Five Inspirational Filmmaking Lessons From Charlie Chaplin

This is a guest blog post by Zeke Iddon, a consultant at the New York Film Academy.

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chaplain_kidFirstly, a guilty admission: until last year, I had never seen a Charlie Chaplin movie.

For many of us there are often more than a few great directors whose works we’ve just not gotten around to, and for me Chaplin was one of them. As I primarily work in long form documentary, the mustachioed comic had simply flown under my personal radar for all these years.

After I was forced to watch The Kid at the behest of an eager friend, I realized that Chaplin’s work was a whole world more than slapstick comedy and set about devouring his filmography. Last year, I got through all of his directed films and a good twenty or so he acted in.

I’m a big advocate of watching genres outside of our areas of work (or even interest), simply because it prevents us getting in a creative rut by helping us identify ways of doing things outside of our normal habits.

As such, it’s a pleasure to share the lessons from another era of filmmaking entirely, taught to us by the man who flew against the winds of convention.

1. Pacing is Everything

Pacing is one of the many things they teach at nyfa.edu and countless other film schools up and down the country, and dreadful pacing can kill an otherwise good film stone dead. Since this isn’t exactly a secret, why do I bring it up here? Because Chaplin’s pacing was beyond masterful. And it had to be – only someone with clinically precise control could mix extremely silly comedy with deep moments of profound tragedy in one film without a clinically precise pace?
Pacing is one of the first things they teach at and countless other film schools up and down the country, and dreadful pacing can kill an otherwise good film stone dead. Since this isn’t exactly a secret, why do I bring it up here? Because Chaplin’s pacing was beyond masterful. And it had to be – only someone with clinically precise control could mix extremely silly comedy with deep moments of profound tragedy in one film without a clinically precise pace?

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting a multi-layered political satire or a simple horror slasher. Being more mindful of the overall ride you’re taking your audience on is key – they put ups as well as downs in rollercoasters for a very good reason, and if something doesn’t feel ‘right’ with a film, it’s nearly always a pacing issue.

2. Not Settling for Second Best

Chaplin was a famous perfectionist. As the story goes, he took an average of fifty-three takes for every one used in the aforementioned The Kid, much to the chagrin of everyone on set (and the studios).

It may seem a bit excessive in the hunt for perfection, especially with modern budget concerns and what feels like an increasing lack of shooting time. But if you ever feel like settling for second best in the face of such concerns, consider that Chaplin was doing his endless retakes at a time when film reel was chargeable by the foot.

3. Passion Will Never Serve You Ill

Chaplin’s anger against Hitler and the Nazi threat rising out of Western Europe was palpable – so much so, he risked his entire career and a large sum of his own money to make The Great Dictator. The people around him were convinced that raising his head above the parapet to directly parody Adolf Hitler would be a death knell to the comic actor. Indeed, even Chaplin himself was more than a little worried about the potential reception shortly before its premiere.

But he stuck by his guns. The film went on to win five Academy awards and a place in the National Film Registry, as well as being his most commercially successful film of all time.

As an aside, Hitler – a fan of Charlie Chaplin’s work – did see the film (reportedly he watched it twice). Chaplin expressed a deep desire to know what he thought, but the dictator’s response is lost in the shrouds of history.

4. Personality in Art

Charles Chaplin’s massive filmography is only matched in variety as his bibliography.

Starting out as one of the poorest children in London, Chaplin went on to become one of the highest paid people on the planet. The road along the way was paved with tragedy, a hallmark of his work while the man simultaneously gave great joy to people throughout an era of hard times.

They say you can’t ever fully separate the artist from their art, and really, why would you want to? Chaplin drew on his childhood, politics, experiences on both sides of the social spectrum as well as his extensive traveling to create a rich tapestry of work. Never be afraid to take a good look at your own past experiences – both good and bad – when creating film from the ground up.

5. Follow Your Own Path

With the silent movie era entering its twilight hours, everyone and their dog was rushing to take advantage of audible dialogue in their movies. Guess who wasn’t.

Chaplin did eventually move into what he called ‘talkies’, but one thing he refused to do was give a voice to The Tramp, arguably his most famous character; long after audible speech in movies became industry standard, Chaplin wrote and directed City Lights in 1931 (which even made fun of his contemporaries who had moved out of silent territory long before). Despite the risky decision to stick to what he knew best in the face of being considered old-fashioned, City Lights stands as one of his finest pieces of work.

In closing, follow your own path. You’ll not only prosper, but you’ll enjoy it more.

3 thoughts on “Five Inspirational Filmmaking Lessons From Charlie Chaplin

  1. This is a very thoughful peace and there are certainly some lessons to be learned from Chaplin. I to have never watched a full Chaplin film start to finish. but I am now adding The Kid to my Netflix queue.

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