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Computer Screens in Movies

Photography: Dale Gillard

After reading an article on Film UI Bloopers I really wondered what goes through the minds of a movie screen maker when they design their computer interfaces for movies? I wanted to go behind the scenes to find out what makes these software genies tick and why computers for movies are often designed with unrealistic user interfaces (UI’s), opposed to the real thing.

A typical example is Jack Bauer’s PDA from the popular series 24. Magically, he is always able to download anything directly to his PDA without having to use complicated conversion software or tools. In real life, applications aren’t always as straight forward than in the movies. Especially between the various operating systems on the market today. Movies often use unrealistic tools which we of the normal kind would love to own but probably never see launched in our lifetime.

To find out I went undercover and to see what I found, please read on.

Interview with two industry experts

I wanted to find out why we keep seeing fancy gadgets (think Bond 007) and not the stuff people use every day. I was lucky enough to be granted permission from two highly qualified industry specialists who were kind enough to answer my questions.

Rory Hinds, Director of Mine Films in London, UK and Canada.

1.) What is the primary reason to design movie computer screen UI’s that seem easy to use on screen, even though the actor in the movie is a total computer novice?

Computer screens for films need to be help the story progress and inform the viewer of what is going on. The design is slick and futuristic, yet simplistic enough for the viewer at home to follow what is going on.

2.) Is it important to stay true to reality in movie computer screen design? If yes, how come time travelers can seemingly morph into current technologies without the need to brush up on their skills?

Films need to be believable yet explore the imagination. Most people know how computers function so if the computer screen design is too out there it becomes unbelievable and you loose the audience. It wouldn’t make much of a film if the hero had computer problems as basic as not knowing how to use the mouse, it would maybe make a great comedy.

3.) Many movies feature extensive 3D data visualizations but they never make it to conventional computer designs. Why?

With films you get to wow the audience and be very creative. 3D animation is a big part of films these days and its a lot easier to design an animation for a film, than to develop a piece of software to be used as a everyday tool. With film-making you have no limitations of the working world, as long as it looks good and helps the story, you can get away with pretty much anything.

To design and develop a real world interface is very costly and it has to be cost effective to sell to a mass audience. The mouse must be the cheapest computer interface device which is on every computer in the world.

4.) Please explain (in your eyes) the need to display the message “access granted” in movie scenes from the perspective of movie computer screen designers instead of moving smoothly to the next step in the process.

Access Granted or Access Denied tells the audience that the hero has encountered a problem they need to solve, showing their skill when they do solve it and gain access. This onscreen message creates tension and the viewer can follow what the hero is doing.

5.) Could you please finish this sentence for me: the driving force behind a movie computer screen design is…?

The driving force behind a movie computer screen design is storytelling and eye candy.

Derek Frederickson, Multimedia Designer, Art Director of Twisted Media, Chicago, U.S.A.

1.) What are the reasons for enlarging text on movie computer UI’s?

Readability; rarely is the computer screen full frame so you have to draw the viewer’s eye in immediately regardless of whether or not this would happen in real life. It’s the movies after all…

2.) How hard is it really to produce voice operated computers for mass consumption?

It’s not! I wish my iPhone had voice recognition like my old (and much hated) Windows Mobile-based smart phone. I miss being able to say, “Dial Spielberg”. Kidding. But certain things are nice to have as voice-operated functions…especially when piloting a star ship or driving a car.

3.) We were all extremely jealous when we saw 007 use his Ericsson mobile phone in the movie Tomorrow Never Dies to drive his BMW. What is your take in the reality of such a tool and its user friendliness in real life?

My iPhone now controls iTunes on my computer. The capability is already here…

4.) Do movie computer screen designers purposely feed us unrealistic information by having 12 year old kids dismantle a Unix system like in the movie Jurassic Park movie?

Of course! The main problem is that there isn’t screen time to show the kid figuring out how to use the GUI…or hacking in (not that this is particularly realistic with the security employed these days) so you just have to make the ‘suspension of disbelief’ as minimal as possible, while still keeping the story moving.

5.) Could you please finish this sentence for me: the driving force behind a movie computer screen design is…?

Make it cool. Make it something you’ll see Apple come out with in 10 years.

In closing

Now that we have the insiders take on what is going on in movie screen design and why, we will hopefully understand the reasons a little bit better. Once again, thank you to Derek and Rory for being so generous to take some time and answer my questions. I think both of you have gone the extra mile and really help us understand the working process a lot better. Next time I’m going to the movies I’ll look at computers from a different point of view.


  1. Rick Wolff Says:

    Then there's the working of the photographic miracle. On TV, especially on the shows of the CSI franchise, a few dozen keystrokes (it's never a mouse click) are all you need to zoom into and rez-up the instructions on an aspirin bottle as reflected in the sunglasses of a guy across the street from an ATM with a video camera! As a long-time Photoshop practitioner, I laugh every time. The one time where this was done acceptably well was in the Kevin Costner spy thriller "Nowhere to Run", where a photo processing took about 24 hours, which at the time was about the going rate. The slowness of the process added to the suspense, of course.

  2. Scott Cleggett Says:

    I know this is an old post but if anyone sees this, could you help out?
    I'm working on making a bit of a 24 style movie, just for fun, and I'm including a CTU. For UIs and screen shots, etc., I'm just going to use tech looking things like command prompt, random javascript or whatever. If anyone knows of any websites/ideas or whatever I could use to display cool-looking software on the screens I would be very grateful. Contact me at [email protected]
    Thanks in advance 🙂

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