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Silent Film Tips

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#1 Duncan Corbin

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Posted 10 September 2018 - 08:12 PM

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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#2 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 11 September 2018 - 03:19 AM

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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#3 Frank Wylie

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Posted 11 September 2018 - 06:32 AM

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.

 

OR

 

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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#4 Timothy Fransky

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Posted 11 September 2018 - 02:37 PM

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:

 

https://www.bfi.org....nt-horror-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, 11 September 2018 - 02:41 PM.

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