Ah, the age of streaming video. October brings with it more than the usual glut of what I’ve (fairly or unfairly) come to call “Netflix Horror” and its rows after rows of not-quite-but-almost-amateur productions; not that I’m throwing any big stones here in my glass house, but get ten minutes into most of them and it’s just the same old boobs and blood and foolish behavior from well-heeled stereotypes. If you’ve just smoked a bowl or three and that’s what you want, more power to you, but one of the biggest pitfalls for any creative endeavor is this: if you’re not doing anything original, you better do it really, really well or you’re already going to be on a back foot with regards to standing out from the rest.

But I digress. In addition to films that are obscure for the reasons above, there are films in the catalog that might be obscure for other reasons. Or perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “obscure” since some of them were quite famous and successful in their day…

I’m speaking of silent movies. Scrounge around on Netflix and you’ll find a selection of them, both Made in the USA and not. Now it’s a feat in itself that these prints have survived nearly a century, but are they all classics for that? Not necessarily, but still, it’s an interesting exercise to check them out.

And here’s where I come around to my thought for the week: this is not only an interesting exercise for the aforementioned bowl-smoking session, it’s interesting from a comics perspective. Because moments.

Moments in comics are just what you might think: the “freeze frame” that’s presented in a given panel. The moment is something our imaginations fill in on either side, completing the action presented… comics never show the entire punch being thrown, but in our mind’s eye we see it happen. The choice of the moment is crucial, though, which is why 99% of the time a thrown punch will be drawn at or just after the point of impact. You usually don’t want to draw the guy cocking his arm back because unless there’s a purpose for that it’s just quite literally wasting time and space.

So film, including silent film, is a full-motion medium that doesn’t really need to worry about those economics, but silent film is an intriguing beast because of the necessity to insert those breaks displaying the dialogue in print form. With these intertitles the director had to make the decision of where to momentarily interrupt the visual flow… or sometimes they’d just have someone talk and gesture and never use an intertitle at all, just counting on the communication to be clear enough without…

Well, let’s call it a word balloon, right? They’re a form of word balloon, those intertitles. That was my thought, at least. When you’re creating a comic with dialogue, part of your choice of moment has to pay attention to which “freeze frame,” which moment, is going to best accompany the words being said. What’s the key emotion? What will best flow?

Those early silent movies were in a way struggling with similar concerns. So if you find yourself watching one, you could do worse than pay attention to the director’s choice of where to cut for those intertitles, and whether that choice seemed good or bad for the story. Moments of silence. No tragedy required.