The oft-used phrase “show, don’t tell” is one of the first filmmaking tips that anyone beginning to learn their craft will be taught. After getting onboard with the basic steps of filmmaking, show don’t tell is the mantra that every filmmaking student should have embedded in their psyche from the the very start of their pursuit of filmmaking as a passion as well as a craft, as well as an educational qualification to strive for.
Cinema, after all, is a visual medium and sound is there only to enhance what is on the screen. Music can rouse the emotions and explosions can excite but some of the most powerful filmmaking tips and tricks use silence to grip the audience.
Silence does not necessarily mean a complete absence of sound. In cinematic terms, it is usually taken to mean no dialogue or music. In the quietude of a scene, subtle ambient sound will anchor the audience to the arena in which the moment is playing out. It gives a context to the experience, whether that be an emotional revelation or a tension building setup. Don’t neglect the soundscape of the piece – lack of noise doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about it. You still need to place those inflexions of sound that will lift the story beats in the scene.
There are plenty of filmmaking tips and tricks on using sound but too much noise throughout a film, like profanity in dialogue, means the effect of it is lost when it is needed most. Let’s take Ridley Scott’s masterfully constructed Alien as an example of these filmmaking tips and techniques. This genre-blending story is quiet – the opening uses music sparingly and mixes it with the ambient sounds of the ship to lock the audience into the arena. Despite being science-fiction, the sparse, mechanical sound effects and realistic, minimal dialogue give the film a naturalistic feel – which sets the stage perfectly to gain maximum impact from the unnatural horror of the film’s subject when it’s revealed.
When there is very little sound, and especially no dialogue, it allows the audience to work through the scene themselves. This is part of the movie that is happening off-screen, in the watchers’ imagination. In the quiet, the audience has the opportunity to come to its own conclusions and feel smart in doing so – something every filmmaker should be aiming for.
Take a look at PremiumBeat’s blog for more filmmaking tips and techniques from some of the best uses of silence in cinema.
So, you have the equipment and script for your next project, why not try this: – remove the dialogue from the script and ask yourself does the film still work? Does it still convey the intended emotion and dramatic irony? If the story falls flat, then revisit the structure and composition of the visuals, the pace and the script itself. Ask why the audience doesn’t connect with your film and the answers will come in the form of missed opportunities to “show, don’t tell”.