Silent Film, Sound Optional


In the course of the last few years, everything has started to move into smartphones. Online activities which were previously accessible or executable only in the web browser on a computer, can now be done from a mobile phone screen with equal ease. As processing power of mobile phones increase by the day, even the UIs have started to match up with their full-fledged browser versions. No longer are they simplified, aesthetically disappointing light versions of the original.

With the smartphone market essentially ruled by two big players – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, app developers have found stable markets to develop and share their products in, and as a result, each OS app store now houses hundreds and thousands of apps that can execute virtually any task that can be carried out by the supporting hardware. But arguably, the biggest migration from computer to smartphone has been in the fields of social media and e-commerce platforms. Most e-commerce websites have their own dedicated apps for both iOS and Android, India’s Flipkart has even gone a step further to make their mobile-based browsing and transactions app-only, and some other websites have followed suite. As PC sales have dipped for the first time and smartphone sales have outstripped them, large digital corporations like Google and Facebook recently for the first time have reported that customers have consumed more data on their smartphones than on more traditional machines like a laptop or a PC.



Another interesting speculation, made by Facebook, is that all media is essentially moving towards video, and soon enough video would be the ruling mode of media consumption. What this essentially means is that all media – be it news, editorial articles, personal blogs, whatever, would be in the form of video content. And if we notice carefully what comes up in our Facebook feed, we can already see this happening. Instead of the image-intensive feed that was the Facebook homepage even a year or two ago, it is quickly becoming a video-intensive one. Almost every channel publishes the majority of their content in the form of video; be it a short clip on the recent faux pas by Donald Trump produced by a news channel, or a video on ten moments when Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling were too cute to be handled, put out by a fashion and lifestyle channel, or a video clip on a half-million-dollar semi-automated mason robot put out by an architecture channel.

Now, it is well-understood that form is not independent of its medium. Technology, its strengths and limitations, both shapes and defines the way media is produced, and consumed. When Marshall McLuhan wrote the essay “The Medium is the Message” in early 1960s and later followed it up with The Medium is the Massage (the typesetter made a simple mistake which much amused McLuhan, and he decided to keep it), he was hitting the nail right on the head of the digital age media revolution that was to come about four decades later. The content, in many ways, serves and is shaped by the medium through which it is presented. Ideas change at a glacial pace, but changes in the medium are radical, and tectonic. And with every new change in the media landscape and technology, the content must reorganize and reshape itself to fit into the strong and weak points of the medium. The style of the content must always be determined by the medium.

It is undeniable that since YouTube introduced in-stream ads (these are the annoying little buggers at the beginning of your YouTube videos that you cannot skip for a full five seconds), the narrative format of digital advertisements, especially ads meant for YouTube, has changed. As most users are likely to skip the ad as soon as they can, it is crucial to get the message across in the first five seconds. Narrative development, advert humour, build-up – all these take a backseat. This also becomes important from a financial point-of-view. Most ads on YouTube are cost-per-view (CPV), and the advertiser is not charged unless the user reaches either the 30-second-mark of the video or the end of the video if it is shorter than 30 seconds. It makes sense if you can put your message across in the first five seconds and minimize payment. It does not matter if the user views the ad in full, or any of the medium’s aesthetic goals are fulfilled. Recently, though, I have started noticing ads on YouTube that are only 5-seconds-long. Mostly, these are ads that have been trimmed to fit the 5-second mark. Google’s ad for its Pixel phone, which was originally 1.22 minutes long, has been trimmed down to a mere 5 seconds (YouTube tried to force-feed its users the complete ad for a while, but I guess that was not working out very well for them). And why would this not happen? Once your brand has gained some visibility, a 5-second-ad is a complete win-win situation, combining the best of both worlds. We are in the age of speedier, shorter, crisper; hit and run, point and shoot.

Facebook videos are another, different but more obvious, case in point. Most users would be aware that by default, audio is turned off for all videos in the Facebook app. And as experience and observation suggests, that setting tends to stay as it is. The makers of Facebook videos (I am not too easily inclined to call them films yet, for no good reason) have been quick to catch up on this. Almost all videos on Facebook now come with subtitles or close-captioning in some form or another. Since audio cannot be taken for granted on this app, makers must rely on communication through text accompanied by the images. With optional sound, film is again becoming a purely visual medium, like it was a hundred years ago in the first few years of cinema. And limitations breed innovation. From regular subtitles to innovative use of intertitles, a combination of both, use of cue cards as subtitles (most probably to avoid more work during the creative process, but that Bob Dylan and Love, Actually vibes cannot be so easily ignored), creative graphic transitions… if you look carefully, it is all quite impressive. Harper’s Bazaar has ditched audio commentary altogether and has replaced dialogue and sound with upbeat music tracks.

Why is this important, or even interesting? It is difficult to say that at this point. All evaluation worth its salt needs a certain distance, a vantage point. But what can be said with some degree of certainty is that this marks a significant movement away from traditional film aesthetics of the sound era which has developed and dominated almost all forms of film for the last eight or nine decades. We are once again at the birth of a different cinema, made for a different medium and for a different purpose. And this new cinema shall have its new audience, perhaps a little less isolated than headphoned commuters. Shut your ears; are you watching closely?

Disclaimer: I could be completely wrong, who can tell…

– Souraj Dutta

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