Understanding the Importance of Silence in Filmmaking
The clever use of silence can help you guide your audience’s reaction to your film. Let’s take a look at how to pull it off.
While films like Baby Driver may be the peak of creative sound design, films that know how to make use of quietude and silence are another way to move audiences. Either approach depends on what the story and style dictate. As a filmmaker, it’s up to you to understand how to bring your story to life. So, let’s explore how silence can be an important filmmaking tool.
Force the Audience into the Moment
In this video essay by Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou, he breaks down how Martin Scorsese will often use silence in key sequences of his films to create heightened awareness. The audience feels the soundtrack disappearing beneath them, forcing them to focus on the moment — often before Scorsese punches it back in abruptly for a knock-out blow.
Give Action Extra Punch
In 2011, two stylized modern western films premiered to widespread acclaim. While both PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Me are memorable as perhaps the greatest films in their respective directors’ filmographies, they stand apart in one key arena: soundtracks.
Audiences appreciate There Will Be Blood, for many reasons, among them the film’s stark, abrupt, and chilling soundtrack, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. No Country For Old Men is equally renowned for its directors’ decision to forgo a soundtrack altogether.
The absence of non-diegetic composition can give an extra level of “realness” to your sequences. Emphasis on brutal actions, like car crashes or gun shots, seems more abrupt, and these sequences hang in the air longer as the audience lingers with the echoes throughout an entire scene or film.
Silence can also be powerful when it conveys the inner isolation of a character. This is famously apparent in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, when a young Benjamin Braddock isolates himself in the deep silence of his family’s swimming pool, escaping the pressures of the real world. As an audience, we enter the character’s isolation in the scene as we experience the stillness — only to come back, tongue-in-cheek, with Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of “The Sound of Silence.”
Add Emotional Depth
As a filmmaker, you can use many different techniques to cue emotional responses in your audience. One of the most powerful, as we see in the above clip from Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings, demonstrates how simply removing the sounds of the characters’ cries of despair can seemingly make them that much more emotional and deep.
While Gandalf may be lost to the Balrog, the audience feels the emptiness of grief with the characters, creating a much more meaningful scene. This is a powerful tool that you can use to similar effect in your own films and projects.
For further inspiration, here’s a great top ten video by Cinefix on some of the most famous uses of silence in film history.