I spend a lot of time complaining about Hollywood movies on this blog. Especially about the way it portrays technology which is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. There are several posts here that complain about this – for example this rant, or this review of a horrible movie. Every time I post one of these articles someone in the comments calls me on it and says something among the lines of:
“Ok, Mr. smarty pants. How would you portray hacking in a movie in a way that doesn’t put people to sleep? The reason why hacking tends to look like some psychedelic Tetris game in most movies is because showing a person type commands onto a terminal window is boring.”
This is an excellent point and one I wish to address in this post. Let’s assume I am a movie writer/director or a producer of some sort and I am working on a multimillion dollar production about that feature about an irreverent, rogue cop taking on a high tech organized crime group which is backed by some awesome haxx0rz they utilize to steal money, spy on law enforcement and wreck havoc. You know – the standard block buster movie formula. Lets also assume I do not know that much about computers or hacking. Yet I know that these are major elements in my movie. Here is what would I do.
Step One: Research
Before having a single line of script written, I would sit down and try to learn as much about real world hacking as I could. And by that I don’t mean I would actually try to learn how to do it. I would want some high-level, general overview of what hackers can do and what they can’t. Being a film maker I wouldn’t necessarily have deep knowledge about stuff like technology or medicine. So if I was making a movie taking place in a hospital trauma ward I would totally want to look up some medical terms, common types of injuries and recovery prognosis of each. Same with technology – I would want to know what do hackers commonly do, how do people track them, how do they get caught and etc.. I would probably sit down with a security expert and bounce some questions of of him. For example, I would ask him if a hacker could break into pentagon, steal a harrier jet and have that jet chase the main hero through the streets of New York. That sort of thing.
Step Two: Jargon
I would hire someone to write me some tech dialog using real world jargon. And I don’t mean just pulling out buzzwords from the dictionary to have my characters create a GUI interface in visual basic to track an IP address. No, I would bring a tech person in and tell them that I want him to figure out few lines for a hacker to say while he is trying steal some money from a bank or whatever. Each line should be then re-phrased in layman terms because he will need to explain these things to his girlfriend, his boss and etc..
The idea is that realistic tech jargon will sound just as incomprehensible and intimidating to an uninitiated viewer than bunch of made up techno babble. So why not take that extra step to ensure authenticity and realism? While most viewers won’t know the difference it certainly can’t hurt can it?
Step Three: Use Real Tools
When doing post production and special effects I would go to Youtube and watch some of those hacking demonstration videos. You know what I’m talking about, right? When people break into their own machine using a password cracker like Hydra, snoop on passwords using Ettercap and Wireshark, break WEP using aircrack, scan ports using Nmap and etc… I would then bring someone in for one day, to set up few demonstrations like that for me and have them filmed and used in the correct context in the movie.
Once again, these scenes would basically flash past the screen at high speed. People in the know-how would instantly recognize them. Others would simply assume that the characters are doing some incomprehensible hacker stuff. I mean, showing a guy rotate a 3 dimensional cube made up from zeros and ones isn’t much more telling than showing scrolling text output from Nmap of colorful packets flashing by in Wireshark.
Step Four: Space Bar
After doing all this research I would realize that hacking revolves around using various software tools that are executed either by using short commands or have GUI interfaces operated via mouse. I would then resist the urge to instruct the actors to type really, really fast. Instead I would have them type something in (making sure they hit the space bar several times) and hit enter. Then stare at the screen for a little bit thinking, then type something else. Then do some mouse clicking. Rinse, repeat. I would also make them look stuff up online while hacking.
Step Five: Access Denied
Let’s face it – if I was a movie maker, I wouldn’t know how breaking into a bank would look like. Neither would most of my audience. So I could just have the computer screen flash “ACCESS GRANTED” in big letters and leave it at that. But that would be contrived, and unrealistic. Why make stuff up if I could stick to the stuff I know. For example, I know people. I don’t know how a hackers screen would look like after he successfully accesses a remote system, but I could totally imagine how his face would look like. It would be an expression triumph and relief. The hacker would read the output on the screen, and he would slowly start to smile. The smile would turn into a big grin. Finally, he would do some sort of victory dance or something.
After all, what happens on his computer screen is irrelevant. It does not matter. What matters in the movie are the characters. We want the viewers to connect with them. Showing the hackers face at the moment of his triumph is much more human, evocative and emotionally engaging way to do this than a generic “Access Granted” graphic could ever be. It allows the viewers to connect with the character and share in his happiness.
So I take something that I don’t know and replace it with something I do – I play up my strengths and hide my lacks of knowledge. I have no clue why Hollywood fails to do this so often.
Step Six: Keep Hacking in the Background
Since my movie is not about hackers or hacker culture but about cops chasing bad guys, I would try to keep the tech stuff in the background and away from the plot. After doing all this research I would probably revise some of my ideas and perhaps change the scene in which hackers take over a harrier jet by breaking into it’s on-board computer using an iPhone to something less insane. For example, I could perhaps have a bad guy, or a corrupt pilot paid by the bad guys fly it.
Instead of showing actual hacking on the screen, I would have characters talk about it. Instead of showing it I would show the outcome. For example, have a bank teller log into a computer the next day, look confused, go pale, then grab a phone and say “Sir… We have a big problem”. You know – that kind of stuff. Show people and reactions rather than computer screens.
I believe all of the above would generally make for a better movie without actually sacrificing anything vital. Most of my suggestions are either common sense or cosmetic changes. Film makers should do research before making a movie about something they don’t understand or know about. Using real jargon and real tools is not that big of a deal. The former can be taken care of at the script writing stage, while the latter one can actually save money in post production. I am pretty sure that filming existing applications while they run some fake test scenario would be cheaper than having the CGI team animate some funky 3d sequence.
Finally, I believe that showing people’s reactions instead of made up screens is a good film making advice in general. After all this is what the viewers care about the most – the characters and their little triumphs or failures. Concentrating on them instead of some made up user interfaces can’t be wrong, can it?
So this is how I would do it. Making hacking more realistic does not require making it more boring. In fact, I would venture a guess that my suggestion to shift the attention towards the characters would have the opposite effect: make the film more interesting and approachable. What do you think?