the advent (they are here) of autostereoscopic LCD and TV displays that do not require eyeglasses to view correctly, silent films now could make full use of realistic and beautiful visuals seen as the human eye can see them.

         A new silent film would be great in many ways. Because a silent film relies almost completely on the visual aspect of film making, excellent cinematography and an intriguing visual style are musts for creating something an audience would be apt to look at for eighty-eight minutes. Tim Burton’s dark, gritty, blue and grey, gothic (architecturally) film style is one that might offer enough eye candy to satisfy our modern, visually oriented audiences. A pervasive and dynamic score, played by an orchestra, could add the emotion needed to characters and events, and this sound mix should be recorded in THX or Dolby 7.1 surround sound onto master quality film or digital prints. Mickey-Mousing the music would be important as well to keep an audience’s attention.

         If one were to make a silent film today in the style of Gold Rush, one would have to be familiar with Gold Rush and know what has changed technically since it was filmed before determining how a new silent film would be best put together. While few make silent films nowadays and while perhaps modern audiences expect something more easily stimulating and would not appreciate the art of silent film, making a modern silent film that makes use of all the technologies and techniques developed in cinema over the past hundred years is an activity that might be worth experimenting with.

Eric Hovis

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