As digital communication becomes central to our lives, Hollywood has had to be increasingly more creative incorporating this passive form of communication into live action. How do you use design and motion graphics to present text messages in film? For many years, the standard approach was to treat text messages the way hand-written letters had been treated, either cutting to a close-up of the phone’s screen so the audience can read the frequently enlarged text, or having the actor unrealistically read the text out loud. But increasingly, filmmakers have been showing the disembodied text onscreen and alongside the actors.
In his video series Every Frame a Painting, filmmaker Tony Zhou hypothesizes that films in the digital age could better represent real lives if they focused on solutions that lie “not in content, but in form.” He points out that showing the texts on the screen rather than on a close up of a phone feels more seamless, allowing the action to continue uninterrupted and the viewer to witness the actors’ reactions to the information they are reading.
Zhou cites the design of the BBC production Sherlock as the closest to ideal he has experienced. Sherlock uses clean and simple typography, removing the bubbles from the text content to avoid dating the material. Sherlock‘s method is aesthetically pleasing and definitely eliminates some of the more glaring and clunky issues that distract from other films.
In the Liam Neeson film Non-Stop, released last year, text messages are practically their own character. Neeson plays an Air Marshall receiving anonymous text messages from an unknown terrorist aboard his flight. The film had to show the texts since Bill obviously cannot read them out loud, but seeing them on the phone would slow down the action and take up a lot of screen time.
While the simple, elegant method Sherlock employs works for the mood and aesthetic of that show, the more frenzied way Non-Stop presents the texts, animating the typing in real time, complete with autocorrect fixing misspellings, adds the correct visual interest to a movie whose main action is essentially watching the bad-ass Neeson reading his phone. Non-Stop relies on the tension it creates to make it a thriller, and it successfully uses the visual treatment of the text messages to help amp up that tension. The audience witnesses Bill attempting to keep his cool, Air Marshall composure as the stakes keep getting higher. In one particular scene, as he receives another threat from the unknown terrorist immediately following the death of an innocent passenger, the camera spins around Bill reading as the texts also fill up the screen and move around him, creating the sense that Bill is finally beginning to spiral under the immense pressure of saving everyone’s lives (though at this point in his acting career, this should be nothing for Neeson.)
I think Zhou is onto something: successfully integrating digital communication into films depends on experimenting with new design techniques. I, for one, am excited to see what other variations of this kind of motion graphics work will be popping up on my TV.