44’s Editorial Assistant, Amy Nguyen, reflects upon how creativity lessons from the silent film era can translate into internal communications…
For me, there’s few better ways to relax in the evening than to grab a few snacks and put on a movie. Amongst my top picks are silent films, as it’s hard to not be dazzled by the ingenuity and daringness from the dawn of cinema.
While watching silent films and learning the production story behind them, I also read Tom Abbott’s blog on internal communications and creativity – which sparked an interest and drew some parallels. Can you really be creative when you’re operating within a box, facing small budgets and tight timescales?
Equally, is there a better environment for creativity than when working within limits? ‘There’s not enough time’ and ‘it would be better if I had these resources’ are challenges that all creatives face regardless of their medium, or indeed their place in history.
What did creativity look like for silent film creators?
One hundred years ago marked the era of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who began the transformation from the comedy shorts style of Max Linder and Fatty Arbuckle into feature-length pictures.
Chaplin and Keaton were unique in this period of entertainment because of their active efforts to limit the use of intertitles, which showed printed dialogue or narration. Many silent films used hundreds of intertitles as the primary means to advance the plot, which modern audiences would generally see as disruptive to the story flow – showing is better than telling.
Instead, Chaplin and Keaton explored methods of framing a scene to tell a story and better engage an audience. Drawing the eyes towards facial expressions and body language could convey the message without solely relying on words.
Take the scene in Seven Chances, where Keaton’s character is trying to find anyone to marry him within a few hours so that he can inherit a fortune. A hatcheck clerk watches his disastrous attempts when approaching would-be partners, who all reject him soundly. Keaton then turns to the eyebrow-raised clerk, looks at her with renewed interest, opens his mouth— only for her to immediately shake her head before he can get a word out. He then mimics her head shake to confirm, and then walks away dejected.
Thanks to a cleverly planned set up, this exchange occurred without any intertitles and with plain facial expressions – so it’s no surprise it still endures to this day. Text and imagery are best friends, so striking the right balance leaves a powerful impact.
What’s to gain from some old comedians?
So what can we really learn about creativity from a man who ate his own boiled shoe or a clown who had an unbreakable stone face? Quite simply, a lot!
Good storytelling, compelling writing and striking imagery are timeless as they’re often the result of problem solving within set boundaries. Quickly thinking your way out of a challenge usually directs you towards an improved approach, which in turn appeals to a wider audience.
Limitations should be appreciated as they test creativity in a way that requires a deep understanding of the project, a wide range of skills and, of course, an amazing team to pull it all together – Chaplin and Keaton didn’t do it alone!
It also requires a level of flexibility, as something that was workshopped and used five times before might not translate well onto a digital screen the sixth time. While problems might appear identical at first, they may diverge in later steps – leading you to not fall back on old tricks but, instead, think on your feet.
So whether you’re working on a campaign that had its deadline shortened, juggling multiple print publications within the same week, or organising a stunt where you need to be impeccably lined up so a house falls down around you, limits are healthy for cultivating creativity.
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