One of the first motion pictures ever shown was of a French train coming into the station. While no sound was used, the visual was so arresting for the time that many audience members gasped and took cover, thinking the train would steam off the screen and careen into them.
For the next forty years, Silent Film Era directors would come up with simple but brilliant ways to engage their audiences, making them laugh, cry, quiver and contemplate — all without saying a word.
Now, modern video makers are finding themselves in the same dusty territory.
To eliminate unwanted sound coming from users’ timelines, Facebook and other social media platforms auto-play videos with the volume off. As a result, a whopping 85% of videos on Facebook are watched entirely without sound.
Are we in the midsts of a retro-revival of the bygone Silent Film Era? I believe so. And to thrive in it, we should consider revisiting some of the same cinematic techniques created by filmmakers who’ve long since faded from the silver screen.
If Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, or Georges Méliès were around today – this might be their advice to us.
WRITE GREAT SUBTITLE COPY
Your video subtitles need to be direct and compelling.
From the very first sentence, the subtitles need to grab viewers’ attention using what journalists call a “hook”. The hook can set up a story, ask a tough question, pose a dilemma, offer advice, or anything that piques curiosity and promises a resolution.
For example, in the first couple seconds of an episode of “Our Gang”, the series that inspired the “The Little Rascals”, we get the line, “Flora was becoming a typical daughter of Eve, and had already learnt to sow havoc among the boys.” Instantly, audiences want to know exactly what this little girl is going to do, and are prepared for mischief.
From the first line on, subtitles should help to guide us through the narrative, providing meaningful exposition at key moments and letting visuals speak for themselves when appropriate.
INSTANTLY PIQUE CURIOSITY
If your video isn’t going to start with a line that grabs the viewer’s attention, then it should start with an image that does.
Make it an image that’s surprising, rarely seen, or one that has to have a story behind it.
In the very first shot in “A Trip to The Moon”, we see a group of wizards chatting amongst themselves in a castle. I’m not sure what they’re talking about, but I’d really like find out.
Once you have the viewers’ attention, tell a story, give instructions or elaborate on an idea.
Give only the most important information to string along the viewers’ interest and make it obvious that there’s a resolution coming.
In just seven seconds of a scene from the great Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus”, our hero runs into a donkey, gets chased by a donkey, escapes into a cage, and comes face to face with a sleeping lion. How’s that for moving the plot along?
USE EYE-CATCHING VISUALS
If you want to follow the production style of NowThis, Playground +, or many other successful video makers, you’ll need footage that will intrigue viewers.
You can either film your own assets, purchase assets, or nab assets that are free for commercial use. On our list of 13 ways to make video marketing easier, #1 is a collection of free video sources.
The production quality of your video doesn’t always have to be stellar. Audiences are used to watching video shot on smartphones. But do try to find video that’s intriguing on its own, like many of the shots captured by Buster Keaton.
RELY ON DESIGN
Silent videos can greatly benefit from purposeful design touches, as seen in pretty much any scene from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.
When it comes to your brand videos, adding custom-designed intros, outros, transition slides, or subtitles can go a long way to holding a viewer’s attention, highlighting important information and conveying the brand.
KEEP THINGS IN MOTION
Silent film makers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were masters at using physical motion to engage audiences. Of course, it helps that both were skilled acrobats and performers. But the lesson you can learn is that motion intrigues.
A good way to incorporate interesting motion into your videos is through animation. If your video’s subtitles will be more informational than dramatic, you may want to use fluidly moving animation to holds the user’s attention.
The greatest filmmakers of the Silent Film Era succeeded because they were innovative. They constantly challenged themselves to capture the human condition in powerful new ways.
To stand out in modern times, that may just mean approaching the challenge of a muted video using a page or two from their script.
Can you use just one word to make a user stop and pay attention? How about a single image? Can the whole video be one video or photo? Maybe the video is just one person talking to the camera? Experiment. Fail. Learn things. And use those lessons to build your style.
Facebook timelines are cluttered. If you want your video to stand out, you’ve got to be willing to try something new and unexpected, something innovative. Something that shoves you out of your comfort zone even.
That’s the only way to be truly heard in today’s Silent Video Marketing Era.