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Teasing a Great Performance Out of Texting

Producers and directors used to run from portraying text messages in films — until they got the message that there is no place to hide.

Over the last 15 years, the use of texting and social media as essential plot elements in films has grown exponentially. At first, filmmakers were hesitant and pushed back. Directors didn't want social media and texting to be in their films spending precious run time focusing on phone and computer screens.  

Feelings gradually changed as it became clear that the new technology had become a part of our lives that writers could no longer ignore. After all, films are generally about relationships — and texts and messaging are often the glue that holds them together in a practical sense. This has led to the industry embracing the use of texts and chats in creative ways.

One way to set up this story-telling device is to show text conversations across the “fourth wall” as a graphic overlay. This is common, and a lot of TV shows have excelled at designing overlays. With an overlay, there is typically text magically popping up across the screen in real time as we see an actor using their phone in a medium or wide shot. Although this works well in TV where graphics are often more acceptable, feature film directors typically avoid this approach as they can disrupt the audience’s emotional connection with the story.

Most films we work with try to shoot phone and computer screens practically when possible or have our VFX artists key, rotoscope and composite screen inserts into footage during the post and finishing phase. Compositing is always more expensive than shooting a phone in-camera, but often necessary as actors may mistype text messages with their thumbs on set.

Now there is an alternative as we recently developed an innovative solution for a film requiring large portions of its plot to be revealed over social media and texting. We brainstormed some ideas and ultimately decided to program a messaging app into which we could load all of the conversations from a script. As the actor typed on desktop or mobile phone keyboards, the letters individually popped up and simulated sending a text message.

The app solution has several benefits:  

  • There weren't any typos because the texts were preloaded. Even if the actor tapped a wrong letter, the text message came out exactly the way the script called for.
  • When the actor hit send, there was a user-defined time delay based on how long the receiver would take to read the text before responding.
  • Then “flashing little dots” that indicate the other person is typing were also included and used several times by the director as a dramatic anticipation device.  
  • A preloaded response popped up and the conversation could be as many lines as necessary.  
  • The app is controlled over the web by a separate laptop, allowing directors to quickly modify conversations during shooting.
  • No concerns about getting permission from big tech companies like Apple or Facebook to use their products in a film or TV show.  

Our artists designed both a mobile text interface and desktop browser — which our team affectionately called “Fakebook” — that looks like a combination of all the different social media sites combined. Producers send us photos and names to pre-load into profiles on the fictional social media site, thereby creating a backstory for characters. The apps allow actors to scroll and click on web pages helping them to be in the moment, while saving a tremendous amount of money and labor in post-production VFX.

In the future, we’ll all be wearing high-tech AR glasses that display text directly in our field of vision at which point we’ll have to rethink how texting should look in films, but in the meantime, we are excited to see this creative use of technology help our clients use text-based devices to tell compelling stories.

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