The discovery and preservation of silent films, especially those that are considered “lost” or destroyed, is a lifelong pursuit for some of the world’s most dedicated movie buffs. Like all historical and anthropological studies, the foundations of film help us understand where we’ve been, and where we’re going. Don McHoull, creator of SilentMovieGIFs, is putting his own twist on this idea, using silent films as the foundation for a series of some pretty wonderful images while utilizing one of the newest imaging technologies to hit the internet. I had a chance to ask Don a couple of questions about his GIFs, including his Halloween-themed images that showcase some of Old Hollywood’s most beloved characters.
Josef: The most obvious question here is, what inspired you to create these GIFs in the first place? It’s such an odd juxtaposition between classic film and a very modern form of imaging, but one that works extremely well.
Don: I was a fan of silent film, and GIFs just seemed like a natural medium for taking some of the amazing visual ideas in silent movies and sharing them. I’d seen some silent movie GIFs that were really well received on places like Reddit, even though some of them were clearly made from poor quality source material. I had Photoshop and some Chaplin and Keaton Blu-rays, and I figured I’d try to make some cleaner looking GIFs. I think a lot of people have the idea that the image quality of silent films wasn’t that great, but with movies that have been well-preserved and carefully restored the picture quality can actually be really good.
J: Do you attribute any significance to that juxtaposition? In other words, was it a conscious decision to pair the oldest form of cinema available with the newest form of imaging?
D: The GIF is a popular medium that’s strictly visual, so it just seems like a perfect fit for silent movies. My preferred way to watch a silent film would be a in theatre, ideally with live music, but GIFs can take a gag or another visual from a silent movie and make it really easy to share online. I’ve had quite a few GIFs now that have racked up over a million views, and a lot of other ones in the hundreds of thousands. Ideally, someone might see, for example, a few Buster Keaton GIFs, and be interested enough to actually seek out and watch some of his movies, but even if they just watch some GIFs, a least they would have some appreciation for Keaton’s work.
I hope that the GIF can be a sort of gateway drug for silent films, similar to how TV introduced people to silent films. I made a Charley Chase GIF last week for his birthday that’s up to 238,000 views, even though Chase doesn’t really have anything like the name recognition of Chaplin or Keaton (most people seem to be much more familiar with the adult film star of the same name.) I thought it was pretty cool that 92 years later there was still a good sized audience of people who could appreciate the brilliance of Chase’s (and his brother’s) performance.
J: A recent album you posted, one that features GIFs from classic silent horror films, really emphasizes the care and precision that went into the prosthetic and costume design of the era. Do you think recent horror films have lost that attention to detail, and have you noticed any contemporary films that are clearly inspired by the designs of the silent era?
D: The Babadook had a real kind of Expressionist vibe to it. And it seems like most modern depictions of vampires owe a lot to Nosferatu. Obviously makeup and special effects have made huge leaps over the last 90 or so years, and it would be fascinating to see what someone like Lon Chaney or Jack Pierce could do with the stuff that’s out there today.
J: What’s your process for selecting which shots and films you end up turning into GIFs, and can you give us a sneak peek as to what your followers might expect from you in the coming weeks?
After I watch a movie, I like to go through it and pick out scenes that I think could work well as GIFs. I try to cover a wide range of silent films, from different time periods and genres, but my mainstay will probably always be Keaton/Chaplin/Lloyd GIFs.
For the rest of October, I’ll be focusing on the horror genre. I’m interested in the connections between different eras. Today I was looking connections between Nosferatu and Dracula, but there’s also a lot of links you could draw between movies like Frankenstein and King Kong and the silent era. Tonight I’m watching Haxan, so there should be some GIFs from that.
After October, maybe I’ll focus on a different genre, like science fiction, or the invention of the gangster movie. I’ve also been working my way back through Chaplin’s short films, and I’ve noticed that his later feature films return to a lot of ideas and visuals from his early work, I think that would be an interesting thing to explore.