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Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s How to Show Online Conversations on Film

Attention, Filmmakers: Here's How to Show Online Conversations on Film

We all communicate online every day, yet most films try to avoid this. After all, it’s hard to find interesting visual ways to show people communicating via digital screens. So when I was preparing to shoot my new film “Windscreenwiperman” about a man who makes friends with a teenage boy online, I knew this would be my biggest challenge. 

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The film explores the stigma around online friendships, and presents an alternative perspective on human connection in the digital age, so it was crucial to prioritize naturalistic performances and unbroken takes. But because it features lots of scenes with characters chatting online, I couldn’t shoot it like a normal movie. I needed a radical new approach. 

As I started researching, I found that there have been several key styles attempted in the past few years…

Embracing visual dazzle

David Fincher’s main visual approach for spicing up the computer-based scenes in “The Social Network” was to use unusual and dazzling compositions. For example, he used a bird’s-eye view of fingers typing, gorgeous shots of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) looking focused and extreme close-ups of key text on the screen to condense the epic task of coding Facebook 1.0 into an intense, thrilling montage.

He enhanced such sequences by intercutting “real world” scenes to evoke thematic contrasts, and lit it all with a color temperature that made the computer screens pop. However, when it comes to showing full conversations between multiple characters online, montages aren’t an option, and simply cutting between “cool shots” can quickly become repetitive. What’s more, if you have to cut between the screen and the reaction for every line of dialogue, the performances get interrupted, and the connection between the characters suffers.

Overlaying text and graphics on screen

TV shows such as “Sherlock” and “House Of Cards” manage to keep digital dialogue and character reactions in the same shot by carefully designing setups to leave space for onscreen text – but as the brilliant web-series Every Frame A Painting pointed out, this requires very tasteful design to avoid looking tacky and quickly becoming dated. 

Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” actually overlays elements from the characters’ screens on the film plane itself, which is a very clever solution for showing a single character hesitating over a single action, but is less effective for showing multiple characters interacting.

Focusing on one character

In “Her,” Spike Jonze kept his camera trained on Joaquin Phoenix, with Scarlett Johansson’s digital love-interest heard rather than seen. Indeed, for their memorable sex scene, the screen went completely black. However, while this worked brilliantly for that character dynamic, most of us don’t spend our lives falling in love with our operating system. We talk to other human beings over email, text messages and social media, sometimes for hours on end. This is what we needed to explore in “Windscreenwiperman” and our solution came when the Director of Photography (Lukas Demgenski) and I realized we could actually go inside the screen.

Screen-capture

“Windscreenwiperman” begins with the main character following an internet rabbit hole which leads him to trying out Chat Roulette. The idea of surfing from one website to another is something we all experience every day, but has never been so well captured as in the seminal short film “Noah” (which tells the story of a break-up using only screen-capture footage). I loved the idea that you could get to know a character purely through their mouse movements, before you’ve even properly seen them, and hoped that aligning viewers with our main character’s cursor would help to keep them sympathetic as he begins to make friends with a teenage boy. We also chose to stay in his perspective when he starts Skyping with the boy, which meant keeping our main character tiny in the corner of the frame for one long four minute scene – but ultimately, showing the audience exactly what he sees helped to make his complex decisions more relatable.

Split-screen

Once we were inside the computer screen, I realized we could design interesting setups to combine several of these techniques. For example, in one scene, we go inside the computer and use split-screen to show both webcams. One character talks aloud whilst the other types his responses into a text-box. By presenting information in four different ways, all within a single unbroken shot, the viewer’s eyes can dart around, focusing on different reactions as they choose.

Shooting with webcams

Once we’d decided to spend half of the film inside the computer, it made sense to shoot those scenes using real laptop webcams and iPhones. These were often lit with nothing more than an iPad, rigged up to throw a blue glow on the actor’s face. Shooting on a webcam did feel strange, especially as we had an ARRI Alexa available, but our goal was authenticity, and once we’d settled on our visual style, I knew it was the right choice. The actors loved shooting this way, and it allowed me to have the uninterrupted, naturalistic takes I wanted. It brought out the human side of the technology, so even though it’s about the internet, people have said it reminds them more of films by Richard Linklater or Noah Baumbach.

These techniques were right for “Windscreenwiperman,” but every film is different. I can’t wait to see what new visual styles emerge over the next few years, as more and more of our social interactions move online. Do you have ideas for other ways to show digital conversations on film? Please post them in the comments section below.

Sam Baron’s previous short films have over 4.5 million hits online, and he recently won the Academy’s Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. “Windscreenwiperman” is available to view on Vimeo, where it is a Staff Pick.

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