Silence and Why It’s Important in Film

Person asking for silence
A Quiet Place helped moviegoers appreciate silence as a dramatic device. But really it's about sound design! Here, we explore reasons why sometimes quiet is king.

By Matthew Harriott

It’s Quiet…Too Quiet…

In a previous post written by Mary Winter, we discussed the importance of musical themes in film. While I personally agree with all of the points that Mary brought up in her post, I also believe that the absence of music and other sounds in a film can be just as impactful if used in the proper context. This isn’t to say, however, that a film must choose between musical themes and silence. No, in fact many films make great use of both techniques in order to create a dynamic experience for the viewer. Silence is just another creative tool to add to a filmmaker’s handy-dandy utility belt.

While complete and utter silence in film is relatively rare, partial silence in which there is no dialogue for a prolonged period of time or where there is no music in the background is commonly utilized to great effect due to the emotional impact it has on viewers, the level of immersion it creates, and the amount of intrigue it generates to better captivate the audience.  

Emotional Impact

Coll Anderson, the Supervising Sound Editor and Re-Recording Engineer of Martha Marcy May Marlene, claims that the most traumatic scene in the film (don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone, but if you have seen the film then you know exactly which part I’m talking about) initially had no audible sound coming from Elizabeth Olson’s performance; just the sound of an ambient drone as it hauntingly rings away in the background. But in the eleventh hour, right when the film was going to be turned in, it was decided that having no sound at all from the actor’s performance would be too upsetting for the audience. They wouldn’t be able to handle it. So in order to lessen the blow, they added just enough sound to the scene so that the audience would still be emotionally stricken by what it was they were witnessing without causing any sort of emotional breakdown that would prevent them from finishing the film. By adding sound back into the picture, the film’s creative team was essentially extending an olive branch to audience members as a means of keeping themselves grounded and giving them the opportunity to merely be a witness in what was going in the film rather than be an active participant. When you strip a portion of the sound away from a scene, you create a void that the audience members must fill themselves in order to properly wrap their heads around what it is they are viewing. Filling in the blanks causes the viewer to become more intimately attached the film, thus leaving them more emotionally exposed and vulnerable.

recording a movie soundtrack

Creating Deeper Immersion

I recently saw the movie Silence in theaters with a good buddy of mine, and befitting of its title, the film is pretty darn quiet. It has a subtle soundscape that is utilized effectively to ramp up the drama of the film as well as place emphasis on the dialogue and sound effects. The sound of crashing waves ripping across the flesh of the Christian devotees would not be as severely heart-wrenching if background music happened to be playing during the scene. The absence of sound invokes a bitter sense of spine-tingling realism that is tough to escape. By omitting music from certain scenes such as this, the audience is better able to connect with what they are experiencing as the gap that exists between the audience member and what is depicted on screen is drastically reduced. The viewer is reeled in, becoming fully immersed with the scene as though they themselves were in it.

Creating Intrigue

Viola Davis’ Academy Award nominated performance as Rose Maxson was given plenty of room to breathe in Fences largely in part to the sparse musical soundscape that permeated the film. The musical themes in the movie functioned more as a tool for transitioning between scenes than as an agent for emotional development. The film allowed the long strings of dialogue between the characters to remain unfettered by musical accompaniment, giving viewers an in-your-face, inside perspective of what these characters were actually going through. During the scene in which Denzel Washington’s character, Troy Maxson, makes a startling reveal to his wife that forever changes the dynamic between them (again, no spoilers), the audience is left with nothing to hold onto for emotional support as they’re exposed to the stunning performance given by the two leading actors. The absence of a backing track forces us to pay close attention to what is being said on camera. Silence makes a scene feel important, and if the viewer deems a scene important then they are more likely to pay keen attention to it. Each word exchanged cuts deep and is given more meaning due to the perceived gravity of the situation. This allows the content to be more readily absorbed and digested by the viewer, making the use of silence a great technique for emphasizing the important dramatic bits of a film.  

Silence has a profound role in developing the emotional tone of a film, and is a great tool for capturing the sincerity behind the performances seen on screen while simultaneously captivating the audience as their minds race to fill in the blanks of what it is they aren’t actually hearing.

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