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The Simple Way "Sherlock" Solved Hollywood's Problem With Text Messaging

And why no one has figured out anything nearly as elegant to put the Internet on film . . . yet.

The Simple Way "Sherlock" Solved Hollywood's Problem With Text Messaging

For as many problems as our smartphones solve, they also introduce at least a few narrative problems for storytellers. Take text messaging in film. How do you film two people texting each other in a compelling way?

In the latest episode of Every Frame A Picture, film critic Tony Zhou examines the various ways film design has changed over the years to try to convey SMS messaging. With the same facility with which he once explained why we all love to hate Michael Bay, Zhou points out that while text messaging opens up interesting new narrative possibilities for filmmakers, they do have major drawbacks.

For one, texts are usually read on very small screens, requiring extreme close-ups or comically large text in order to make their content legible to an audience. Sending or receiving a text message also slows down the action of a film or show, since a director needs to cut between the SMS and a reaction shot.

But after years of experimentation, Zhou says that conveying text messaging in film is largely a solved problem. He points to the Steven Moffat's modern-day revamp of the Great Detective, Sherlock, as a show that has figured out how to make text messages a part of the narrative. In Sherlock, text messages simply pop up as typography hovering around the characters who are either receiving or sending a message. Not only does the technique combine the action of receiving a text with the reaction of a character in the same frame, but because this approach separates the content of a message from the software used to send or receive it, it's a more future-proof technique than showing, say, a close-up of an iPhone screen would be.

But while Hollywood has "solved" the cinematic design problems of the text message, Zhou points out that we've yet to come up with a technique to represent the Internet on film that is as cheap, efficient, and effective. Although filmmakers have been trying to represent the Internet on celluloid for over 20 years, we're still stumbling around on how to represent it. Is the Internet best represented as a web browser on a character's screen, a day-glo cyberspace inhabited by virtual avatars, a series of BBS-style intertitles, or something else entirely?

Zhou says it's the very fact that how to best represent the Internet on film is still up for debate that makes it such an exciting problem. It's a level playing field in which any director, no matter how inexperienced or low-budget, can make his or her mark.