Turns out silent films are not actually silent. Back then, the movies often were accompanied by live music in the theater.
100 years later, Ben Model is carrying on the tradition, creating musical scores and performing them live for hundreds of silent films, and exposing new audiences to very old movies.
"There’s something really satisfying and immersive about silent film the way there is with Virtual reality where you’re bringing something of yourself up into the screen experience," Model explained.
Model was attending film school at NYU 35 years ago on a path to making comedy movies when he inadvertently found his calling.
"They were showing the silent films in the film history classes in complete silence so I thought I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s got to be better than nothing and I began playing for the film history classes," Model said.
What was a side gig became a career presenting and accompanying silent films around the world like at the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn. It's often packed for silent films as it is for this showing of Buster Keaton’s 1923 comedy, Our Hospitality.
"It’s odd because exactly what’s missing; the color, the sound and the fact that everything is run a little faster it sounds on surface like it’s going to be harder and more work but actually it’s a lot easier and fun," Model explained.
That's partly because the sight gags and limited text common in silent movies strike a chord with modern audiences steeped in social media.
Model follows every moment on screen with a mix of pre-arranged scores and improvisation. "I have anywhere from 15-20 shows a month and there’s just no way to sit down and compose and rehearse that much music."
Model has partnered with the library of congress to add music to nearly forgotten silent films and release them. He’s accompanying a series of silent films at the Museum of Modern Art and The NY Public Library for the Performing Arts.
He says the busier he is, the more he has to improvise. Making sure silent films are not silent.