An Open Letter to Hollywood

Dear Movie-makers:

When are you going to stop? When are you going to realize that this eye-candy facade of Internet technology you portray in movies is not fooling anyone?

Anyone with a brain can easily see that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing when you throw up a fake log-in screen or a fake browser. Why do you continue to insist on using these Macromedia Director-created “slide shows” with oversized buttons and very unbelievable animated graphics?

You actually think that Sandra Bullock in “The Net” is using a realistic browser? Whose leg are you trying to pull? And in “Mission Impossible”, who ever heard of an ampersand in a web address or USENET group?

I won’t even go into the numerous problems with “Hackers.”

Instead of going to your art department and saying “we need a browser” why don’t you go to your web site designer (because all movies now have web sites, right?) and ask them to help you understand how the Internet works instead of making up stuff that would never feasibly work in the real world?

Listen, I understand that you’re trying. I understand that this these technologies are complex, but please, you’re asking us to suspend our disbelief a bit too far.

I’m actually afraid to go see the new movie “You’ve Got Mail” that opens this weekend simply because I fear that it will be full of so many technology mistakes that it will completely ruin it for me. Remember that there is a rapidly growing number of people in the world that spend the majority of their days working on the Internet and using email clients and web browsers. For these people, the Internet _is_ their life, their career, and their livelihood. Asking them to watch your unrealistic portrayals of Internet technology is literally an insult.

The Internet is partially founded upon the concept of freely shared information. There is a distinct community of Internet users who would be more than happy to help you portray these technologies in the correct light. All you have to do is ask.

To my readers: Do you have examples of poorly portrayed technology in movies or television? Send them to me and I’ll create a special page that compiles this contributed information.

Cameron Barrett

Feedback on this piece:

From Jake Lodwick:

Thanks for bringing up the Computers/Internet in Hollywood issue.

Although fake web browsers, login screens, computers that beep at every operation, etc. bug me, nothing drives me more mad than “enhance.” As a student who uses Photoshop for about 2 hours every day, I’ve come to learn, over time, that digital images have a finite amount of information, and are not infinitely zoomable. So why is it that people in movies will ALWAYS find some way to enhance, reconstruct, or sharpen a blurry photograph or videotape?

Example 1: In the only episode I’ve ever seen of the T.V. show Millenium, the star (Lance Henrikson) downloads a rather large image to his computer in a few seconds. He scans the photo for clues, and then zooms in on one region, at no loss to quality. He then proceeds to zoom in on the zoom, still at no loss of quality. It is here that he discovers the crucial clue or whatever it was…

Example 2: The wretched “Fugitive” sequel “U.S. Marshals” had a scene that included the analysis of a security video. From within Photoshop, the stars somehow manage to pause a frame of the blurry, grainy video and zoom in, cleary revealing a crucial clue.

Example 3: The also lame “The Replacement Killers” included a scene in which Mira Sorvino creates a fake passport for Chow Yun Fat. She takes his picture with a lame Casio digital camera (which is instantly on the computer screen in high-res and from different proximity and lighting as it should be) and proceeds to print out a “ghost” of it (what? apparantly a very light version of the image). Some bad guys arrive and try to kill them, etc… later, after the stars have left, the cops start working on reconstructing the image, and in a matter of minutes (using only a keyboard – no inefficient “mouse”) they impossibly return the image to its original integrity.

I think that audiencesâ lack of caring is what leads to this sort of thing being allowed in movies… even my close friends often shush me when I point out that the movie can’t go on because of an impossible enhancement. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

From Ben Turner:

Hey Cam, no offense, but…loosen up. 🙂 Yes, I admit the cheese factor certainly goes up when movies show clips of television monitors and whatnot, but you have to remember that we ARE people who actually work with pretty sophisticated stuff in the eyes of the everyday person. Action/adventure movies are trying to appeal to the widest audience possible, and seeing a monitor split into three areas with the hero typing in ‘comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html’ doesn’t necessarily mean “Oh, he’s checking Usenet for random posts with the tidbit of info he needs” to everyone. Whether or not it’s okay for them to show some stupid animated e-mail icon (with mail from an “anonymous” sender…haha) like in “Disclosure”, or point-and-click video manipulation like in “Rising Sun”, who really gives a flying eff? Yes, movies show really dumb, silly stuff, but I think the mindset going in is that they have to make these computer thingies understandable to viewers. I think you know that, so I won’t go on…

Me, personally? I cannot read a single magazine about the Internet, watch a single program about the Internet, look at any newspaper ad, or read any articles about the Internet without scoffing or thinking up some exception or flaw in the research. It’s commonplace, and not entirely wrong… I feel like a jerk every time I snort in derision at those sorts of things now because it’s just condescending and elitist to others who don’t really care to know about that stuff.

So lighten up. 🙂 It’s not like movies have more pressing, glaring inaccuracies, like lack of good dialogue and cohesive plotline…I really don’t care about the Internet aspect — as far as I’m concerned, the Internet’s going to take a lot of time to be accepted and it will never fully be misunderstood. The technophobes will become afraid, and they will perhaps become paranoid…

Keep in mind who’s making the movies and it will make more sense…they’re not going to change. But hey, isn’t there a movie being made right now about Kevin Mitnick? I don’t know anything about it beyond that, but given the subject of the film, it might take some fairly knowledgeable people to construct the movie in the light it needs to be portrayed in. Sort of a “Contact” like thing, a movie I thought did a good job of bringing Carl Sagan’s novel to the big screen.

From Matt Haughey:

I wholeheartedly agree that bogus computers have been in movies far too long and insult the intelligence of at least a third of the audience. I hate seeing the enormous login screens in “spy thrillers,” especially the ones that don’t cloak the password. But my favorite example of computer goofiness is Independence Day. Among the numerous flaws with Jeff Goldblum and his unstoppable powerbook, I always loved the scene where Will Smith and Goldblum are uploading a virus to the mother alien ship. While I was laughing on the inside thinking about working between different operating systems, network protocols, beating antivirus software, and the like, I laughed hardest when my techno-savy girlfriend leaned over and said (while the stars eagerly watched the creeping onscreen status bar show the upload progress): “They need more RAM for that laptop.”

But on the other hand, since when does Hollywood ever get technical details of anything right? If you happen to be an expert in anything besides internet publishing and computers, you’ve probably seen a movie that butchered the details of your other beloved pastimes. When I was a kid, I remember pointing out numerous inaccuracies when surfing, skateboarding, or BMX was shown in a movie. These days I see bad examples of mountain climbing, distance running, skiing and snowboarding in movies all the time. Movies frequently blur details about actual events, equipment used, and most often, proper technique (Stallone’s rock climbing in Cliffhanger? What a joke!)

My guess is that producers and directors force writers to dumb down the technical details about any particular subject, assuming we’d be confused if proper technique were presented in an otherwise capable script (what most movies actually lack). Perhaps moviemakers fear they will exclude some viewers if a proper (and confusing to some) computer interface were shown on screen, but in the hands of a capable director and writer (or technical expert), real computer screenshots could be used to show computer work. My guess is that they neglect to take the extra time to show closeups or add some explanatory dialogue between characters, and instead go with the Big Dumb Interfaces that even a child can understand.

And on a somewhat unrelated note, why does *every* movie feature nothing but Apple computers? How much of Apple’s budget is spent on product placement in Hollywood features?

From Aaron Draplin:

Nice movie rant, my sentiments exactly…as a stickler for details myself, seeing those bullshit interfaces piss me off too.

You rule and yer intelligence will be rewarded someday.

From Morbus:

Just would like to point out as I unceremoniously delurk here, that although you have valid points, and I totally agree with “yes, the internet is our lives, and yes, you are insulting us” mentality, the movies (at least the ones you describe), came out long ago.

Granted the Internet came out long ago too, but “Hackers” succumbed to the media interpretation of them as wiz kids. My favorite unfilmed scene in that movie was “Hey, Phibe! The screen says ‘Should I hack the server for you?’ Hey, I’m gonna say ‘yes’, man. This rocks!”.

The other two movies (although specifically “The Net”) defy explanation – they came out long ago, but the internet was an important part of the film. The only thing that I can say to back up my poorly planned response (and realizing it), was that when these movies came out, the movie people probably weren’t even on the Net… nor were anyone around them. They just didn’t know.

And as Internet World has already starting proclaiming 98 as the year the internet became recognized for something or other (another buzzword phrase), I think movies will start picking up the pace when it comes to realistic portrayals.

But face it, the Internet at 28.8 is not glitzy, glamory or fast. And that is everything that a movie has to be to sell…

For your other question concerning technological movie idiocies, I vaguely remember “Assassins” as being one with a laptop that could beat a SGI workstation anyday…

From Stan Taylor:

Right on, man! What struck me, however, when I saw one of these movies (_The Net_, I think) was that the actual plot was about bad guys trying to get ahold of a DISKETTE (physical object), and the good guy trying to keep it from them. The Internet was simply a marketing hook for a conventional bad-guys-chasing-good-guys movie. Lame, lame, lame.

From Jeffrey Veen, of Wired Digital:

You’re right about Hollywood’s dumbifiation of technology… especially interfaces. Exceptionally insulting. I used to scream at the screen, “If I see one more rendered, 3D envelope float across the screen, unfold itself, and display a singular piece of email, I’m going to loose it completely!”

But it’s not all bad. I remember hearing a friend complain about the tech portrayed in “Mission Impossible”. Tom Cruise sits down and his PowerBook, touches the power button, and the screen is instantly on, showing two seconds of the smiling Mac before he’s typing his ampersand-enabled Usenet address. “Wish my computer booted that quickly,” my friend sighed. “Sheesh!”

But frankly, I don’t want to watch 5 minutes of “Welcome to Macintosh”. Just like I’m glad movie people always find a spot to park right in front of the place they’re going. Just like how cabs come screeching to a halt when movie people step to the curb.

So, I guess I wish movie art directors would respect our intelligence, and let technology recede into the plot, and focus on telling stories. Enough of the gee-whiz techno infatuation. I want to see people use technology like I do. Every day, all the time, integrated into your life. Not Sandra Bullock and her goofy browser, but Mulder and Scully and their use of cell phones as a foundation of their work style.

good piece, Cam.

From Pat Rothblatt:

Jake Lodwick wrote:

Example 1: In the only episode I’ve ever seen of the T.V. show Millenium, the star (Lance Henrikson) downloads a rather large image to his computer in a few seconds. He scans the photo for clues, and then zooms in on one region, at no loss to quality. He then proceeds to zoom in on the zoom, still at no loss of quality. It is here that he discovers the crucial clue or whatever it was…

Wouldn’t that be possible if he was zooming in on a vector image like .png? Because the only reason images get blurry now when you zoom is the limitations w/ bitmap images, .jpg, .gif, .tif to name a few. Vector images don’t have this problem because their data is stored w/ complex math not laid out bit by bit on a digital canvas.

Their was an article in YiL a few months ago about this problem w/ moviemakers showing complex anime when sending email and viruses that bring up laughing skulls on your screen. The conlcusion they came to was that the realities of internet clash w/ what the director wants the scene to convey. So the real problem is that the internet is too bland to film for those that don’t use it too film. Imagine the suspense of watching someone click on dial-up networking open up eudora and download and email and open it in ASCII form. Something any studio doesn’t want to put up on a 10 foot by 20 foot movie theatre screen.

From Michael Laurence Roberts:

Slightly off-subject, but someone mentioned “Enhance”. If you think that’s bad – try seeing Enemy Of The State (Gene Hackman, Will Smith) – they manage to take CCTV footage from a shop of someone holding a bag on their far side (obscured by their body) and “enhance” so they can spin right round and see what’s in the bag. Right.

As far as your original rant goes, yes, it is time that they got the facts straight – getting it real wouldn’t (in any cases I can think of) affect the movie plot in any way, and it would prevent me driving people (and myself) nuts when I see some crap and say (out loud) “hey that’s b*llshit”.

I think that AOL’s representation in “you’ve got mail” was not too bad (apart from not having to wait very long for dial-up – which, when you’re paying 15,000 dollars a second on celluloid is understandable) it’s okay – and if you like movies like Sleepless In Seattle, go see this.

And finally, a rant of my own on your subject – the screens that everybody in movies use that are really projectors. Seeing the words on screen “reflected” on the actors face is utter crap – don’t they feel stupid staring at a projector and not being able to see anything other than a bright light?

Posted by Cameron Barrett at December 16, 1998 11:59 PM

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