Early film was  silent – it was impossible to make a film with sound put directly onto the filmstrip itself. In order to make sure that people had enough clues to be able to follow the film’s story – especially as films started becoming longer in duration – showmen started to interrupt the pictures with short pieces of text. This text could clarify cause and effect, periods of time, the relationships between actors and so on. Soon thereafter, advertisements were added in between the films, as well.

Around 1910, films started becoming longer and more intertitles were being used with increasingly more specific information. In the beginning, an intertitle was nothing more than a title card – a piece of cardboard with a message in block letters – that was filmed for a few seconds. As time passed, the typography became more artistic. 


Up until that point, it was often the showman who inserted the text in the film. Gradually, however, film production companies began to supply films with ready-made intertitles. These were sometimes small works of art. The companies also offered a choice of languages. That sometimes led to spelling errors and a few mangled dialogues.

For longer films, people came up with increasingly inventive ways to avoid repetitively relying on the same boring intertitle cards: letters, telegrams, ‘wanted’ posters and all sorts of other forms of writing were used to get the message across to the viewer. 

Visible from a distance

Although silent films were often accompanied by live music and narrators, intertitling had a number of advantages. First, an intertitle could be determined in advance, so that the chance that a screening would be ruined by a poor narrator was small. Second, an intertitle was easily understood by audience members who weren’t sitting in the front rows – the narrator’s voice could only project so far. Some narrators made creative combinations between their own story and the text of the intertitles. 

Modern audiences would notice that intertitles in silent films remain on screen for a very long time. Film distributors assumed that many members of their audiences were slow readers, so intertitles were visible long enough to be read three times by an average reader.

Another rule of thumb they often used was one second per word, plus a few seconds for each intertitle. This was not only because many people read more slowly; distributors also had to take into account that many showmen would purposely speed up the film in order to be able to fit more films into a single programme. The speed apparently didn’t bother audiences, as long as they could follow the intertitling.


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