Technology Portrayal in Hollywood

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.

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11 Responses to Technology Portrayal in Hollywood

  1. i understand why noone shows Hackers at really typing in pages of code..
    but what really anoyes me, is whe someone starts to “techtalk” and just uses some randomly selected words out of context to create some characters sounding clever.


    Someone declaring that he “needs to create some GUI, to track the IP-Adress and therefore knowing the correct location of this mobile-phone, because someone encryptet the Chat-Session via MD5” just sounds plainly stupid -.-

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Good point. That sort of thing is just inexcusable. Especially since you could easily find someone that could write a convincing techno-babble for you.

    Of course some directors just don’t give a fuck,and some shows just don’t care about realism at all. CSI is notorious for just making shit up and passing it off as science and technology for example. A lot of the hospital dramas also get the medical jargon horribly wrong from what I heard.

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  3. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    The last time I hacked into the pentagon, I spent so long perfecting the 3D animations that I felt compelled to buy seven extra monitors just to enjoy my technological wizardry….

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  4. I was about to say “but what about the nmap scene in The Matrix?!” but you slipped it right in the end there.

    Also, notice how the computer interfaces in movies/television are so noisy? They beep in response to every action. They give you a big “access granted” banner when you log into a system, like a real user would really need to see that. For a person who used these systems 40 hours a week a work, all of that would drive them nuts. But the noise usually gives important visual/audio clues to viewers so that they can follow along.

    You mentioned that audiences have more experience with computers now than ever (man, think about when Tron came out!). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen YouTube in a film or show somewhere, framing some video the characters are watching. Updating their faux interfaces will turn into product placement deals!

    I think it will always be the case that if we want to see a highly accurate portrayal of technology we have to stick to the small stuff that bores most people, like Primer.

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  5. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Clarity v. realism is a good way of looking at it. Accuracy also has a cost component too. My wife is a nurse and entertainment portraying the health profession drives her nuts. My uncle is a physicist and hates lots of movies with bad physics. I’m a law student, and I can’t stand to watch courtroom sequences on TV. When I was writing software, IT’s portrayal bothered me (e.g. how come monitors project their contents onto the “hacker’s” faces!?).

    Entertainment writers just aren’t going to know as much about your profession as you do. That’s how it goes. Sure they could hire a consultant for every little detail, but at some point it just gets ridiculous. They won’t get everything right, and though a little more research would be appreciated by professionals in that field, no one else will care but the guy doing the budget wondering why you needed a physics PhD consultant for an animated featurette.

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  6. hdrev MEXICO Mozilla Linux says:

    Yeah, I agree with you, but i regulary watch a tv show where hacking appers kind of realistic you know.

    Smallville, from what I was able to see, the “hacker” was typing at what it seemed like a unix terminal, but well…it could be DOS

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Ian Clifton:

    Yeah, I know. You are not a real hacker if you don’t have a 17 screens that simultaneously display scrolling text and random 3d polygon transformations. I have no clue how that stuff helps hacking, but it must since everyone in the movies does that.

    @ Chris Wellons:

    Yeah, I know. I especially like how their imaginary image enhancing software that can infinitely refine a grainy security cam footage makes a silly sound every time it zooms in. Imagine if Photoshop made a sound each time you do something. I think I would just disconnect my speakers. :P

    Also, I always make fun of CSI when I teach students about digital image formats and how bitmap images work. Most students are surprised to learn that enchantment stuff doesn’t work in real life.

    @ jambarama:

    Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the man. :)

    Speaking of law – I have zero legal experience, but I’m surprised how much lawyer shows get away with. I mean, most adult US citizens will at one point or another have jury duty. This means that a large percentage of TV viewers have actually seen how a real trial looks like from the inside. For example, I know that randomly waltzing up to the bench to have a private one-on-one with the judge without involving the opposing attorney is just something you don’t do. And yet I see it done in almost every single movie and TV show.

    @ hdrev:

    Well, I didn’t watch much of Smallvile so I can’t really say how close that was. Some shows do make an effort to make tit look more or less realistic. Others just don’t.

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  8. Jakob Pedersen DENMARK Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    I recently watched a clip on YouTube of a scene of an episode of CSI.

    They grabbed an image from a security camera (which usually isn’t the best quality), ‘enhanced’ it, located shadows’, then zoomed in on a person CORNEA!?! and they could see a basketball’s reflection. And the woman says: “The resolution isn’t very good.” WTF

    Yes, it is indeed my biggest pet peeve.

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  9. Dave Google Chrome Windows says:

    Damn, you guys need to lighten up. It’s Hollywood. It’s a fantasy.
    Watching someone spending 11 hours typing into a text editor and guzzling Dr. Pepper doesn’t make a very interesting looking “hacking” scene. So fuck reality.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Dave:

    Sorry but you are wrong. Opening scene from “The Social Network” makes your argument invalid. That scene is essentially a 5 minute montage of bunch of guys typing into text editors, drinking and talking – and it actually accomplishes a lot:

    – Sets up Zuckerberg as a character displaying a lot of his character traits and quirks right away – smart, socially awkward, stubborn, impulsive, etc
    – Shows his relationship with Eduardo
    – Sets the stage for the entire movie
    – Shows an event that actually happened (albeit probably not exactly as depicted)

    And it does it in a very realistic way. So yeah, it can be done the right way and no, it is not boring.

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