It’s not really surprising that most things in films are faked

Last Friday, The Guardian ran a blog post about the programming code that appears on-screen in films and TV programmes when the creators are trying to make a scene involving “computer stuff” visually interesting. You know the kind of thing – lots of scrolling text, figures and arcane symbols, probably with some unnecessarily dramatic music orgasming away to itself in the background. The Guardian‘s post was brazenly stolen from drawing attention to a Tumblr, set up by a computer programmer with a sense of humour and some spare time on his hands, which looks at screenshots from these films and TV shows, and tries to identify the code that features in them. It turns out, for example, that some of the text overlaid on the Terminator’s heads-up display is assembly code from an Apple II, and that The Doctor once spent time musing over what you’d get if you clicked ‘View source’ over a Wikipedia page.

I don’t have a problem with the Tumblr or, in general terms, with the Guardian blog based upon it. It’s light-hearted, amusing, and an impressively geeky achievement. The Tumblr reminds me in some ways of a train forum I sometimes hang around, where discussions of railways as they appear in films and TV shows will always be filled with people pointing out such inconsistencies as showing a particular class of railway vehicle in a part of the country where it has never operated. It’s that same keen attention to detail that most people miss, coupled with a desire to point out the goof to other people so they can enjoy it, too.

Where I do begin to have a problem is with an apparent opinion of the man who set up the Tumblr, as it’s ascribed to him by The Guardian‘s journalist:

[John] Graham-Cumming finds it surprising, though, that these details, which might be central to a plotline, are rarely given more thought and attention by directors

Is he really surprised, I wonder? Because I must say that to me – as a non-programmer* – it seems not at all surprising that it’s faked.

I mean, for a start, what should be displayed on the heads-up display of a Terminator? This is, after all, a fictional machine from a technologically advanced future – even the most ‘plausible’ contemporary code is going to be nothing like the code that would actually be used. And there are also, I’d have thought, pretty serious question marks over how ‘plausible’ any code could be, since it would have to be code to do things we don’t know how to do yet. (If Mr Graham-Cumming knows how to program a Terminator, it’s fair to say that he’s been keeping that very close to his chest.)

Then there’s the question of why any director would spend time, and therefore money, ensuring such fine-grained accuracy. I mean, this isn’t the kind of detail – like an anachronistic fabric in a historical film – that can be spotted by a suitably knowledgeable person as they watch in the ordinary way. Even an avowed expert has to freeze the film and take to google in order to know whether the code is plausible or not.

I also wonder if, even when they find it is implausible, that discovery interferes with their viewing pleasure. Has anybody ever thought that an episode of Doctor Who is ruined because it features some dodgy computer code? If so, they must have curiously specific tolerances for implausibility. I mean, isn’t it a little odd to quietly accept a lead character capable of spontaneously transferring his consciousness into a new brain, and a machine able to travel at will throughout space and time (both things that are inconsistent with the known properties of the universe), but to draw the line at some code cribbed from Wikipedia?

And why would anyone be surprised that the computer code that appears on screen in TV shows and films is faked, when almost everything you see on screen is? I mean, take all those times you see characters on screen take a drink from an opaque cup. They’re totally faked, because the cup’s actually empty. If you pay attention, you’ll see just how many actors mess up – either they sip and then speak without swallowing, or they wave the cup round such that any liquid in it would slop out. Of course, almost no-one does watch for these kinds of details.

Then, too, almost every scene that shows the characters getting drunk – even when their getting drunk is absolutely critical to the plot – doesn’t actually involve alcohol. The drinks they swallow are designed to look enough like alcoholic drinks to pass muster, but they’re actually not; usually it’s just water mixed with edible dye, so the actors don’t actually get drunk and start forgetting their words. The same goes for food. It’s faked up to look good on screen, at the expense of not actually being edible. Or, if it has to be eaten on screen, it’s faked up with ingredients that aren’t actually poisonous, but still taste foul – gravy browning painted onto your slice of fruitcake to give it a nice dark-baked colour, anyone?

It’s not just food and drink. Shower scenes are commonplace – usually when somebody decides a bit of softcore nudity is ‘artistically justified’ by the need to goose the ratings. Typically they’ll show the character luxuriating in the steamy warmth. Except that you can’t have steam when you’re filming, because it mists up the lenses of the cameras. So the actors are actually ‘luxuriating’ in water that’s at best room temperature, and the ‘steam’ is actually smoke wafted onto set. That’s another one that’s obvious if you know what to look for – the ‘steam’ not rising up from the water, but billowing in from the side, or from immediately above or below the camera.

Or take a scene set in a car. Plenty of times – especially if it’s a long scene, or the director doesn’t want to film with locked-off cameras – the characters won’t actually be in a roadworthy vehicle. They’ll be in a car that has had everything in front of the windscreen and dashboard, and everything behind the front seats, taken off so that the cameras can get in close to the actors. Or one whole side of the car will be removed, so that the director of photography can get a more interesting angle than she could get just shooting through the window. Very often the vehicle isn’t actually being driven, even though the actor makes it look like it is – it’s being towed through the streets on an ultra-low trailer, or the backdrop of moving streets is added in digitally in post-production. Again, this kind of fakery is obvious if you want to see it. Look for cars that mysteriously never pass over any bumps in the road, and scenes shot through car ‘windows’ in bright sunlight, where the sunlight doesn’t reflect from the glass.

Of course it’s not just cars. Whole houses and office buildings are faked, too – either built to super-human scale, so there’s room for equipment and a camera crew, or only part built, so that the apparently complete bedroom you see on screen only actually has two walls and a floor. And, almost always, no ceiling because, of course, they need to hang the lights up there. That’s another one that’s very obvious, if you’re looking. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen Alicia Florrick in a room with a ceiling, and most of them will have been scenes shot on location.

Well, I could keep at this for a while, but you take my point. A ‘car’ in a film has to look enough like a car to convince a casual viewer, but that doesn’t mean that if you study it in detail it will remain convincing. That’s because it’s not actually a car that you would use to get from A to B, it’s just a thing that looks enough like a car to fool most people. As with cars, so with computer code. The code that appears on screen isn’t supposed to be actual, functional code, it’s supposed to look enough like code that it will convince a casual viewer. And since even experts have to take screengrabs and resort to google to find the ‘howlers’ (as The Guardian describes them) in on-screen code, I’d say that it passes the relevant test with flying colours.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the Tumblr, or with people who look for this kind of thing in films and TV shows. It’s amusing to know The Doctor gets his kicks looking at the source code for Wikipedia pages, and to realise that a robot from the supposedly sophisticated future is running code from an already-obsolete computer. I applaud geekery and attention to detail in all its forms, and I approve of the blog. The problem is with implying that there is something surprising in anything that appears on screen turning out to be fake, or that film-makers are abjectly careless if they don’t make sure that the computer code they show on-screen stands up to detailed, freeze-frame analysis by experts in the field.

Of course Doctor Who and Terminator are faked. They’re fictional, and fictional is another word for fake. It makes no more sense to be ‘surprised’ that the computer code in a film is fake than it does to be ‘surprised’ that Matt Smith doesn’t have two hearts, or to be ‘surprised’ that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t really a near-indestructible robot. None of these things is in the least bit surprising. They’re precisely what you’d expect to discover, unless you’re astonishingly naïve.

* – Actually, I used to write very basic (and BASIC) programs for my ZX81 when I was a kid. And I was in computer club at school, where I spent a number of my lunchtimes helping to write a text-based RPG on a BBC B, until mental illness intervened and took me out of school for ~2 years. And, as an adult, I at one time knew enough JavaScript to take over ongoing development of a little tool that we used at one of my places of work when the man who’d built it in the first place left. But none of that changes the fact that I am in essence a non-programmer.

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