From Austerity to Opulence: Setting in Silent Film

by terigrimm

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Unknown. Filmed in Florida

One of the first things a student learns in a beginning creative writing class is that setting matters. Novels, stories, creative non-fiction and certain types of poems, all happen somewhere. In that lesson we also learn that the setting has to feel real, even if it’s a completely made up world, that it can be in harmony with the characters/speaker or that it can be in conflict with them. We learn that we can’t put our characters or speakers in a setting that is akin to a stage. If we really want to submerge a reader into a world we’re creating, if we really want them to suspend their disbelief, we need to provide a place in which characters can live. A setting that is more than backdrop.

It makes sense, of course, that the earliest days of silent film would feel more like an extension of theater than anything else. Cameras were mostly stationary, and moving camera shots involved planning and time, both which cost money. And just as it was believed film edits might prove perplexing to audiences, it was also believed that moving camera shots might have the same effect. To that end, film sets sometimes looked like the above photograph. An outdoor stage, three walls, no ceiling (because sunlight, of course, was a necessity before indoor film lighting was invented.) In many of these films it feels, even if the set is well constructed, that what’s in the scene is intended mostly to further the action or to establish locale. The acting was center stage (literally and figuratively) and overdone. Place a camera, get a medium shot of the whole set and you’ve got a vantage point as though you’re sitting in a theater watching a play.

Additionally, there was little thought given at that time as to what might be put into the setting. For instance, if the scene was taking place in a wealthy person’s home, the impulse would be to just add more “stuff” to the scene— more paintings, more knick-knacks, more furniture. It was as though characters were little more than “types” and the psychology of the character or the development of the setting was of far less consideration than the action. It was a new medium, of course, an industry that was creating itself as it went along. As directors and cameramen became more interested in pushing the boundaries of what film could accomplish, how stories might be told through this visual medium, attention to what elements went in to a shot, how it might be filmed, under what sort of lighting or tinting, etc., became considerations of importance. All of it contributing to the layering of story, to the effect on the audience, even if the audience wasn’t fully aware of it.

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An Unseen Enemy

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Intolerance

Intolerance 1916

Intolerance

And it didn’t take long for these significant changes to occur. Consider the D.W. Griffith short, An Unseen Enemy (featuring Lillian and Dorothy Gish in their first screen appearance), released in 1912. For the most part, the movie takes place in a house, a cornfield, an office and a bridge. Watch it and you can see how of little importance setting is. (Except perhaps, the bridge scene.) Compare that with his three and a half hour film, Intolerance, which was released only four years later. The iconic Babylonian scenes boast a set that was 3/8 of a mile long with walls that were 140 feet high and were constructed to hold hundreds of extras for the magnificent battle scenes. Griffith didn’t want to just have a facsimile of Babylon, he sought to recreate it down to as much detail as possible, as indicated by the scrapbook he kept to guide the set design. Costumes, weapons, set interiors were all created with attention to the smallest detail for each of the four periods depicted in the film. Of course this comparison is an oversimplification. There were other reasons sets became more detailed, more lavish, beyond a deeper understanding of the relationship between narrative and film. As films became more popular with all social classes and audiences became more accustomed to this medium, they also became more demanding and more discriminating in their expectations. More films were being made with high production value because there was more money being made in the industry. In fact, studios found they could use the cost of a film’s production as a selling point, as with Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922).

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Foolish Wives

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Erich Von Stroheim, who was an assistant director on Intolerance and also an uncredited actor in the film, would go on to become an extravagant director himself, who’s insistence on detail matched, if not surpassed Griffith’s. In Foolish Wives, for example, he insisted that the set be exact replications of The Casino, Hotel and and Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo. The film was intended by Von Stroheim to be between six and ten hours long and shown over two nights. The studio disagreed with his artistic vision and edited it to just over two hours. Additionally, when all was said and done, the film was close to one million dollars over budget, allowing Universal Studios to publicize it as “the first real million dollar picture”. That wasn’t a publicity campaign studios were interested in committing to, however. Because of directors like Stroheim (and Griffith), studios eventually came up with the idea of creating an executive to oversee the various aspects of shooting a film. From that point forward, the producer would soon overshadow most directors in terms of power in filmmaking.

Money and power aside, settings, through the artistry and inventiveness of silent film era directors and production designers, evolved to a place where no one could suggest that there wasn’t a striving toward authenticity in creating a world within the world for characters to live out their own scripted destinies. A world that grounds us and transports us all at once.

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