"I AM ____ LOCKED"
August 17, 2014 6:07 AM   Subscribe

Tony Zhou (previously) has created another great video essay on filmmaking techniques: "A brief look at texting and the internet in film" (also previously).
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (26 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I do remember how the in-shot texting in the first season of Sherlock seemed really innovative but now we're seeing that everywhere.
posted by octothorpe at 6:11 AM on August 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's an interesting point, really, that all film makers have to deal with no matter what era they live in...incorporating the new tech into your story. Think how something like radio had to be incorporated into film of the 30's and 40's. And, after that, television.

I agree that the texting in Sherlock is, by far, the best representation. And, being simple text, it will also prove to be the style that will not look too dated in a few years.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:33 AM on August 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

The big problem is that texting, internet, and really just people having phones on their person at all times breaks so many narratives. That's in addition to it being boring. We want versimilitude without boredom, but it is at the point now that we cant ignore our devices.

One of my favorites was in The Mindy Project when the funny nurse and the bro doctor text seduced the divorce lawyer for Mindy (sorry, I am terrible with names). One of my least favorites was also in The Mindy Project, when they were taking a picture with the phone camera and it was such a blatant endorsement for the Windows phone. "Hey look, this is how easy it is to use the camera with a Windows phone!"
posted by Literaryhero at 6:55 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I guess that a lot of those phone insert shots are product placements so we're not going to get rid of phone closeups altogether.
posted by octothorpe at 7:03 AM on August 17, 2014

posted by Fizz at 7:22 AM on August 17, 2014

This is why a sensible company puts its phone's logo on the back - actors can hold it up and do interesting reaction things, rather than a cut to a screen.

(It's not a phone, but cf the laptop in How I Met Your Mother's "Subway Wars" episode, where for the first time anyone used a computer that didn't have the silver globe sticker they put over the Apple logo on MacBooks. Instead, Ted cracked a laptop with a Windows logo on the lid, i.e. a laptop of a kind that did not exist in the real world, pre-Surface.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:29 AM on August 17, 2014

I am in awe of this guy. I actually get smarter watching these videos.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:34 AM on August 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sherlock definitely did it first and best, but so far, never again as brilliantly as that first press briefing in the first episode. Partly because I'd never seen (or been aware) of cinematic on-screen texting, but also because Sherlock was doing something you can't/don't do with texting (responding to a person speaking by using texts to multiple other people at once).

Since then, I hadn't seen anything noteworthy until episode 3 of House of Cards (@24:00), when Frank and Zoe are texting. It's a fairly long exchange, and the characters are barely shown typing (because, BORING!), and we read the texts as they are received, while while watching the characters' expressions as they read them. It is intimate and private, and really captures how that kind of conversation can feel.
(I also love how they type in complete sentences, with correct spelling and no abbreviations.)

In researching this post, I read that HoC's director David Fincher thought of the idea of text bubbles on screen, and was disappointed that Sherlock had beat him to it.
posted by LEGO Damashii at 7:52 AM on August 17, 2014

Sherlock was doing something you can't/don't do with texting (responding to a person speaking by using texts to multiple other people at once).

On which phone can you not send group texts? I can do that with my older-than-ancient flip-phone.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:00 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like the fact that Sherlock prefigures the day when we'll have cortical implants instead of monitors and displays and we'll see text in our visual fields. That of course is a stopgap because eventually we'll simply grow new brain tissue that can directly comprehend the content of messages with out the visual intermediary of reading it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:30 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

"That of course is a stopgap because eventually we'll simply grow new brain tissue that can directly comprehend the content of messages with out the visual intermediary of reading it."

Also known as the day my family all blocks me from messaging them after the 15th rickrolling.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:44 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

When we're all fully virtualized and living in the cloud, they won't block you, they'll just clone of non-conscious simulacra of themselves to react to you in the way you want them to. Kinda like how I'm definitely gonna knock off a subpersona to take my Mom's phone calls and say "that's really interesting" whenever she pauses.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of my pet peeves is when a show cut to a phone texting, which looks good because it's product placement of something well-designed. And then later they cut to a web site, which isn't product placement, and you get a hokey YouTube rip-off that the art department cranked out. The latter looks even worse when contrasted with the former.

A lot of shots of web sites end up in an uncanny valley. They're just similar enough to what I'm used to on the real Internet that they look off – they're dated, they're a knock-off of a real site, etc. – pulling my attention out of the narrative.

So this is why I appreciate Sherlock using the same visual style for both texting and web sites (there was a brief clip of this in the video): everything is the same (high) quality. And it's abstract enough, metaphor instead of actual screens, to avoid the uncanny valley.
posted by Banknote of the year at 10:14 AM on August 17, 2014

I don't have that big a television screen, and way, way too many "texts on the phone" scenes are simply illegible. That can also be a problem when watching something streaming (legally) and the stream is lower-quality, especially if my husband and I are watching together on a computer or tablet screen so I can't PUT MY FACE UP IN THE SCREEN.

One of the nice things about Sherlock's way of doing it is that it's very legible even on small screens or when the stream quality is only so-so.

I get very aggravated when a major plot point is in text and I have NO DAMN IDEA what the text was supposed to say. At least Pretty Little Liars (which can be very annoying for hard-to-read texts-on-small-phone-screens) has the characters read them out loud like third graders so I know what just happened.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:25 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

the "how to do visual comdey" video is really good at pointing out how flat and "lightly edited improv based around people talking" most modern American comedies are.
posted by The Whelk at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

On which phone can you not send group texts? I can do that with my older-than-ancient flip-phone.

Sherlock, not in the room, was group messaging the specific twenty reporters in the room, in time and in response to what the inspector was saying out loud.
It seemed unusual to me to send a group text in response to someone who is speaking.
posted by LEGO Damashii at 12:04 PM on August 17, 2014

Looked like the scene was not specific as to what messaging technology they were using. SMS has too much latency for that, but any old chatroom would do it. Maybe Twitter.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:53 PM on August 17, 2014

I've been watching through all his videos thanks to this link - SO fantastic. It's incredible how obvious things I never noticed before seem once he points them out (the flat style of visual comedy, like The Whelk mentioned above.) Great eye.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:07 PM on August 17, 2014

Watching Breaking Bad for the first time last year, I remember really loving that everyone had flip-phones (like me!). I'm guessing it was just on the cusp, and if the series had been launched two or three years later all the characters would have been rocking smartphones.
posted by threeants at 3:51 PM on August 17, 2014

(I also love how they type in complete sentences, with correct spelling and no abbreviations.)

Yeah this is a thing where verisimilitude is really irritating. Watching the shifty & mysterious government agent sending a text to her accomplice embedded with the cartel which says r u ok is a mood-killer for me.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:56 PM on August 17, 2014

Although the author treats the shift from explicitly showing smart phone text messages to putting bubbles of text on the movie screen as directors learning how to better represent texting, you can also think of it as a change in the audience's ability to interpret the necessary cues. In early films of all kinds you'll watch events more fully played out on screen, while modern ones tend to show just a few necessary images to clue in the viewers, who are assumed to be able to "read filmmaking grammar" (as they say in Film Studies 101).

In this case, earlier films had to show the whole smartphone-using process because texting was something that audiences might be aware of, but they didn't have tons of immediate experience with. "They're doing that chat room thing like the kids on MySpaceBook," said viewers a decade ago. But now we are so accustomed to the experience of communicating in text form that all you have to do is show someone with his head down over that familiar 3x5" handheld slab, and when words appear next to him everyone immediately thinks "text message conversation." The filmmaking grammar could change because the audience already had.

A good comparison would be scenes in some recent movies involving phone calls. We hear the phone ring, the hero picks up and says "hello," and then we immediately see him setting off to do something (no longer on the phone). But the voice-over still continues and we hear the voice of the other person on the line saying things to him! That's because we know just via ring-ring-hello that we're going to get a conversation -- there's no need to show the visually uninteresting process in real time, like the detective in a 1940s movie taking a phone call from the police commissioner.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:21 AM on August 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a pet peeve of mine when a character is typing on a computer and we see the screen and there's no cursor, which would be pure torture if that's how computers actually worked. Seriously, once you see it you can't unsee it. It's everywhere. I don't even know how that happens -- you have to go out of your way to make a flash animation simulacrum or something. I would have thought that you could just sit someone down at notepad and have them type while you use a screen recorder (or point the video camera at the screen if you want that type of effect), but apparently you can't do that.

Also, Finder-Spyder. I've seen that one pop up in multiple TV shows pretending to be a poor imitation of Google. I get that there's probably something about having to clear copyrights and trademarks, but come on. Is it really that hard to just show the Google logo? I'm sure they wouldn't mind a little bit of free advertising.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:28 AM on August 18, 2014

I'm pretty sure that the TV networks aren't going to just give Google free advertising. They make up those fake sites just so that they don't do that.
posted by octothorpe at 4:49 AM on August 18, 2014


Another reason Breaking Bad folks have flip phones is they're using burners*, and one gets the phone and the service on one handy CHEAP package.

*Prepaid cellphones don't require contracts, so there's minimal info tying them to a particular user. The Wire taught me these were popular with miscreants.
posted by Jesse the K at 6:31 AM on August 18, 2014

Great video! I agree that Sherlock has been the best example of this. Aside from the texting stuff, I particularly enjoyed the bit in the Season 3 episode "The Sign of Three" (the one with John's wedding) where Sherlock stood in a courtroom (I think - it's been awhile since I saw it) and interrogated five women (narrowed down from a bunch more) in an attempt to learn the identity of the "Mayfly Man", as a representation of Sherlock talking in multiple chat windows at once. Elegantly handled.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:38 AM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

This looks like it's an entire movie of texting.
posted by octothorpe at 4:35 PM on August 19, 2014

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