Early & Silent Film

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“I’m writing in darkness …”

Posted by keith1942 on January 28, 2015

The technique works in full darkness.

The technique works in full darkness.

These words were read by Juliette Binoche from notes written by Kristin Scott Thomas in the film melodrama The English Patient (1996). The combination of two of my favourite actresses with a well-written and dramatic sequence gave the words great power. But they also had an evocative quality, because with less panache and less drama I too often write in darkness. I was taught these skills so that I could sit in a darkened cinema auditorium, whilst watching a film and take notes.

I do this most frequently at Festivals, especially for screenings of film from the silent era, where the use of title cards lends itself more to note taking. Unfortunately not all the members of such select audiences observe the same sensitivity for their fellow viewers. In recent years, though to a lesser degree, such festivals have suffered from the ravages of mobile phones and tablet users. I find it bizarre that the latter cannot apparently check the time without lighting up their screens. But in addition to those we often also have people in the auditorium using a torch shone on notes or even laptops with the screens brightly lit.

This reliance on unnecessary technology is to be deplored. As a good will gesture to his fellow film scholars Michael Walker [my mentor in these skills] has kindly agreed to provide explanatory notes  for any serious film buff or scholar who wants to also acquire these skills. Please feel free to copy these notes and pass them out to offenders sighted in auditoriums.

Taking notes on films in the dark

  1. Use a Reporter’s Note Book/Shorthand Notebook 8″ long by 5″ wide with a spiral wire at the top holding the pages together. (a) It’s easier for turning pages in the dark and (b) if the notes get into a muddle, the wire can be taken out, pages moved around, then the wire replaced again.
  2. Leave the first page and the last page blank for indexing the contents of the notebook. An index enables you to see at a glance which films are in that book.
  3. Before the film starts, leaf through the notebook to ensure the pages are separated. If they are not, you will make a noise separating them as you turn in the dark and this could distract neighbours.
  4. As you take notes, keep track of where you are on the page with the thumb of the non-writing hand. You do not need to look down. Move the thumb down a certain distance after each line is completed. This may require practice to find the best spacing. But overwriting is the biggest problem, so don’t squeeze the lines together too much (see also 7). The technique does mean you will end up with an inky thumb. This is not a big deal.
  5. The notes are to remind you of the film. Character names and relationships are crucial; plot is usually more important than dialogue.
  6. I find it easier to shift the book sideways to turn pages in the dark.
  7. Afterwards, if you go through the notes whilst the film is still reasonably fresh, you will find that they bring it back to you. Because the notes will be spaced out on the page, there is room to add clarifying details.
  8. Go through the notebook one way, then turn and go through the other. To avoid getting the book the wrong way up, feel whether it is cardboard (you’re writing from the front of the book) or cover paper (you’re writing from the back) at the end.
  9. Accidents such as overwriting on a page can happen. These should be sorted out promptly, by deciphering and transferring one set of notes to a fresh page. A magnifying glass helps in deciphering overwritten words. It is here that the ability to move pages around in the notebook can be invaluable.
  10. Always have a spare pen handy; the ink can run out whilst you’re writing.
  11. With practice, it is possible to tell by feel when a biro dries up: the pen starts to drag on the paper as you write. This is an occasion when you do need to look at the notebook to check, but the light from the screen should be sufficient to see whether or not you’re still writing anything.
  12. It’s up to you whether you have either (a) one index for both sides of the notebook at the front, or (b) one for each direction at the relevant end. Option (b) is easier to index, but it will take longer to check what’s in the notebook.

Michael Walker


Note, if you find it hard to visualise the techniques there is a brief example, fairly basic, in the UK feature Faces in the Dark (1960), approximately 38 minutes into the film.


2 Responses to ““I’m writing in darkness …””

  1. This is very helpful. I’ve often tried to figure out the best way to remember all the notes I will need for writing about the film later. Thanks for this.

  2. […] Using tablets or computers to take notes during films instead of following the guidelines on taking notes in the dark. […]

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