How the Special Effects of Silent Films Were Done

When you can’t rely on a computer to improve (or fake) a movie scene, you gotta improvise. And back in the days of silent films, filmmakers were really, really good at coming up with creative ways to cook up special effects. It was a master class of using specific camera angles, splicing together shots, using glass matte paintings, and twisting perspectives to make things look as realistic as possible.


Silent Movie GIFs is an excellent resource that reveals how things used to be done in the past. He detailed a lot of famous examples (like the one above of Harold Lloyd dangling off a clock in Safety Last!, which used perspective to make it look real) in a wonderful post here. It’s a fun read for anyone.

Here’s how Charlie Chaplin roller skated backwards and “almost” fell in a department store in Modern Times

The finished shot:

This tricky matte shot from Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. is really cool too:


And how it was done:



Okay, genius, so how did they remove the sound? I get how it could be done now, with modern editing equipment, anybody could remove the sound from a piece of footage on a halfway decent Mac. But how did they get the sound out of the movies back then? You can’t do that with a phonograph, that’s for sure.