silent film

17 Great Silent Movie GIFs from @SilentMovieGIFs

You might be following Puppy Twitter, Weird Twitter, or Cupcake Twitter, but are you following Silent Movie Twitter?

If not, you might be missing one of its best accounts, @silentmoviegifs. Created in January 2016 by Don McHoull (@dmchoull), @silentmoviegifs is literally what it says it is: GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) of visually compelling or hilarious moments from the earliest days of film. These GIFs include everything from stop-motion animation, to the earliest camera tricks of Hollywood’s first cinematographers, to epic stunts by Buster Keaton and sleights-of-hand by Charlie Chaplin.

McHoull first got the idea of making these GIFs available to the wider internet after seeing a trending GIF on Reddit from The Bellboy, featuring Buster Keaton cleaning a nonexistent window. McHoull, a film buff, was excited to see a century-old comedy still attracting millions of views, but was dismayed at the poor image quality of the GIF.

Since he possessed a Blu-ray set of high-quality Buster Keaton short films, and Photoshop, McHoull took it upon himself to provide the internet with better-looking GIFs from the Silent Era. After all, the two types of media are a match made in heaven: “Silent movies translate really easily into GIFs,” McHoull told NYFA, “because the jokes and the ideas being expressed are all being done a purely visual way.” He made sure to add, “Not to discount the role of music in the silent cinema experience.”

McHoull quickly found an online audience eager to see highlights from the Silent Era they may have otherwise never thought to seek out. As of June 2018, @silentmoviegifs has nearly 60,000 followers, including Guillermo del Toro, Rian Johnson, Natasha Lyonne, Taika Waititi, Edgar Wright, Patton Oswalt, Seth Rogen, and Neil Patrick Harris.

He continues to source his GIFs from Blu-rays and DVDs, proving that the preservation and restoration of older film is essential to remembering the art form in its very beginnings. He uses YouTube and other lower-res sources if he must, but adds that Toronto’s video stores are a “secret weapon” of his.

“In particular one, Bay Street Video, has a very good selection of silent films for rent,” McHoull revealed. “Video stores and silent films are both things that a lot of people would regard as obsolete, but for me at least they still offer something that their supposed replacements don’t.”

Not all of his GIFs are straight clips from silent films. McHoull will also take the time to painstakingly create supercuts of particular actors or genres. One of his latest projects includes a supercut of elaborate train stunts from the Silent Era, before CGI and other special effects could really be used to simulate such sequences. When asked if he had a favorite GIF, McHoull told us it was difficult to say, but named one of his most time-consuming supercuts — an evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character.

Starting with McHoull’s Evolution of the Tramp then, here is just a small sample of some of our favorite GIFs from @silentmoviegifs:

Charlie Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Clara Bow

Louise Brooks

Willis O’Brien

Charlie Chase

Laurel & Hardy

Gloria Swanson

Mary Pickford

Charley Bowers

Fritz Lang

Dorothy & Lillian Gish

Auguste Lumière


Lois Weber

Sessue Hayakawa

Greta Garbo

Harold Lloyd

These are just a few gems from @silentmoviegifs. NYFA encourages everyone to check out the account for the rest. McHoull is the first to tell you he isn’t in this for fame and fortune, and recommends other Twitter accounts to silent movie buffs as well, including @MoviesSilently and @silentlondon.

He’d also tell you not to limit yourself to Twitter, recommending YouTube as a great source for silent movies, as well as Imgur and Reddit (including his own subreddit), telling NYFA that when it comes to GIFs, they have several technical advantages over Twitter.

Watching the earliest movies put to film is a great way to study and learn the art of cinema, and any serious film student should consume as many silent films as they can, however they can. And the next time you’re in Toronto, maybe rent a few from Bay Street Video.


How To Be A Better Cinematographer: 5 Ways You Can Develop Killer “Cinematographer’s Eye”

Just as a comedian has the ability to see humor in every day scenarios, a cinematographer is able to see hidden beauty and storytelling elements in a scene. It’s an art form like any other and shares a number of skill sets common to conventional photography, and developing what’s known as the “cinematographer’s eye” is practically essential when it comes to taking your movie projects to the next level.

How to Develop Cinematographer's eye

And cinematography is a skill that can be learned and improved upon, no matter what your current level of experience. If you want to grow in leaps and bounds, here are five essential things you should study in order to advance your craft.

1. Study Silent Film

When you’ve only got visuals to work with, you’d better make sure your visuals are damned good.

That’s precisely why the silent film era is a great go-to source for examples of how filmmakers got the most out of their cinematography, rather than using it as an afterthought. A fine place to start would be with G.W. Pabst (who we’ve analyzed previously), but here are a few more that are worth delving into:

  • Charlie Chaplin (obviously)
  • D.W. Griffith
  • King Vidor
  • Erich Von Stroheim
  • Cecil DeMille
  • Fritz Lang
  • F.W. Murnau

In fact, try making a silent short yourself – it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, but tying your right hand behind your back is a surefire way to develop a killer left hook.

2. Study Cinematography

Sounds obvious, right? If you want to get good at cinematography, you should study the craft of cinematography. Unfortunately, it’s something which many filmmakers—both professionals and hobbyists—either put on the back burner or worse, ignore entirely.

Cinematographer's eye

There’s nothing wrong with learning by doing or picking up experience out in the field, but couple this time spent at an intensive cinematography school, and you’ll be able to get deeper into the subject a lot quicker. Even if you’re not actively involved in cinematography duties while on set (or it’s not something you’re looking to break into), a cinematography program can help bring you up to speed on what the cinematographer actually does, helping you to work as a much more unified team.

3. Study Your Equipment

This goes for any role in the production team, but a cinematographer in particular needs to be a jack of all trades and pretty much a master of them all, too (particularly on smaller productions in which the director and cinematographer is usually one and the same).

In particular, a good cinematographer is one who knows every single camera and piece of lighting equipment on set, inside and out. Your job will be to translate the thoughts and instructions of the director—which might not necessarily be overly articulate—into real life results. Naturally, you’ll only be able to do that effectively if you know exactly how to manipulate your tools; coaching those enlisted to help you to do the same is also paramount, so be prepared to brush up on your coaching skills while on set.

Cinematography equipment

Essentially, all this boils down to skills in both communication and technology, so there’s no substitute for getting elbows-deep in theory and doing your reading. It may sound dull, but you’ll want to memorize every page of every instruction manual of every camera you’re likely to use, and then put this learning into practice with every lens you can get your hands on at every chance you get.

Same goes for lighting equipment and techniques, but at the same time, don’t try and stick too close to the book either. Sounds paradoxical, but every set and situation will be different—you can’t force a square peg into a round hole, so make sure you keep a spirit of innovation and problem-solving around you at all times. You’ll be surprised at the number of techniques you’ll pick up (and possibly even invent) through experimentation.

4. Study Photography… With No Humans in It

Photographing human subjects is easy (comparatively speaking), given that there’s a definite object to frame and that the object itself is malleable by the photographer.

Take the human out of the shot, however, and it’s not immediately clear what the subject is (or should be).

Photographer's Eye

That’s where the cinematographer’s eye comes in; identifying why the shot is important and needs to be taken in the first place, followed by how best to tease out all of the relevance and show it in the best light. As such, a lot of good instruction on framing and composition can be gleaned from such photography and instantly applied to filmmaking; some of the most expensive photos ever sold don’t depict living subjects, and there’s plenty of inspiration out there to draw from.

5. Study Graphic Novels

Think that comics books are a waste of time and can’t teach you how to frame a shot?

Graphic novel cinematography

Enough said.


GW Pabst Case Study: Creating Drama Without Dialogue Through Cinematography

The world of silent cinema is undergoing something of a revival thanks to major motion pictures such as The Artist, and justly so. Forgotten film and stars are now being unearthed and played to a new and ready-to-engage audience.

Silence is golden silent movies

Opening Pandora’s Box

One work that is a prime example of silent film creating drama without dialogue is the European masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring Louise Brooks in her most iconic role as the doomed seductress Lulu.

Louise Brooks in Gerog Wilhelm Pabst's Pandora Box
The film is based loosely on two plays by Franz Wedekind: Erdegiest and Die Buchse Der Pandora. For the role of Lulu, Pabst had been searching high and low. He’d settled himself on signing the great German star of the time Marlene Dietrich; however he ultimately felt that her overtly sexual nature and sultry glances would transform the film from a darkly possessed story of doomed love and destructive relationships to one of maybe a more bawdy sensibility. He had Dietrich in his office about to sign when he got the call to say Louise Brooks would star for him. At a time when dialogue as such in films did not exist apart from on slide titles, he needed a subtle, nuanced performance. Brooks gave him just that.

How The Plot Carries Itself Without Words

The first thing you will notice from watching the clip is the intensity of it. For a film that is purely relying on an eclectic score as its ‘sound,’ it draws you in enormously.

Brooks only has to give a little tilt of her head or the flicker of an eyelid for the audience to know what she’s thinking. Watch, as she reclines on the chaise lounge in front of her lover Dr. Ludwig Schoen (played by Fritz Kortner). There is an innate sexuality to her performance; she uses her body as her language.

As the cinematography intercuts between the character of Lulu on the chaise longue with her lover and outside where the character of Schigolch, Lulu’s patron and father figure (Carl Goetz) is hiding while she has her tryst with Schoen. The disheveled and decrepit figure sits in a crumpled position in a complete contrast to the serenity of Lulu. His movements are short, sharp, physical and jerky; his facial expressions craggy and darkly comedic in their execution, his creepy characteristics coming through with a scrunch of his lips and in the screwing up of his eyes.

Pabst’s Techniques

Pabst was known as a psychological realist in terms of his direction techniques and cinematography. He used the camera in such a way it appeared it was an x-ray machine to get to the heart of what his characters were thinking and feeling.

One of the most pertinent scenes of the film that demonstrate this is the scene in which Schoen violently shakes Lulu backstage after a dance performance. Lulu throws herself down onto a makeshift bed and starts a vicious tantrum involving limb thrashing and leg beating. Pabst got the camera to literally caress Brook’s body while she was undergoing this athletic feat of anger right from her neck down to her legs. He captures the exact moment in which she stops for a second and sneaks a backward glance at Schoen to see if he is taking notice of what she’s doing. They end up entwined with Schoen trying to stop her and she bites his hand. The scene finishes with one final flourish, a look of wicked triumph on the face of Lulu—it’s literally no more than three seconds of silence, and one facial expression but it says so much—without one single word.

Drawing Genuine Emotion From The Acting Talent

Pabst had requested that Brooks hand over a favorite suit to him for the filming and she demanded to know why, but he wouldn’t say. With a little cajoling she did so and returned to play the final scenes to find it cut to shreds, torn, burned and ripped. She was distraught. It was her own best suit and one she loved and adored. Pabst made her put it on, and she was incandescent with rage—but he’d done it for a reason, as you can see in the final scenes of the film.

Lulu is by now living in Victorian London in a slum. He wanted to convey as much through Brook’s body language how dreadful her situation was, ergo to do that he ripped her favorite clothes, as he knew this would make her feel dreadful, inhibited, dirty, disheveled and that this would come across in her body language as she performed. It works a treat.

Contrast And Atmosphere

The fog bound, dark, dirty atmosphere is heightened and provides a stark contrast from the earlier scenes in the film; Lulu wears diaphanous dresses, floating lighter than air, her movements the same. By the end point in the film everything feels heavy, leaden and defeatist—the clothes, the characters and even the air.

Pandora’s Box not only cemented Pabst’s reputation as a director of melodrama par excellence but it also demonstrated the effect of using little or no dialogue to create tension, effect and raw emotion amongst his actors and also amongst his cinema going audience. For that we can never discount the medium of silent film in general and all it has to teach us about dramatic and cinematography techniques.