If you’ve ever watched any television show or movie set after the year 2000, there’s a good chance there is a depiction of two characters texting each other. While this activity is something casual and second nature to us in 2016, there is a reason why texting may also be conspicuously absent from lower-budget TV shows or ones with less experienced directors and graphics departments. The reason? It’s really hard to have characters in a drama text each other, have that text be able to be understood by the audience, and simultaneously not have the method by which the text was displayed interrupt the viewer's suspension of disbelief. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to omit the frequent use of cellphones in film with the way society has them practically glued to their faces.
Doing it naturally
The first show to really make me realize what an effect texting can have on a narrative was House of Cards—a show that does texting perfectly. Rather than try in vain to make a bird’s-eye view of a cell phone being held for an awkward length of time (so the slow-reading audience has enough time to decipher this unnatural way of reading), House of Cards has its text messages pop up in a subtle line of text hovering above the texting character. While this may sound like it is a graphical element that would suspend disbelief even more so, by eschewing the screen close-up that never looks natural, a reader can simply relax and read the freaking text and understand the plot.
Sherlock is perhaps one of the other greatest examples of natural integration of texting graphics as opposed to showing a phone screen. A now three-year-old Vimeo video titled Sherlock how they handle texts has recently been making its way across a number of filmmakers blogs as the go-to example of how to not let a text get in the way of the cohesion of a scene while still letting the audience clearly see what the freaking text says! The text almost fits right into the scene as if its projected from the phone or something (which some phones actually do).
Although the “pop-up” style of texting has existed longer than Sherlock and House of Cards, these two shows have a unique way of making the text medium cinematic, House of Cards with the addressed and time-stamped texts displaying, Sherlock with the texts merely appearing as clear-to-read text directly on the screen. Both of these methods avoid forcing the reader to focus on what brand of phone the star of the show is using, something we can’t help but doing when the phone’s icons or design take up as much of a camera shot as the more-important text content!
To a non-smartphone junkie, it might seem silly that Oscar and Emmy-winning directors are taking such pains to integrate texts into their plotlines, but it would be an abdication of their artistic duty not to! We often don’t think about it, but TV shows and films that take place in a less digital age face a similar conundrum when main characters exchange written correspondence in letters. Is it best then to zoom in on the letter, allowing the viewer to read it “naturally” like the recipient would? Or it is better from a narrative-device perspective to have the character that authored the letter read it to the audience to make sure none of the important content of that letter was glossed over?
Doing it badly
The power of showing text on-screen effectively can have a huge impact on a scene or telling of a story. It almost adds another element to the senses a viewer will experience while watching. Whether it’s conveying a letter or a text, there is no “right” answer for how to do it, but I am of the opinion that if you have to pause or rewind whatever you’re watching to fully get it, that is definitely a “wrong” way.
It’s hard to find new effective ways to integrate texting into film, but the ‘zoom in on an ambiguous phone with huge font’ is definitely not one of them. As soon as that generic phone shows up on the screen, the illusion is gone. A video titled A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film shows us how annoying it can be when texting is done badly in film, but also how cool and engaging it can be when done well. It’s worth noting that while western audiences are just now wizening up to effective texting in TV, “Korean and Japanese drama shows have done this for aaaages,” says reddit.com user and Asian drama aficionado /u/kamatsu. “But texts and instant messages were part of mainstream social lives in those countries for longer. In the west, people on film used to make a lot more phone calls than they do in real life, for some reason.”
Author: Andrew Hendricks