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The Silent Film Returns — on Social Media

Tubular Labs, the online video analytics company that placed LADbible at the top of its rankings, has found that of videos posted to Facebook by media companies, 46 percent of views go to videos that are completely silent or just accompanied by music. And in practice, an even higher proportion of social videos are watched silently. The advertising agency BBDO Worldwide says that more than 85 percent of its clients’ Facebook videos are viewed with the sound off.

All of that has given rise to a particular kind of video spectacle on social media, one that is able to convey its charms without dialogue, narrative or much additional context. To entertain soundlessly, viral video makers are reanimating some of the same techniques that ruled silent film over 100 years ago. “For coincidental reasons as much as knowing reasons, we’ve seen a rebirth of a very image-forward mode of communication,” said James Leo Cahill, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto. Among its hallmarks: a focus on spectacle, shocking images and tricks; the capture of unexpected moments in instantly recognizable scenarios; an interplay between text and image; and a spotlight on baby and animal stars.

The very first short-form cinematic experiments — silent clips that arose even before film evolved into a feature-length narrative form in the early 20th century — have become known as what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attraction,” films that worked by achieving a kind of sensual or physiological effect instead of telling a story.

Created by early filmmakers like the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and the American inventor Thomas Edison, these early movies took cues from the circus and the vaudeville circuit, featuring performers from that world, and were then played at vaudeville shows. Taken together, they formed what Gunning has called an…

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