Translating Text Messaging on the Big Screen

Since the dawn of mankind, we have been trying to connect with one another and tell stories through the use of a variety of mediums. We once painted figures on walls and carved battles and heroes on stone. Sound turned to work and, soon, languages. Our stories transformed to paper and to the stage.


Advancements in technology have rapidly progressed methods of communicating ideas, stories, and drama; and they are ever evolving. This dance between art and technology has persisted throughout the centuries. It is happening now with creative ways to accurately and entertainingly display the common world of text messaging. Our lives are inundated with text messaging every day and the art of depicting such real-world scenarios in film is no easy feat.

In earlier films, directors ignored the prospect of text messaging and showed a scene detailing how their phone mysteriously is outside coverage. Some filmmakers are experimenting with the idea and exploring ways to show text messages in film, but many leave the audience yawning in the translation.

Other filmmakers display a character reading text messages out-load as if that really happens. In the last four years, filmmakers have been displaying text messages on the screen; however, this can be a rather clunky. It’s seen in movies across Japan, Korea, in soap operas and in teen movies. By displaying so many text messages across the screen, filmmakers need dozens of shots of cell phones, break the action long enough to give the audience time to read what is being read, and often times in extremely large font. This method is rather expensive and time-consuming and often bores the viewer.

On screen texting allows action and reaction in real-time and an uninterrupted view of the actors’ performance. BBC’s Sherlock and Netflix’s House of Cards have created more elegant designs. Text messages pops up on screen next to the character without a nauseating scene switching back and forth. This is inexpensive in comparison to older methods and doesn’t require any additional shots. It’s also a timeless way to display the information, as anyone who’s watched a movie that used old brick phones displaying 72 point font can tell you. It also gives the filmmaker the ability to keep the viewers focused on the actor.

There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome. While the shows Sherlock and House of Cards are more innovative in displaying text messages than others, finding a better solution may be just around the corner. Regardless, displaying new technology on film is something that we’re going to be experimenting with for some time to come.

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