What’s the Most Cinematic Way to Show Screens in a Movie?
Screens are the cigarettes of 2020s cinema, and we’re not going to quit anytime soon. Better figure out how to make the most of them!
As human beings, our daily reality has pretty much fully merged with our screens. Sure, it’s weird that we now have to think of creative ways to show an image of a 2D screen on a 2D screen. It’s almost more weird to purposely exclude phone screens from a story that’s set in the present day. It’s become a quintessential part of daily life. Do we go out of our way to make films without mentioning screens? Or do we find the best, most cinematic way to weave screens into our stories?
At Sundance 2021, I don’t think I saw a single film from any corner of the world (that wasn’t set pre-1999) that didn’t feature a phone or computer at least once. It's like 1951 up in here, but replace every shot of a cigarette being lit with an email, text, or some kind of screen scroll.
There are some films pulling it off in style. Here’s a look at five films at Sundance 2021 that took completely different approaches to screens on screen.
Anna Cobb appears in 'We’re All Going to the World’s Fair' by Jane Schoenbrun, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel Patrick Carbone
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Description: A teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game.
Director: Jane Schoenbrun
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair moves from computer screens to Skype calls to handheld cameras, and the occasional production camera to paint a picture of a young girl (and her online friend) who is completely absorbed in one small corner of the internet.
During the Q&A following the Sundance premiere, DP Daniel Patrick Carbone explained that a big part of the visual strategy was to keep the screen time fresh by switching up between screens shot largely in the same room!
“We were forced into this house,” said Carbone. “We didn’t have a ton of options. Jane had a couple of tentpole shots throughout the film. And a lot of stuff we came up with once we got on location. We figured out how to keep it fresh. We had lighting cues, we brought the pastel colors of internet culture into [the main character’s room]. We were shooting with our main production camera or Skype or a Handycam. We were trying to have different parts live in different sections. The idea was to keep it fresh while allowing the audience to recognize callbacks.”
Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel appear in R#J by Carey Williams, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Charles Murphy
Description: A re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, taking place through cell phones, in a mash-up of Shakespearean dialogue with current social media communication.
Director: Carey Williams
Williams' film follows the “ScreenLife” dogma, which is where the entire story is told through screens. Here is how Carey Williams described the idea and how to meet the challenges of shooting this way.
“One of the things that's very intriguing about that is you get insight into the characters you might not normally,” Williams told No Film School. “People do very personal stuff on their devices. I think there are a lot of revelations to characters and empathy that can be built through that interface.
"As a filmmaker, it feels very limiting because you only have that subjective POV to use as you're trying to build the world for the audience. But it's also a great pathway to empathy with being able to peek into their personal lives through their devices. So it's limiting but also gives you a leg up into building that empathy.
"Early on, I was like, 'How do you see this shit?' Like, I can't do a reverse shot! I had to wrap my head around how to see things. And also, whose perspective we were going to be on to see things. And how does Romeo see this? How does Juliet see this? But at the end of the day, it would force me to be more creative and really figure out ways to experience for the audience at the same time that we experience for Romeo and Juliet. And again, if we're experiencing at the same time as they are, we're with them the whole time. And that, to me, is a good thing. From doing traditional filmmaking, you have to rewire your brain to make it work."
A still from 'Searchers' by Pacho Velez, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Asterlight
Description: In encounters alternately humorous and touching, a diverse set of New Yorkers navigate their preferred dating apps in search of their special someone.
Director: Pacho Velez
The unusual way that Pacho Velez decided to shoot Searchers was to find a way for them to look into the camera as if they were looking through their phone or computer to swipe right—or left!
“Thank you to the cinematographers,” said Velez during the Sundance Q&A following the film's premiere. “They did an excellent job. A lot of the visual style was there from the beginning. We wanted people talking to the camera and talking into the lens. It gives a nice sense of feedback. We wanted the whole movie to feel like a dating app hall of mirrors. You’re watching people making decisions about the people. And the audience is making decisions about the people making the decisions about the people. We used a teleprompter to film the people. We realize if we filmed teleprompter, we could put it over the screen. That’s what gave us that look.”
A still from 'All Light, Everywhere' by Theo Anthony, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Corey Hughes
All Light Everywhere
Description: An exploration of the shared histories of cameras, weapons, policing, and justice. As surveillance technologies become a fixture in everyday life, the film interrogates the complexity of an objective point of view, probing the biases inherent in both human perception and the lens.
Director: Theo Anthony
All Light Everywhere focuses on surveillance as the main device to examine human bias, so naturally, surveillance camera footage and bodycam footage play a central role on screen. (You get a glimpse of the strategy in director Theo Anthony’s Sundance introduction here.)
“In documentary conversations, the most obvious and the most central thing for the scene is the least talked about, namely the camera,” Theo Anthony told POV.
“It’s a huge object, and it places the person behind it in a certain position, while placing the person in front of it in a different position. It changes the person being filmed, and it changes the person who is doing the filming, and I’ve always been interested in that process. It doesn’t mean that it has to be like it’s an endless self-reflexive journey, but that we need to incorporate that into any conversation about truth. I bristle when there’s any discussion of a journalism piece or anything that just throws the word objectivity around. I do think that true stories exist. I do think that there is some truth that exists, but you really have to incorporate not only yourself and your journey of finding it but also the people who are helping you find it as well.”
You can get a sense of Anthony’s style in this trailer for one of his previous films.
“The film pulls images from many different sources: body camera, software screen capture, aerial surveillance systems, archival materials from the early 20th century, etc.,” said DP Corey Hughes in an interview before the fest. “When working with these types of operational images, images created to serve a specific function in a process (ex. surveillance, facial recognition), we wanted them to appear as raw as possible. Respecting the material for what it is rather than trying to morph it into a more traditional cinema image. Grainy 720p Go-Pro footage or software screen capture can be just as powerful as well lit 4K raw footage if used in the right way. We were equally interested in creating compelling images as well as revealing the flaws and biases inherent in the way each camera sees the world.”
A still from 'Users' by Natalia Almada, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natalia Almada
Description: A mother wonders: Will my children love their perfect machines more than they love me, their imperfect mother? She switches on a smart-crib lulling her crying baby to sleep. This perfect mother is everywhere. She watches over us, takes care of us. We listen to her. We trust her.
Director: Natalia Almada
Okay, this documentary isn’t strictly a rumination on screens, but the ever-present role of technology in our lives. The camera becomes much the POV of an all-seeing, all-knowing technological God to redefine the perspective of ourselves in the digital age. Director Almada even created a synthetic AI of herself to read to her child in the film. It's a way of addressing technology without showing the technology, but turning it into an embodied perspective. (You can hear a bit of that in Almada’s introduction here.)
To accomplish this, the filmmaking team needed to create visuals on the RED Gemini that were intimate and large at the same time to mimic an artificial caretaker.
“Where we started was a formality,” said DP Bennet Cerf of director Almada’s concept for the imagery during the Sundance Q&A. “We wanted to be huge and epic with the scale and yet intimate. In all these situations, how could we do all and be all? Ultimately every location and subject, we tried to figure out if there was some way to achieve both. It would change every time we would get there."
For example, one shot in the film is of the camera moving in tandem with a speeding train.
“It’s technically straightforward, but resulted from an odd coincidence,” said Cerf. “We were working very closely, but at some point, I had to go off to other projects. She started to encourage me to look and see in my own life. After leaving a gas station driving back from another shoot, I saw a train going right by me. We came back… and brought a gimbal package inside a minivan, opened up the window and shot straight out the side, me shouting to my brother, 'Faster, faster.'"
Got any of your own opinions on how to shoot and show phone and computer screens? Share in the comments.