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A Portrait of The Artist

The Artist

July 2012 · An interview with Dr Jonathan Burrows by Penelope Jenkins

Nominated for ten Academy Awards, and hotly tipped for the Oscars, The Artist hasn't done badly for a silent film released over 80 years after the genre’s heyday. Dr Jonathan Burrows of the Department of Film and Television Studies says that although novelty has played a part, the film's success is down to clever post-production and some carefully judged performances.

There hasn’t been a mainstream silent film since 1976 when Mel Brooks’ unimaginatively-titled Silent Movie parodied the genre. The Artist , says Dr Burrows, is much more affectionate and a serious homage to film’s pre-talking days. Although amateur film-makers have continued to make their own silent films, the fact that there hasn’t been a major silent film released for well over a generation adds to The Artist’s novelty value.

The film-makers did their research thoroughly. While it's “completely impossible to exactly replicate photographic look of film made in 1920s”, due to huge advances in film stocks and processing techniques over the past 90 years, the artistic team worked hard to recreate silent films’ black and white look. “Black and white film is now very fast and sensitive to light. There’s no grain.”

To get around this, The Artist, explains Dr Burrows, was shot on slower colour film stock then drained of colour in post production to give it the look of a 1920s movie. The acting style is very cleverly judged to replicate the kind of performances you’d expect to see in the era. The print, however, has a sharper depth of focus than films of that period, but “considering all hurdles, they’ve done a very good job.”

The film’s success with award nominations, cynically speaking, may be down to the film’s distributors in America. The Weinstein Company, Dr Burrows says, are masters at lobbying for awards. A large proportion of the members of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences are retired directors, producers, technicians and performers. They are well disposed to films that revive or pay tribute to older film-making techniques that have since gone out of fashion. For example, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart didn’t garner strong reviews when released but it struck a chord with the age demographic of the Members with its revival of the epic film. Although, he adds, “I doubt anyone in the Academy is old enough to remember silent movies!”

The 3D film Hugo has also received multiple Academy Award nominations. This film remembers and pays homage to the pioneers of cinema. “One can’t underestimate that The Artist is very much a film attuned to their tastes and sensibilities,” adds Dr Burrows.

Half the population of Britain went to the movies once a week, that’s far many more than today.

The Artist has delighted many cinemagoers but how popular was silent film in its heyday? Until the 1930s there were no official statistics confirming cinema admissions recorded. It’s estimated, however, that by World War I, average ticket sales per week were in the region of 20 million. After the war, admissions dropped but by the mid 1920s they were back up again to the 20 million mark. Half the population of Britain went to the movies once a week, that’s far many more than today, where statistics record 10 to 15 million visits per month.

Of course, today there are so many different ways to consume films apart from the traditional cinema visit: watching a DVD or downloading from the Internet being but two. The historic peak of cinema-going was 1946, with 1.5 billion tickets sold in a year, but back in the 1920s silent film was the dominant mass entertainment of the time.

A full-scale conversion to ‘talkies’ took three to four years in Hollywood. Sound techniques were initially introduced to replicate music, so that any cinema would be able to feature famous musicians in synchronised sound. No-one thought that silent films were lacking. The afterthought of featuring actors speaking quickly became the norm and by 1928 to 1929 the format had taken hold of the industry.

The Artist is a one-off, says Dr Burrows, with much of its impact down to its novelty factor - something that can't be replicated. He hopes, however, that companies which produce DVDs of original silent films will market them to a wider audience.

Apart from its lack of speech, The Artist is also significant for overcoming national boundaries. It’s incredibly rare for a French-language film to be in contention for so many Academy Awards (it would usually be ghettoised in the ‘best foreign language film’ category). Back in the 1920s film culture was much more cosmopolitan. Silent films didn’t need subtitles - therefore they could travel the world over.

Further reading

  • Koszarski, R. An Evening's Entertainment. California: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Crofton, D. The Talkies. California: University of California Press, 1999.

Jonathan Burrows is an Associate Professor in Film and Television Studies. His research interests lie in the field of silent cinema, with a particular focus on early British cinema. He is currently working on a research project examining how cinema was transformed into a mass medium in Britain during the Edwardian era. Dr Burrows is the author of Legitimate Cinema: Theatre Stars in Silent British Films, 1908-1918 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003).

The Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick has outstanding results in research (it was ranked as the top Film and Television Studies department in the UK by the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, with a GPA of 3.5) and also teaching (23 out of 24 in the last Teaching Quality Assessment exercise).

By Penelope Jenkins

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