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The art of silence: understanding Oppenheimer

From Hollywood blockbusters to corporate filmmaking, how is silence being used as a storytelling device? Written by producer Adam Turner.

Actor Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 2023 film, dressed in a brown suit and hat,  holding a pipe and standing in an outdoor setting with a row of power pylons to the left of the image

IMAGE CREDIT: Universal Pictures


There’s nothing quite as powerful as the absence of expected sound, to see a shout but not hear it. A pause, a breath, a break from the action - it can say a thousand words. 


Oppenheimer is an excellent example of how effective silence can be within filmmaking. And, though not the first director to utilise its potential, Christopher Nolan’s epic about the father of the atomic bomb shows us that sound is a crucial tool for crafting emotion. 


Silence is introduced at key narrative points to heighten impact. One of its most powerful uses is in a scene depicting the atomic bomb's first test run - as the dense mushroom cloud ripples its way across the barron New Mexico landscape; soldiers squinting at the bright light enveloping them, we hear …..nothing. 


The effect is immeasurable. The audience are forced to endure a cold silence in the place of explosive audio, subverting their expectations and pushing them to actively reflect on the moment - time freezes and it’s only once we come back to the safety net of sound, that we can breathe again. 


Utilising silence is a technique that needn’t be restricted to Hollywood blockbusters, and as lovers of cinema, we draw inspiration from its uses to enhance the stories we tell. 


Introducing silence gives the audience time to process what they’re seeing and form a deep connection with the story at hand, increasing their engagement with the content. It’s a device that we utilised in a film for the Independent Labour Organisation (ILO) to create emotional impact. 


Employers routinely ignore over one billion people with disabilities, perpetuating a staggering misconception that hinders their progress at work. To raise awareness of this issue, we developed a campaign film for the ILO, featuring individuals who challenge these 'invalid opinions.' Our goal was to prompt viewers to confront their own misconceptions.


Silence played a crucial role in our approach to the film. Instead of using a music track, we relied upon the absence of sound - adding deliberate pauses between the speakers' statements. This allowed each sentence to land with a profound impact, compelling the audience to reflect on how people living with disabilities are often overlooked in the workplace.


By employing this technique, we aimed to ensure that the film resonated deeply with viewers and fostered a genuine understanding of the issue at hand. And it did! The film has achieved more than one million impressions – without a single penny spent on media.

A woman is being interviewed in front of a black background

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