I had trepidation about seeing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I worried no one could play Mr. Rogers, even the gifted Tom Hanks. I worried the film would be a treacly portrait with too many kid scenes. Luckily, I was dead wrong. The film works in large part because director Marielle Heller tackles the same darkness Rogers was willing to examine with and for children. Hanks was brilliant. And Chris Cooper—one of my favorite character actors–should be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for his nuanced rendition of a hard-living father trying to reconnect with his son.
The thing that really struck me in this film was its respect for Silence. Silence was an important part of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s what made some people hate the show: those pregnant pauses where he looks at the camera, waiting for small children to consider what he has just said. The silences in the film were, of course, not entirely silent. (Beautiful sound design by
Damian Volpe and team that will likely go unnoticed by an Academy who loves to reward explosions and bone-crunching in soundtracks.) If you haven’t seen the film yet, listen for the barely noticeable ticking of a clock in the background of a tense scene between Rogers and Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys of “The Americans” fame. Or the very gradually building silence in their meeting at a restaurant, where clattering cutlery, conversations and shuffling feet of waiters gradually come to a pause while Rogers and Vogel share a moment of silence before a meal.
Working in short form nonfiction as I do, there’s often little patience for silence. Short form videos are often limited to under 3 minutes. They’re designed to engage a hyper-busy audience and connect them to a community, a cause, and a brand. But as my co-author and sound designer Cheryl Ottenritter and I say in our new book, Nonfiction Sound and Story for Film and Video (Routledge), it’s critical to “fight for the silences.” They can make a story work. When stringing soundbites together, find a moment where the story arc turns and put in a beat of silence instead. When laying in your music tracks, consider a break from music entirely so the audience can refocus on the story. Rather than inserting a voiceover telling the entire story, create moments where natural sync sound or wild sound can be layered into a scene to help support the story.
Sound is more than half of every video. And silence should be part of that soundscape. Silence is what, in many ways, made Mr. Rogers’ video work unique. It can elevate your work, too.
Amy DeLouise is a video producer/director and the co-author of the new book Nonfiction Sound and Story for Film and Video: A Practical Guide for Filmmakers and Digital Content Creators (Routledge). Use code HUM19 for a 20% discount at checkout!