While some people have difficulty imagining movies without spoken dialogue, the first few decades of film did extremely well without it, to the point that many filmmakers dismissed talkies as a gimmicky passing fad or a perversion of real cinema. To be honest, they initially had a point considering that film sound recording techniques were very crude in the beginning, making for some really stiffly staged and dull films until the combined talents of artists and technicians solved the problems. Regardless, perhaps it isn't such a shock to learn that, long after the end of the silent film era, many filmmakers and writers still think that silence is, well, golden.
Although, it should be noted that silent films were never actually silent, they were always accompanied with live music in theatres and this music scored every scene and emotional point of the film, often against the director's intentions for a patch of sound-free action (no dialogue or no music and effects). Josef von Sternberg, director of silent classics and a great deal of important sound films, noted that it was only with sound that he was able to put long stretches into his films without dialogue and music. The real reason directors and other technicians were hesitant to try sound, aside from an instinctive refusal to change their routine, is the fact that the arrival of sound led to film craftsmanship taking a step back. By the end of the silent era, films like Sunrise and The Crowd as well as comedies by Buster Keaton showed amazing technical facility in cutting, editing and camera techniques, benefiting greatly from the lightweight cameras that prevailed at the end of the 20s. The arrival of sound and theater talent as well as the primitive recording equipment led many early films to be what Alfred Hitchcock once dismissed as "pictures of people talking" or filmed theatre with little in way of inventive camera techniques or creative lighting used to tell a story cinematically. Sound equipment also led to heavier cameras which made it harder, for some time, to achieve the Tracking Shot and other impressive technical feats. Though many film-makers adapted quickly and worked hard to achieve solutions.
Moreover, sound in art is actually a relatively recent innovation; very few old paintings come with any words attached to them other than the title. Even performance art has often relied more heavily on body language and visual expression than on spoken words. If the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is to be believed, shouldn't a whole series of pictures be able to speak for themselves? Silence in art has a long and distinguished history behind it.
Nowadays, however, in the presence of so many audible (or legible) artworks, silence has become a kind of innovation itself, often used to stimulate the viewer's imagination or add a vaguely brooding "cinematic" tone to the work. In television and films, running something "silent" usually means removing most or all of the dialogue, leaving just the music and/or sound effects; a few pieces remove even these. Some comics are likewise run completely silent with no dialogue, captions, or sound effects; in extreme cases, they may not even include any written words (e.g. if someone hands a character a note to read, we're not shown what it says). Others selectively cut the dialogue and/or captions while leaving sound effects present in order to have them tell the story.
Sister Trope of Deliberately Monochrome. Frequently used in surrealist films, and is sometimes combined with filmmaking techniques from the silent era for Retraux effect. Dialogue-freeepisodes are a popular form of Something Completely Different. Sometimes leads to Lull Destruction in adaptations. When used for horror, it overlaps with Nothing Is Scarier. When used temporarily to add poignancy to a dramatic scene, it's a Moment of Silence. See also Mime and Music-Only Cartoon for animated works that feature little or no spoken dialogue.
Contrast Dead Air, for situations where silence is absolutely not to be desired.
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When television advertisements are usually painfully loud, silence can be used very effectively. For an extremely obscure example, a local advertisement for a used car lot is completely silent for the whole thirty seconds it's on.
One ad for Kotex was completely silent to show how quiet their new maxi pads are. It even lampshades it at the end with "Now back to your noisy commercial.".
An ad for Trojan condoms showed, in slow motion and complete silence, a crossbow bolt crossing the screen in front of a black background, then hitting a shield emblazoned with the Trojan logo. The bolt falls to the ground. A line of text appears. No music, no sound, nothing.
Anime and Manga
Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg has less than a page of spoken dialogue, most of which is in one scene.
The two Ghost in the Shell movies, also by Oshii, have very few dialog as well. Most fight scenes don't have any spoken lines at all and instead show in great detail what the characters are doing and seeing, leaving it to the audience to assume what they might be thinking.
The surreal short film Cat Soup has no dialogue whatsoever.
Interstella5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, set to the songs of the Daft Punk album Discovery, has no need for dialogue either. Even the sound effects are minimal.
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou actually needs a very high silence-to-dialog ratio to achieve its mellow, contemplative tone.
The first episode of Texhnolyze has approximately ten lines of dialogue, all in a couple of scenes coming near the end of the episode after 11 minutes of near-silence. While the rest of the series is more talkative, it's not uncommon to have several minutes without spoken dialogue in many episodes. The main protagonist Ichise is an extremely quiet man, who often lets others, including Ran, a girl only slightly less silent than him talk in his stead.
Only two segments in Robot Carnival featured any dialogue. And it even had a Shonen and Shoujo segment that managed to be completely coherent despite this.
Gon, fitting of a series staring a not-very-anthropomorphic dinosaur, has no dialogue.
Puchi EVA has no dialogue whatsoever.
In AKIRA, the gigantic explosion at the end makes no noise, only having organ music playing over it (soft vocals in the American dub).
Used to utterly hilarious effect in Nichijou, such as the scene where Yuko is trying to build a tower of cards without people knocking it over (as can be seen here).
Cowboy Bebop has a lot of long stretches with little to no dialogue, preferring to let the visuals and soundtrack do the talking.
Princess Mononoke has a lot of scenes where either the music is the only sound, or there's no speech or score at all. And they work so well that even Disney, infamous for using Lull Destruction in its dubs, kept the scenes intact.
A recent (2013) Batman comic book was like this to portray the grief of Bruce Wayne over his son and then Robin; Damien Wayne's death.
Frank by Jim Woodring, not a word spoken by any of the characters.
His graphic novel Weathercraft has copyright information on the dust jacket. The physical book itself contains no words at all.
Age of Reptiles contains not a single word. Given that it's set in the Mesozoic, the lack of speech is unsurprising, but there are no sound effects or narration, either.
Mister Amperduke was created deliberately as a comic with absolutely no Speech Bubbles at all, partly because the creator didn't like his artwork being broken by speech bubbles in other comics.
Marvel Comics had a "'Nuff Said" promotion in which several of their trademark titles were released with stories that involved no spoken dialog, and no text boxes, whatsoever.
Marvel Comics has also done a number of issues this way over the years, including an earlier G.I. Joe comic which inspired the "'Nuff Said" promotion.
In one Silver Age Daredevil comic featuring the brilliant artwork of Gene "The Dean of Light and Darkness" Colan, Stan Leelampshaded this trope with a brief caption at the start praising the artist and stating that sometimes (as in this case) "superfluous words" were unnecessary, and therefore he was going to let the rest of the comic speak for itself.
Most of Hawkeye #2 (1983) plays out not only without any dialogue but without any sound effects at all, due to the power of the assassin known as The Silencer to perfectly mute all sound.
Probably Marvel's earliest exploration of the technique was a Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD story by Jim Steranko. Steranko does a complicated battle scene without any dialog or sound effects. His editor at the time threatened to dock his pay for the issue since obviously he couldn't get paid for writing a sequence without words!
Fellow MAD alum Antonio Prohías also did this just as a matter of style. While his most well-known series, Spy vs. Spy, is almost completely devoid of sound effects (save for explosions, gunshots, and the odd esoteric animal noise), looking back shows that all of his comics had a dialogue volume ranging from very little to none whatsoever.
Boerke (roughly translates as: little farmer) is a Belgian comic by Pieter De Poortere that almost never has the characters speak. On the rare occassions that something is said, it's in symbols/drawings never in words. For example, the 60 pages comic book 'the son of' has a fairly complicated plot and has in total two whistling bubbles, two talk bubbles and one thinking bubble. Both speech bubble have the face of one of the characters in them and nothing else. The thinking balloon has an image of an A-Bomb.
The 1924 silent film The Last Laugh takes this up a notch by not only being silent (as of course all films of that era were) but by having only one title card, coming towards the end. Throughout the entire film the only exposition comes from an inscription on a cake and from a newspaper article. The rest of the story is told entirely through images.
Silent films hung around in China for several years after the first Chinese talking films were produced, due to the language barrier with English talking films and the language barrier between Mandarin and other Chinese languages. The Goddess, about a Shanghai prostutite, was released in 1934, four full years after the first Chinese sound film (Sing Song Girl Red Peony).
While known for being one of the first truly great sound films, Fritz Lang's M actually contains very little dialogue and nearly a third of the movie is completely silent. Incidentally, this made it quieter than actual silent movies (which were almost always accompanied by music), making the moments with sound all the more striking.
Carl Dreyer's Vampyr is an almost silent early sound film.
The ending of Franco Zefferelli's version of Romeo and Juliet had very little in the way of dialogue compared to the original text's ending.
Sergio Leone's movies were usually very sparse dialogue-wise, letting the visuals and Ennio Morricone's music tell the story instead.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a great example; the film runs ten minutes before anybody speaks. Also, in the final climactic three way duel, there is no dialogue at all for over five minutes, and the film relies entirely on the score, and closeups of the three main character's faces, each trying decide whether to move first. It is widely considered to be one of the most dramatic and tense moments in film history.
The opening of Once Upon a Time in the West has no dialogue as a trio of gunman wait for their target to arrive on a train. The final showdown is over nine minutes long, in which a total of 8 words are spoken.
In addition to being in black-and-white, Eraserhead has very little music and keeps the dialogue to the barest minimum, while even the tiniest background noises are unusually audible, enhancing the eerie, nightmarish quality of the movie.
Jan Švankmajer's 1996 Conspirators of Pleasure features no dialogue.
The 1983 film Le Bal, which depicts 50 years of French history through a ballroom in France, includes no dialogue.
The Illusionist (1984) has no dialogue other than some unintelligible mumbling.
The Hungarian film Hukkle has almost no dialogue, apart from a song at the end.
The "sound" work of director Tod Browning is punctuated by extended scenes of silence and visual expressionism. By the time he did Freaks he figured out how to do this without resorting to the minimalistically stylized dialogue he used in Dracula (1931).
Compared to some of his other incarnations who just won't shut up; Bumblebee in the Transformers Film Series is a mute who uses the radio of his car form to communicate (by playing songs and broadcasting messages that fit his intentions).
Most of Jacques Tati's films are like this. In the classic French film Mr. Hulot's Holiday (as well as in his other films), spoken dialogue is mostly limited to the role of background sounds. When they were released in theaters internationally, Tati insisted that there be no subtitles, as they would distract from the visual gags that make up his films.
Tati's films though lacking in dialogue are full of carefully detailed and thought of soundtracks of foleys, ambience sounds and other details which simply can't be achieved "silently". For his film, Playtime, he took a year working on the soundtrack alone.
Moon has a number of long silences, though not as many as you'd think for a film about a man, alone, on the moon.
The German film Tuvalu is a throwback to the silent era that even goes so far as to have monochromatic film. There is sound and music but no actual words spoken aside from the names of people and places (even then, it isn't very often).
In Kim Ki-Duk's 3-Iron (Bin-Jip), the two protagonists have only two lines of dialogue, spoken at the very end of the film.
Documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio is possibly the contemporary king of this trope, considering that his -qatsi trilogy of films (beginning with 1983's Koyaanisqatsi) are all films with no dialogue in them and the only sound evident being the musical score. One of the -qatsi cinematographers, Ron Fricke, also made his own no-dialogue documentary in the same vein as Reggio's documentaries, 1992's Baraka.
The 2002 film Marathon, directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Amir Naderi, features a young woman who is trying to complete as many crossword puzzles as she can in 24 hours while riding the New York City subway system. Shot in black and white, its other distinguishing feature is that it features very little dialogue (consisting of one brief interaction between the protagonist and a young man riding the subway and a few answering machine messages left by the protagonist's mother) and the only soundtrack running throughout the film is the background noise of the subway system.
An episode of the Anthology Series General Electric Theater "The Great Jewel Robbery" starred Chico and Harpo Marx in an all-silent story, except one line at the very end delivered by Special Guest Groucho.
The Artist is a 2011 silent black and white drama about a romance of two actors respectively falling and rising in Hollywood's difficult transition to sound. Subverted in that the lead character realizes that he feels trapped in silence and earns his happy ending when his love shows him that he has the talent to succeed when he accepts the reality of sound films.
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush" is without dialogue for over 27 minutes straight, nearly two thirds of the episode.
The first episode of Carnivàle has a beautifully shot sequence, almost five minutes long, of Brother Justin rising from his chair, walking through town (either a single shot or a well edited sequence to give the impression of one) and having a vision in the snow. In all this time, the only dialogue is in the background music at the very start of the sequence. This continued in other episodes and is even used in the opening shots several times, most notably in the second episode where the only thing said in several minutes is a meaningful phrase.
The first act of the Frasier episode "Three Valentines" is done in almost complete silence. Niles has a few lines at the start of the scene, but the rest of the scene involves just a few barks from Eddie and a few mutterings from Niles as he prepares for a date.
Mr. Bean's Holiday was much more in keeping with this style. Which style works best in movie form is up for debate.
Mr. Bean was inspired partly by acclaimed French comic Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot films.
The classic Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders", written by Richard Matheson, has no dialogue save for the final scene. This builds up the Twist Ending, since the final scene has the minuscule "aliens" speaking English, while we never hear the protagonist speak at all—obscuring the fact that she's actually the alien, while the supposed aliens are human astronauts.
As well as the parts of "Once Upon a Time" set in 1890, as a way to differentiate them from the 1960 scenes. Particularly odd to a modern viewer seeing "Very very old film style" segueing to merely "old" to say nothing of how it painted the 4th wall.
The opening sequence of The Walking Dead episode "Seed" has no dialogue, just ambient noises as unspeaking characters scrounge for supplies at a walker-infested house. It's very effective at conveying just how long they've been doing this, and how badly their scavenging existence has beaten them down.
Vikings: the blood eagle execution scene serves as the climax of an episode and is played with soundtrack music only.
Yes, it's even been done in music: John Cage's "4'33''".
Type O Negative's The Misinterpretation of Silence and its Disastrous Consequences and the remix The Misinterpretation of Silence and Its Disastrous Consequences (Wombs and Tombs mix)
Bound and Gagged originally started with this premise: no dialogue, just pictures. As the strip went on, however, the author apparently wasn't able to keep coming up with these silent gags as it features more of the "audible" kind now.
In one case Bill Watterson ran several consecutive strips silent this way featuring Calvin growing bigger and bigger. In one of his anthologies, he later explained that he wanted to keep doing this for a month and "see how long readers would put up with it." He ultimately decided to stop after two weeks, ending the last strip with a little dialogue as a punchline.
Liō is one of the only (and possibly the only) newspaper comics to do this consistently. Every once in a while, writing from a notebook or letter will show up in a panel, but actual speech is mimed. Presumably, words distract from the Nightmare Fuel.
Many Myst-style games are like this. You get a short speech in the prologue or opening scene, the occasional bit of dialogue when you encounter another character ... and most of the game is just exploring and playing with objects.
Interactive Fiction takes this to the logical extreme: no graphics, no sound. Not only is the gameplay silent, the story often is too, because it's a pain to program NPCs who can talk and most creators don't bother to include descriptions of the auditory environment (more's the pity). With a typical parser, you can "say [dialogue]" if you wish, but you'll get no response.
The story of Subspace Emissary mode of Super Smash Bros.. Brawl is told entirely without dialog (disregarding Calling Your Attacks). The only time anyone speaks is when Snake breaks the fourth wall. Once.
The Path has no speech at all; instead the tone of conversations is conveyed through character animation, music and color. The "tutorial" instructions are two lines long, and expected to be ignored. Textual descriptions of items encountered are also quite sparse.
The Wii A Boy and His Blob has almost no dialogue or text at all. Aside from a few sound clips from the Boy, the story is told solely through animation, and the hint signs show pictures instead of words. The only non-system text in the game is in a small bonus unlockable storybook.
Episode I of the Xenosaga trilogy was notable for taking place largely in cavernous, abandoned (except for the occasional monster) areas and having no dungeon or town background music, leading to several long segments of the game where the only noises are the characters's own footsteps and whatever might be happening in the background around them. The second and third games fix this by having near-constant background music playing away in towns and dungeons.
Dont Look Back has a title screen and a few lines of instructional text, but no dialogue.
The original DCAU Batman movie Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman had a short piece called "Chase Me" featuring Batman pursuing Catwoman through Gotham which was run silent this way except for some soft jazz as musical accompaniment.
The original Æon Flux shorts had no dialogue, only music and sound effects (one has a single spoken "Plop.").
The final fight between Azula and Zuko has shades of this. When we cut from one scene to the ongoing fight in the Imperial City, all we see is waves of blue and yellow/red flames being fired through the by now scorched city. The sound effects of only the fire and the Soundtrack -aptly titled the Last Agni-Kai- make the scene all the more potent.
Even the Pre-Asskicking One-Liners are kept extremely short: "I am sorry it has to end this way, brother!" - "No. You're not."
Utilized in the ReBoot season three episode "Game Over". When the system voice announces that the user has won and effectively killed Enzo, Andraia, and Frisket, no sound occurs for twenty seconds before Dot responds.
The Triplets of Belleville, which was heavily influences by silent comedies and classic cartoons, makes prominant usage of music, but is dialogue-free (except for a recorded TV interview of Charles de Gaulle). The lack of need for subtitles or dubbing may have contributed to the film's international popularity.
WALL•E is quite sparse dialogue-wise. About half an hour of movie passes before the first line of dialogue is uttered (other than a recording here or there).
In Up, the movie tracks Carl and Ellie's marriage with a long montage that goes through their youth, her infertility, her death, and his old age.
Lampshaded in the DVD commentary of How to Train Your Dragon. Some of the people involved in the film thought that the bonding sequence between Toothless and Hiccup would never work, because it was somewhere in the range of three minutes long and right in the middle of the movie. Luckily, the filmmakers insisted and even the skeptics changed their mind when the sequence was finished. The romantic flight scene with Astrid is also an aversion of Lull Destruction. Both moments are instead held up by wonderful animation and John Powell's hypnotizing score.
The Little Island is a philosophical argument between three men without any dialogue. Interpretation is left up to the viewer.
To commemorate the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF commissioned animators from around the world to create cartoons illustrating each article of the Convention; because one of the requirements was that anyone be able to understand the cartoon regardless of what language they spoke, all have no dialogue (and if they do it's in gibberish), and instead rely on gesture and music to convey the message.
Hanna-Barbera's "Blast-Off Buzzard" (a segment of their 1977 CB Bears show) was the studio's first, and only, television cartoon with no dialogue.