Filling the Silents

Believe it or not, three-dimensional space in film has much more potential than a flaming Nicolas Cage face flying towards you.

Though the rest of the world got caught up in the horrible 3D mania that ensued after the release of Avatar, Mike Dubué and his fellow Ottawa electro power-poppers the Hilotrons decided to prove there was more to the concept than gimmicky action films and movie industry money-grubbing.

Since 2009, the band has been live-performing soundtracks to films from Hollywood’s Golden Age now in the public domain, the first being the scoring of Metropolis for the opening of an old theatre that Dubué managed in Ottawa.

After a successful string of performances, the Hilotrons are now bringing their silent film sounds on tour, the main attraction being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—one of the first horror films ever made.

The Hilotrons have been stretching their cinematic muscles with a number of projects, including Night of the Living Dead Live, where Dubué got together voice actors, musicians and Foley artists—the people who create sound effects in films—to recreate the zombie cult film with all-live sound.

For Caligari, Dubué wants to ensure the film gets its due focus. It’s one of his favourites, and in scoring the movie, the band will work in support of the dark, German expressionist imagery.

“It’s not a situation where I want to be very bold,” said Dubué. “I really enjoy writing scores to these silent films and creating a three-dimensional space for the audience, but it’s all about the film.”

Because the form only prevailed for a few decades, Dubué sees a huge potential in the underdeveloped art of silent film.

“When the industry introduced talkies, they saw the silent era as a limited situation, not on par with the technology,” he said. “But I think that’s the greatest thing about the silent era—its limitations and what that created.”

In embracing the films as inspiration and master to the musical direction, Dubué hopes to avoid what he sees as an exercise in irony: silent films becoming an aside for a free jam.

With sound far behind picture in the heyday of silent film, visuals were everything. For the singer/keyboardist, ignoring this significance takes the cinema out of movies. In their ever-evolving score of Caligari, the Hilotrons always serve the film reels with a score that strengthens what’s already there.

After the feature film, the band will play to four Ontario Film Board shorts found in the National Archives. Dubué wants to spend the rest of his days writing music for these lost bits of our history, especially with what he sees as negligence from the government to preserve and explore it.

“The government has kind of put a hold on history. The archives are no longer taking in acquisitions, there’s an insane amount of cutbacks,” said Dubué. “When it comes to the silent era, [we have a lot of works] in our vaults.”

Before every household had a television, silent films were a considerable source of information for Canadians.

As a result, there are scores of instructional and educational shorts from the turn of the century, including an animation on how to take care of a sore tooth, mining graphite and how wireless telephony works—three of the shorts showing after Caligari.

As for their less film-oriented projects, the band is still working on their pop sound, although it’s now melded with this extra experimentation. An EP, tentatively titled The Rhythm of the Film as an Art of Movement, will be out before the summer, and they begin work on their fourth full-length in the fall.

“It’s a new connection with an audience. It’s nice to not be a pop band, to go a different route,” said Dubué. “I love making pop records, and it’s nothing we’ve abandoned, but we like to broaden our horizons.”