From Talkies to Textiesvia The Wall Street Journal
by Rachel DodesHollywood is grappling with the storytelling challenges of a world filled with unglamorous smartphones, texting and social media.
In a fraught scene in "Disconnect," a lawyer played by Jason Bateman discovers that his son's girlfriend doesn't actually exist. The conversation between Mr. Bateman's character and the fabricated online persona "Jessica" plays out entirely via text. An interface designed to resemble Facebook's chat function appears next to an extreme close-up on Mr. Bateman's increasingly teary eyes.
Director Henry-Alex Rubin recalls Mr. Bateman half-jokingly remarking that he was making a silent movie. "There was a lot of having to sort of communicate and process the receiving of an answer without talking," says Mr. Bateman. "It could have gone really bad with a lot of eyebrow acting."
The revolution in communicating via text, often on tiny phone screens, is presenting filmmakers with a huge challenge: How do you show it on the big screen?
More and more movies and television shows are mirroring the real world's digital transformation of everyday life, but watching people send text messages isn't exactly the stuff of riveting spectacle. It's no wonder filmmakers agonize over how to make it cinematic. Close-ups on smart phones, often requiring the use of green screens and extra-large fonts in post-production, don't pack much punch compared with Bogart and Bacall banter. The new infatuation with depicting text on screen can distract from the action.
"We're just starting to get a handle on how to do this in a dramatic way," says Mr. Rubin.
"Disconnect," due April 12, uses technology to weave together three story threads, each of which involves people who become alienated from each other, ironically, as a result of their tendency to constantly communicate electronically. Mr. Bateman's character compulsively emails his clients from the dinner table while his son gets cyber-bullied. A female cable news reporter (Andrea Riseborough) develops an online relationship with an aspiring Internet porn star whom she's trying to cultivate as a source. And a married couple (Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton) are robbed by an identity thief (after falling for a phishing scam). Throughout the film, people are interacting via email, cellphones, Facebook, iPhone texting, webcams and in chat rooms. Often the actors are engaging in two conversations at once.
The film's hyper-connected style reflects an emerging challenge for filmmakers seeking to tell realistic, 21st-century stories as more and more people, especially younger people, shun speaking in favor of texting and social networking. In the fourth quarter of 2012, teens sent nearly 2,500 text messages on average per month, with most of them texting more than they speak on the phone, according to Nielsen. Almost 75% of 25-to-34-year-olds now own Internet-enabled smartphones, up from 59% in July 2011.
In the past year, films aimed at teenaged audiences have been experimenting with how to integrate characters' constant texting into storylines, with varying degrees of success. In "LOL," a 2012 box-office flop, the main character, played by pop star Miley Cyrus, posts Facebook updates ("Status: Boyfriend") that were displayed on the screen in a big, cartoonish font as she typed.
The texting seen in "Disconnect" and other coming films adheres loosely to a convention credited to the BBC's "Sherlock," featuring a wired Sherlock Holmes in modern-day London, and more recently, Netflix's hit series "House of Cards." The 13-episode show centers on a scheming U.S. congressman, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and his efforts to manipulate everybody he knows.
"House of Cards" creator Beau Willimon says that he views text messages as a modern embodiment of playwright Harold Pinter's notion that action stems from what is left unsaid. One episode features a subplot involving a girl who crashed her car while texting, creating a controversy in Underwood's district in South Carolina. After traveling home for spin control, he participates in a late-night conference call from his dining room table, but takes a call from his wife (Robin Wright) on his BlackBerry and puts the conference call on mute. Then, while chatting with his wife about gardening, he starts to receive a barrage of flirtatious texts from a young reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara.) Shooting the scene, which was just five pages long, involved four locations—Underwood's Washington office (the conference call), his home (the conversation with his wife), a D.C. fire escape (from which Zoe is texting) and Underwood's dining room in South Carolina.
Mr. Willimon says he wrote the episodes with the texts shown as dialogue without thinking much about how the interactions would be displayed on screen. Executive producer David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes of the show, decided that he wanted the texts to appear almost as text bubbles with a pale blue or gray background, depending on who was sending the message, as opposed to showing close-ups of phones. After he proposed the caption idea, Mr. Willimon showed him some clips from "Sherlock," which depicts texts on screen as white subtitles in a Helvetica font, and asked "Is this what you had in mind?" Mr. Fincher "was a bit bummed that it had been done before," he says. "But good ideas are good ideas."
The invention of the telephone was the first big communications challenge for moviemakers. In the early 1900s, directors Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith pioneered split-screen and cross-cutting editing techniques to illustrate conversations between two people who may not be in the same room. "They realized it wasn't very effective to just show one person talking on the phone," says Howard Besser, a cinema studies professor at New York University's Tisch School. Many of these early silent films involved a damsel-in-distress telephone operator calling for help in the midst of a robbery.
Personal computing emerged in the 1980s as something Hollywood couldn't ignore, with films like "Tron," about a hacker who gets trapped in a computer game, and 1983's "WarGames," about a nerdy high school student who nearly causes a nuclear apocalypse after breaking into a military-operated computer network. At the time, the Internet was known as Arpanet, and was used primarily by the government, and there was only one computer store in Santa Monica, Calif., recalls "WarGames" co-screenwriter Walter F. Parkes. "There was this arcane, nerdy underground," he says. "The metaphor that made sense for us was: Here's this kid who in his bedroom can access the whole world."
Translating that metaphor visually for the audience was tricky. At the time, people were unfamiliar with the concept of a computer password, which required structuring a scene early in the film in which the main character, played by Matthew Broderick, sneaks into his high-school principal's office to check out a piece of paper showing a list of random words. Back home, as he attempts to hack into the school's system to change his biology grade to a C from an F, he explains to his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy) what he's doing, thereby teaching the audience what a password is. "You didn't feel like you were being spoon-fed exposition," says Mr. Parkes. "Instead, you were in a scene where this really smart kid was doing something and sharing it with his girlfriend, not with us."
"WarGames" director John Badham also worried that people would eventually tire of watching Matthew Broderick reading aloud from a screen, so he pushed Mr. Parkes and his co-screenwriter Lawrence Lasker to devise a way to make the computer talk, like HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey," even though no such technology existed at the time. They invented a fictitious box that Mr. Broderick's character hooks up to his Imsai 8080 computer. Shortly thereafter, it asks in a monotone voice, "Shall we play a game?" and Ms. Sheedy stares in amazement.
The advent of the cellphone was another boon for filmmakers, enabling them to convey information quickly without "boring expositional scenes," says Oliver Stone, who directed 1987's "Wall Street." In the film, financier Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) walks on the beach in the Hamptons with a brick-size Motorola while giving a pep talk to his protégé, Bud Fox. Besides being a fancy toy for a very rich man, the phone enabled Mr. Stone to visually emphasize Gekko's early-bird-gets-the-worm work ethic: "There he was, prowling the beach at dawn," says Mr. Stone. "In reality, [the phone] might not have worked so well on the beach, so we did take a little license."
The Internet, in its 1.0 incarnation, began to show up in the 1990s, presenting fresh challenges. Sandra Bullock starred in "The Net," a thriller centered on a computer analyst whose finds her identity completely erased when she becomes embroiled in a vast government conspiracy. Since Ms. Bullock's character was a loner who lived her life on her computer, the film contained several scenes that involved staring at a laptop with nobody else to interact with. To solve the problem, the film's director Irwin Winkler says he would often ask Ms. Bullock to "mumble back some of the stuff she was typing or reading off her computer, to give it more drama," even though nobody really does that in real life.
Now technology is moving so fast that filmmakers struggle to predict how people will be communicating by the time their film comes out. The recent romantic comedy "He's Just Not That Into You" had a character, Mary (Drew Barrymore), who boasts to a trio of colleagues that a potential paramour "Myspaced me," meaning that he contacted her via the social network Myspace. The problem was, by 2009, when "He's Just Not That Into You" was released, people just weren't that into Myspace, which had steadily declined in popularity. (The film nevertheless was a hit at the box office, generating nearly $100 million domestically.)
Disconnect" faced timing issues as well. Mr. Rubin, the director known for his Oscar-nominated documentary "Murderball," about paraplegic rugby players,worried that the iPhone 5 would soon be passé. He tried to envision a more futuristic model which would keep the look his film fresh for a longer period of time. "I quickly gave up on that," he says, then tried substituting new, extra-thin iPods, to no avail.
In portraying the texting, he wanted audiences to feel the emotions and the tensions expressed in the messages, without getting caught up in the technology itself. That meant showing actor's faces reacting to information, instead of forcing the audience to watch them type. He thought of the opening sequence in "Apocalypse Now," when Martin Sheen is in close-up, sleeping on one side of the screen as a helicopter blade spins on the other side, the result of double-exposed film.
The style let Mr. Rubin heighten the emotional impact of technological interactions. Typically, when portraying in-person conversations, the camera stays on the person who is doing the talking. In "Disconnect," the actor would text with a person off-camera, while he or she was filmed in close-up.
At first, Mr. Rubin tried shooting a laptop screen in close-up, but the text would get so pixelated it was impossible to read. The filmmakers commissioned a company called Method Design to develop a "digital veil," a translucent layer that looked like a mesh screen door over the text, emulating the effect of a close-up of a screen, but cleaner. Incoming messages are shown in sharp focus but get blurrier as newer ones roll in.
Expect these issues to recur for the foreseeable future: In Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," due in May, the main character (Greta Gerwig) turns to her constantly texting best friend and says, "I love you…even though you love your smartphone more than you love me."