Is dialogue important?

Most films you’ll ever see have plenty of dialogue in them, but how important is dialogue really? I’m not saying that the next blockbuster should be only music and action without your average “what’s going on?!” line in the trailer, but if it’s done right, a film without dialogue can be just as communicative, if not more moving.

At high school I did a two year film course, and the first time we sat down for pre-production, we started writing the script before anything else. Not only was this film not very good (to be fair, we were only 16 with little experience), it just had too much talking and not much communication. We got the story across, but in the wrong way. As the course progressed, our teacher suggested we cut down the dialogue as much as possible to see what effect we could achieve. This pushed us to find other ways to communicate less directly using techniques such as macguffins or symbolism, thereby provoking more questions from the audience and creating further interest.

Again, I’ll press that dialogue is important enough that it is mostly necessary in some scenes, however there are some films out there that use other techniques beautifully, using minimal dialogue.

‘Wall-e’ presents a post-apocalyptic world whereby a rubbish-collecting robot is left to pick up the mess that mankind has created. Wall-e says little other than Eve’s name, yet you get so much emotion from his expressive binocular eyes and tone of robotic voice. In fact, the first dialogue between Wall-e and Eve isn’t until 22 minutes in.

Disney’s ‘Paperman’ from 2010 is a 7-minute long short film with no dialogue whatsoever, but it’s lighthearted tone leads to a feel good ending. The love story follows a young man who meets a beautiful woman at a train station and is led back to her by animated paper planes. I love the style of animation and how one can take so much from something so simple. Again, expression is key here, paired with evocative music.

When ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ first came out in 1968, there were conflicting reactions from its audience. Many viewers felt that after Star Wars, the film didn’t have enough action so was therefore, boring. On the other hand, the film was very ahead of its time and its aim was to portray space realistically, so by using silence and extremely slow-paced editing, this was achieved spectacularly.

2009’s ‘Up’ is not dialogue-free but there is one sequence that really stood out to me, where if dialogue had been added, the effect would be significantly less effective. This is the story of how Carl and Ellie grow old together, planning to travel to South America, but never finding the funds or time. The montage alone is only a few minutes long, but is the most emotional, flicking through the ups and downs of their life together, leaving you feeling like you know the couple, and wanting to solve all their problems for them so that they can be happy.

To wrap up, although dialogue can be very important, the art is knowing where and how to use it in order to be create the most impact on your audience.