I’ve talked about this many times already, but the portrayal of technology in Hollywood movies continues to piss me off with astonishing regularity. Almost every time a character in a movie is about to use a computer I cringe. There are virtually no blockbuster movies out there that portray technology with any degree of accuracy. Especially subjects like hacking or video games are involved – they never ever get it right. I do understand that sometimes it’s impossible to actually show a brand like Gooogle on the screen without striking some product placement deal with said company. But would it really hurt movie makers to at least try making user interface look like something a person would use in a real life? Would it really be so hard not to show 3d animation and scrolling matrix style text on the screen while a person is “hacking” something?
Ive been giving this some thought lately, trying to figure out why things are the way they are. I mean, lets face it – all you would have to do to get it right is to hire a single geek consultant, and then listen to his suggestion. It’s not like the Hollywood people are incapable of doing that. When they make a historical movie they hire real period experts who make sure that costumes props and decorations are accurate. When they make SF movies they often have real rocket scientists or astronauts advise them on how real spaceflight works. It would make sense to hire a real techie to advise you when you are making a movie in which one of the heroes or villains is an awesome hax0r or computer whiz. Just have the guy on set, and ask him how would he show someone hacking into pentagon or doing something equally silly. In the end you would have a much more realistic looking movie.
Then I realized that perhaps it is not that simple. Let’s face it – technology is boring. I know this from experience – most people who try to watch me work react the same way – they eyes gloss over and they start yawning uncontrollably. Watching a guy type code is about as entertaining as watching paint dry. But that’s how you would realistically portray hacking or programming on the screen. Show a guy typing in cryptic code, compile it, find some bugs, type some more, compile, type, etc… It’s realistic, but not spectacular.
Filmmakers usually don’t know much about anything other than making movies – that’s the one area where they are competent. They can tell what looks good on the screen. Their job is to capture your attention and convey a message in a single scene. Showing a guy type cryptic code or comands for few minutes may be realistic but it can be not only boring, but confusing to an average movie watcher. An average person will need some context, exposition or dialogue to explain that this person is currently programming or hacking into the banking system or whatever. On the other hand, if you show flashy graphics with scrolling code and blinking text that says: “ATTEMPTING TO HACK INTO THE BANKING SYSTEM… ACCESS DENIED” the viewers instantly know what is happening. You need no dialog or exposition to explain it – a picture is worth a thousand words. In other words you trade realism for clarity. They do it because it works.
What looks good on the screen doesn’t always look realistically. This is an unfortunate but true. Chances are, that these big blockbuster movies do hire technology consultants. I bet they do get expert advice on how tricky computer related sequences could be filmed. But in the end, these experts get overruled because what they advise is often boring and cryptic. More importantly it often probably conflicts with the directors vision. A film maker will usually see a scene unfolding a certain way and they are will not want to completely rearrange it just to make an insignificant 15 second computer hacking scene look more realistic. Having to choose between their vision of what should happen on the screen, gut instinct, experience and the expert opinion guess what they are going to go with?
Of course whenever you reject expert advice and substitute it with your own idea you do so at your own peril. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you end up with something ridiculous like a character storing gigagytes of data on a floppy disk, or ridiculous “hacking” scene that is so contrived even the least technology competent movie goers will laugh at it.
Times are changing. Today, most American movie enthusiasts own and frequently use a computer. They know how to search the web, use facebook, chat shop and browse the web. Many of them have their own blogs or other various online identities. Therefore film makers must update their faux-computer interfaces to reflect that. They have to make search engines look a bit like Google, social portals look bit like facebook and web pages look like they were created in this decade. They can no longer expect that their core audience will be somewhat unfamiliar with the technology, and hope to get away with something that looks vaguely like browsing the web. If they don’t put at least some effort, badly designed computer interface may ruin the viewers suspension of disbelief. In fact, using a simplistic “fake” interface may actually be counter productive.
For example, if you show someone typing a query into a white text box located on a white page, and hit a gray “Search” button underneath and then show a list of blue links, most people will automatically assume the character is googling for something, even though the interface is kept generic. On the other hand, if you design some futuristic looking search interface with crazy animations there might be a certain degree of confusion as to what is exactly going on on the screen. Is the character searching the web? Or is that some proprietary system? Did they “hack into the government” to find all this data?
The clarity vs realism, and filmmaker gut instinct vs expert advice is a trade off. I guess the best thing to hope is that Hollywood will aim somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. Of course that doesn’t change my stance on the subject. Bad portrayal of technology in the movies remains one of my top pet peeves. Especially since it can be done the right way. If Matrix was able to use a realistic hacking scene, anyone can.