August 16, 2014

What's the Best Way to Show the Internet & Text Messages on Film? Here's a Brief History

House of Cards - Kevin Spacey - Text MessageFor the past 15 years, filmmakers have been attempting to tackle a serious problem: how to visually portray the screens that permeate every aspect of modern life. From computers to smart phones, screens -- and more importantly, the information on those screens -- have become instrumental components of the contemporary human experience. As such, filmmakers have an inherent need to find ways to incorporate this experience and information into their visual stories. The only problem? Pointing a camera at a cell phone or computer often doesn't look great, and it can be difficult to absorb the required information. Some filmmakers, however, have found ways to make it interesting.

The following video comes from Tony Zhou, who has done some fantastic film analysis:

Obviously, there are as many ways to represent digital information as there are human brains to think those methods up. And that's the beauty of what has happened in the past 15 or so years. What started out as a problem -- the need to show digital information in a way that is visually interesting and informative -- has become a new frontier in film language. It's no longer necessary to get ugly inserts of a phone or a computer (and make the text way larger than it would be in real life for the sake of clarity). In a way, the digital world has become a strange, metaphysical extension of the real world, and the ways that filmmakers can represent this are literally infinite.

What are some of your favorite methods for portraying digital information on screen, and what films or shows do you think have done it best?

Link: Tony Zhou -- Vimeo

[via Filmmaker]

Your Comment

28 Comments

I love Tony Zhou's Vimeo channel. Just the best.

As far as the question: I think Sherlock and HoC have done the best job so far when it comes to text messaging. As far as screens, I don't hate the way Scandal handles them...usually showing the actor with a translucent (albeit backwards) overlay of the screen they're looking at.

August 16, 2014 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Great topic, I am big fan of your videos.
"The secret life of walter mitty" had some great exaples too, check them.

August 16, 2014 at 8:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Seif

Yeah, those are my favorites! Very well done.

August 16, 2014 at 11:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Noah

I laughed hard in the part with Andrew Kramer :D

August 16, 2014 at 8:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Fabrizio

No, no, no, no, no!!! On-screen texting is cheesy and cheap looking. Take an extra 20 minutes to get a shot of the phone, laptop, etc. Just my opinion, but I don't even like translation text on screen or location labels if there's any way to get around them. It removes the feeling that you're looking through a window to another world when it reminds you you're watching an edited video. I feel it's almost as bad as breaking the 4th wall.

August 16, 2014 at 8:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Busta

I disagree, it's more just my opinion but I find when you cut to the phone it's incredibly cheesy and inefficient. Like Kershner says, "There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face." In House of Cards, I always loved you can read what the text message says and see the reaction of Kevin Spacey. Getting the subtle info in one shot I always found more powerful. Granted, Kevin Spacey is an incredible actor so it might not work with all actors. And also the new Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. There again, you might need a really talented actor to make it work but I love when shots are combined. Like many Spielberg shots where he shows a reflection of the scene happening and we see the characters reactions all in one shot. I find them more powerful.

August 17, 2014 at 1:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tony

Actually on Disconnect they did a pretty good job at keeping the on-screen text elegant. They planned shot framing in that way, so that they leave negative space for the text, and the result was shots with balanced compositions, not just text floating around.

I wonder why this video only shows two short shots from it and not even mentions the film with its title.

August 17, 2014 at 7:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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George Tsirogiannis

I disagree - house of cards made it work SO well, and it is very character and plot driven. It really puts you further into the mind of the character sending or receiving the information in a world where speaking things aloud usually can't be how information is communicated.

August 18, 2014 at 4:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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alex

There are two sides of things, I really think that showing the text on screen is a good way of showing the actors expression, but at the same time, a cutting to a shot of the cell phone or computer screen, increases tension by not showing the real time reaction to the text. One thing is sure though, not revealing to the public, a information that the character knows, is a cheap way of creating suspense.

August 17, 2014 at 12:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Rodrigo Prata

But when does this actually happen? In 99% you clearly know how the character will react.

August 17, 2014 at 2:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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mariano

Cinema isn't about reading.

Don't say it, show it.

Having said that, augmented reality has become socially acceptable and no doubt will look shockingly bad in 10 or 20 years. Or was Boyle's The Beach 15 years ahead of its time? (Actually, I think The Beach has it right, in context).

I agree that graphically presenting the Text in an augmented reality style is usually quite jarring, breaking the 4th wall for me. It's lazy. Very very lazy.

I also agree that lazy things relentlessly enter the vernacular, even I speak slang in English and in my own filmmaking.

Make your own damned mind up.

August 17, 2014 at 5:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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"Very very lazy." C'mon, really? If the character is receiving something important on their mobile, shouldn't we see it? I feel we're only going to have more of this on screen since our lives are becoming more and more intertwined with social media. Reacting against it in such a negative way makes you seem like an old curmudgeon.

August 17, 2014 at 1:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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THATS COS HE IS LOOOOOOOOOL

August 18, 2014 at 4:25AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tyler

I make about half my income as a motion graphic designer and I find the augmented reality style of presenting text to be extremely 4th wall breaking. It's insert shorts for me.

It works in House of Cards because breaking the 4th wall is in the style.

August 17, 2014 at 6:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ant

Kack, 'insert shots'.

August 17, 2014 at 6:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ant

Green computer text on a black monitor with the blinking cursor, always the best way to show tension without ruining my cine frame

August 17, 2014 at 9:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Shaun Wilson

lol

August 17, 2014 at 4:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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alex

Tony Zhou rulez!

August 17, 2014 at 11:28AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Laurel

Personally, I absolutely hate the idea of a text message floating on screen. In fact I hate the use of text messaging in film completely. It immediately takes me out of a movie whenever I see it. I think it takes away all human and emotional connections between characters. An example of this I saw was in Glee. Two characters were IM'ing eachother on computers and it was a full minute of just back and forth floating text in complete silence. All humanity was stripped away from what could have been an emotional scene. In my films, I always try to have characters talk to each other face to face. If I can't, it's going to be a phone call, not a text. Not sure if anybody else feels this way, but it's just something that really bugs me.

August 17, 2014 at 2:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Andrew

But what you are ignoring is that texting has become part of the social fabric. That is how people communicate in the modern world, texts, emails, IMs, etc. Ignoring that is ignoring what surrounds you, which as a filmmaker shouldn't be allowed.

I feel like that is the point of this essay, to show the challenge of including that part of our world without making it cheesy, disarming and boring. Glee did a terrible job, but Departed on the other hand used texting as a device to increase tension instead. It's all about execution.

August 17, 2014 at 4:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Daniil

Except that just because something that is becoming a terrible part of society exists, doesn't mean we need to further support it.

People experience pain when they get hurt in real life...so by your logic, we should have theater seats poke and zap people to experience the surrounding world's pain just because it exists?

This isn't an issue of accepting or not accepting change in society...you can accept technology and society by showing it in your film by including the devices that support social media in the shot. But putting that text up on the screen really is a form of breaking the 4th wall and is lazy. It's as lazy as showing someone's backside and putting the emotion they are experiencing up on the screen in text instead of cutting to a close-up of their face to see their emotion.

August 18, 2014 at 11:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Busta

It's got nothing to do with supporting new trends in society.
It just depends on the film maker, if they want to recreate real life like in much French realist cinema. Or if they want to create a more tv/filmic version of life. This video assumes that the viewers want to include all the modern bits of life like internet and text messaging into their story. But it's not necessary of course. Just depends on your film making style/objectives.

August 18, 2014 at 10:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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London writer

In the middle of replying to your online comment, I stopped and responded to a text message.

August 18, 2014 at 9:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Frank

I really like Non-Stops way of showing it.

August 17, 2014 at 6:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Kent

I agree. They did the floating text well and in a way that added tension.

August 19, 2014 at 8:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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hey great video, do you have more examples of 'desktop movies' that was refers to in piece?

August 17, 2014 at 7:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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rusrus

This is great and subject that has really intrigued me as well. The short film that was referenced, "Noah", was one of the key influencers when I created a short film which looked to integrate how various social media and user interfaces are now so ingrained in our daily lives. Not trying to promote/spam here, but if you want to check it out here is a link: https://vimeo.com/92204587 It's titled "Murder on Snapchat" and it was a real challenge in figuring out how to best tell a narrative using the screens we look at everyday.

August 19, 2014 at 2:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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BTW Jason Reitman's new film kind of explores this representation of the intangible media, internet and texting. Here's the trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR_lKig3toQ

August 19, 2014 at 6:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sergio