The Interface of Onscreen Text: How Films and TV Portray Technology, Reality, and Creativity

Technology is one of the easiest ways to date a film. We laugh at the massive computers portrayed in films from the early 1950s through to the 1980s, but films made even five years can feature technology that is outdated.

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As cellphone manufacturers come up with new designs and interfaces every year, films and TV shows have to keep cell portrayals current and interesting. Once texting became integral to characters’ motives and started replace characters making phone calls, text messages had to be shown onscreen. The logical method was to show a close up shot of a phone, with the text message clearly visible. However, as YouTuber Tony Zhou points out in his video essay A Brief History of On-Screen Text Messages in Movies and TV, cutting away to show a text message on a phone not only takes up more screen-time away from an actor’s performance, but also tries an audiences’ patience.

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Snore. Back to the action, please.

In order to combat this, some shows and films had characters read text messages aloud, which is completely forced and unnatural. As an audience member, this scene from Catfish (2010) is pretty awkward to sit through, as if feels like you’re intruding on a very personal conversation.

Sex Drive (2008) introduced the idea of overlaying an animated version of a text message on the screen, in the same shot as the character who is sending or receiving the message.

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While this was an innovative idea, and the start of a new trend, having text messages move as if they were connected to the phone is unrealistic-looking. However, much like the technology advancements that the phones go through, each version of the onscreen text message in films and TV improved bit by bit until the BBC series Sherlock (2010) unveiled a streamline version of text messages that were not attached to phones or even in a bubble. The result is less jarring and easily blends into a scene.

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The US version of House of Cards (2013) arguably has the best use of onscreen text messages to date. The text, while in a bubble like Sex Drive, is much more subtle and is aided with familiar text message notifications to add another layer of realism.

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This format is easy on the eyes, and hardly distracts from the actor’s performance. It actually adds to it, as most uses of the text message in this show are integral to the plot. We are able to see Frank Underwood’s reaction to a text message in real time, instead of having to cut away to his phone screen and back to his reaction a few seconds later.

So what led to this shift in information relay? What makes the onscreen text message so popular? The answer might just lie in Anne Friedberg’s analysis of the use of different cinema ‘screens’ over the years. In her book The Virtual Window, Friedberg argues that for most of its history, film and TV have been dominated by the “single perspective”. Cinema started out on a single screen, and action took place on one large ‘window’. However, filmmakers chose to experiment with the single screen, and the concept of “multiplicity” soon followed. Multiplicity is when a film or any moving image has action taking place on more than one screen or “window”, i.e. using a split-screen, and Friedberg says that this allowed the audience “to inhabit, in a virtual sense, two or more spaces at once.”

Having text messages appear onscreen as opposed to in a separate shot is an example of multiplicity. The action takes place in two ‘windows’, though not in the same sense as a split-screen. The audience knows that the text message is not floating in mid-air, and so we process the action as happening in a separate ‘space’. Furthermore, the text message and actor’s performance happen side-by-side, allowing the audience an uninterrupted view of two actions: a text message being typed/received, and a character typing/receiving it.

Onscreen text messages are an interesting mix of media, drawing on both cinematic elements and computer elements. They’re a product of film progress, and the change in audience expectations. As a tech savvy culture, we expect to see our media portray up-to-date examples of our current technology. I would argue that onscreen text messages have a direct relationship to Anne Friedberg’s analysis of how the personal computer’s introduction lead to a shift in visual regime. Early computer experiments like Douglas Engelbart’s “The Mother of All Demos” showed Engelbart writing and reacting to text that was overlayed in the same shot, allowing the audience to see his real-time reactions. The demonstration being performed in front of an audience brings to mind a cinematic atmosphere, as the personal computer was quite the spectacle in the 1960s.

Engelbart’s video is an early example of the blending of spaces; where something that originally had to happen out of frame or in another shot can happen simultaneously to an actor’s (or demonstrator’s) performance.

It’s not a stretch to say that the onscreen text message is a direct result of experimentation. Like Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1968) that offered audiences a challenging visual experience and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) that played with audience expectations of a single screen, the onscreen text message suggests that the viewer briefly put aside their knowledge of ‘reality’. Having text pop up onscreen offers the audience two perspectives: one of the character looking at a text, and one of the viewer looking at the character looking at the text.

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The Fault in Our Stars (2014) offered a stylized versions of text messages that suspend our reality in a more obvious way. Rather than having the text message blend into the scene ala House of Cards, the text instead stands out and draws our attention to the ‘fakeness’ of the situation.

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However, by making the text look like it is being hand-written, this action feels as if Hazel is jotting down this moment in a diary. While the experimentation suspends reality, it also provides character insight.

Non-Stop (2014) also suspended our reality by showing a ‘cracked’ text message after the phone was dropped.

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Like in The Fault in Our Stars, this adds another element to the scene. It’s like seeing the actual cracked phone or watching Hazel scribble in a book, but instead of showing these actions in a separate shot, the action is blended seamlessly into one scene, driving the narrative forward more quickly and also adding a signature look to a film.

Chef (2014) took the idea of the onscreen text message and instead used it to show characters on Twitter. But actor and director Jon Favreau elected to have the text behind him in a scene, with the Tweet being partially obscured by his body.

I see this use of onscreen text as an interesting play on Anne Friedberg’s argument that the single screen frame was a limitation, and that there was always something hidden from view. Chef is a single-screen frame that is using a new idea (onscreen text) but chooses to keep it obscured. This is yet another example of cinematic experimentation that is toying with different ways of communicating information.

While the majority of films and TV shows are focusing less on shots of text messages and online data, screens aren’t the only thing that can be replaced by onscreen text. The title character in Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) jotted down ideas and quotes in a notebook whenever inspiration struck, but he was not often shown writing in his journal. Instead, his quotes would appear on the screen as he presumably wrote them down offscreen.

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The audience doesn’t need to see the words being written down; they get the idea when when a previous scene sets up Hector sitting down and opening his journal. Zombieland (2009) eliminated scenes of physical writing altogether, and put Columbus’s survival rules directly onscreen as a part of the action. This served not only as a way to maintain the quick pace of the film, but also as plot device and a humour tactic.

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The introduction of onscreen text as a part of the mise-en-scene adds depth to a scene in a way that separate shots can’t quite master. Split-screens allow us to see two perspectives of the same action, but this can be distracting. Having text integrated onscreen alongside the actors creates the opportunity for all action to take place in one space, and allows the audience to follow it more closely. The newest technology constantly surrounds today’s media, and the onscreen text is a product of the changing times. We can only hope that mid-air text will remain fictional, as I can’t imagine how annoying it would be to have floating information constantly following me around.

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Wait, maybe Too Many Cooks is actually a documentary that was made in the future and was sent back to us as a warning of what was to come… talk about a plot twist.

Bibliography

Friedberg, Anne. “The Multiple.” The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. MIT Press, 2006. p. 190-239.

Zhou, Tony. “A Brief History of On-Screen Text Messages in Film and TV”. YouTube, 2014.

This blog entry was originally posted on a private Blogger account as my submission for a film studies class assignment. It has been edited slightly.

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