The Sound of Silence: How You Can Use Silence to Tell Better Stories
The visual components of a movie are obviously integral to filmmaking; the images that are the hallmark of our medium allow us to see the narrative unfold. However, cinema is also a medium of sound, and how we use the audible elements can drastically change how our audiences respond to our stories. In this eye-opening video essay from Tony Zhou, the concept of using silence is investigated in-depth, primarily through Martin Scorsese's use of it in his films, like Raging Bull, to demonstrate how silence can actually speak louder to your viewers than a cacophony of sound effects, dialog, and music ever could.
Since filmmakers essentially build a film out of nothing, compiling raw footage, sound effects, dialog, and music to form a visual story, it might be difficult to recognize that what we don't put in a film is just as important (if not more) as what we do put in. Take the example that Zhou mentions in his video: the use of sound in films from the last several years. Contemporary movies, especially action films, don't use the same restraint or method when it comes to using sound in films. Granted, their sound design is meant to get the audience's heart pumping and their adrenaline rushing, and it absolutely does that well. However, excessive use of it can have adverse affects that you didn't expect. It can lead to a raucous film experience (Man of Steel, anyone?), as well as missed opportunities to take advantage of building the emotional impact in a scene. In fact, it often seems as though many films treat silence merely as the empty space between the sound rather than a bona fide storytelling device.
So, how can we as filmmakers utilize the absence of sound to tell stories? Zhou zeros in on Scorsese as a good example, though there are plenty of others. It might seem ironic to many who know Scorsese's work to find that he is the subject of the use of silence in film, since the director's films are known for their soundtracks. However, Scorsese uses silence as a vehicle for storytelling in a number of ways, like, as Zhou points out in the video below, to create a "numbing effect", namely when Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is in the ring and about to get decimated. This device is pretty wide-spread -- whenever we see someone get clocked in the head in a film, we expect to hear that deafening silence coupled with a faint ring to indicate that, yeah, that one was a doozy.
But, Zhou touches on several ways silence can add to your narrative, as well as the atmosphere and tone of your film. Check out his video essay below.
By no means does this mean that films with more silence than others are inherently better. Jaws wouldn't be Jaws without that cello piece, nor would Psycho by Psycho without those screeching violins. In fact, that shower scene is a great example of how sound can bring so much to a film, because Hitchcock actually intended that scene to be silent -- good thing he changed his mind! If you take just one thing away from this let it be that silence can be your friend and can be used as a tool in your film rather than an absence of creative content or inspiration.