As sound designers, our job is to record, create or mix a bunch of sounds for different type of medias; but sometimes less is more. Silence in movies can sometimes tell a better story that a cacophony of dialog, music and sound effects. This can be a powerful way to create all kind of emotions; Silence can be scary, sad, tense or even relieving. It is important to note that in cinema the term silence does not necessarily mean the total absence of sound; The absence of dialogue and music can also be considered as silence. In this post, we will explore the benefit of using silence to support the story telling.
Film is really the only art form that can use silence in such a creative way. Walter Murch
- Creating a bigger emotional impact.
Silence can enhance a certain emotion that the director wants to communicate. Whether it is to create anxiety in horror movie before a scary scene or a feeling of relief after a tense scene. One example would be the subway scene in the movie ‘The Joker’.
The silence after the gunshots creates a feeling of relief after the violence of the scene. The silence helps to process what just happened to then come at the conclusion that that there is no going back for Arthur Fleck (The Joker).
The spaceship explosion scene in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is another example of using silence to create a more emotional impact, dramatic effect. From 1.29min:
- Enhancing the immersion.
Silence can also be used to create a deeper sense of immersion making the audience feel that they are living the story alongside the characters. This can be seen in the movie ‘A Quiet Place’.
The lack of dialogue and big sound effects throughout the movie really encourage the audience to listen everything else such as the background sound and Foley. Paradoxically, the silence is teaching the audience to listen in a deeper way. The absence of dialogue in this scene allows the sound design to tell the story. By listening actively, sound designer Erik Aadahl explains that the audience becomes an active participant, a part of the cinematic experience: “They are holding their breath the same way the characters onscreen are”.
“Any silence makes us feel exposed, as if it were laying bare our own listening, but also as if we were in the presence of a giant ear, tuned to our slightest noises. We are no longer merely listening to the film, we are as it were being listened to by it as well.” – Michel Chion
- Showing the loneliness of the character.
Silence is also a great way to represent solitude and vastness. In this clip from the movie “127 Hours”, the silence really emphasizes the loneliness of the character making the audience feel uncomfortable and empathetic.
Silence is, for sound designers, a very useful tool to support the story telling. Contrasts and dynamics in sound design are important and silence usually works better when it is either preceded or succeeded by loudness. While we have seen some examples of the use of the silence in movies, sound designers and directors use it in many other ways. Some of them are to give an extra level of realness to the scene, to create tensions or to force the audience to focus on the moment.
Here is a very interesting video essay from Tony Zhou about Martin Scorsese’s use of silence: