You probably don’t think too much about the screens you see in your favorite movies, but they’re filling a very specific role.

Think back to all of your favorite movies and shows with scenes in a room full of screens. Did you notice those screens? Probably not. The screens that enhance the background of these films are the work of the computer playback supervisor.

How the Screens You See in Movies Enhance Realism — Computer Playback Supervisor
Image via Vox.

Vox recently interviewed Todd Marks, a longtime computer playback supervisor, to get an inside look into what goes into making these screens.

What Sells the Screens

How the Screens You See in Movies Enhance Realism — Selling the Screens
Image via Date Night (20th Century Fox).

When you’re inserting screens either on set or digitally, Marks says there are three things you have to make sure of: that they are  “Visually interesting, [that] they convey the message, and [that they are] overall plausible.”  This means that the screens have to have their place in reality wherever and whenever the movie or show takes place.

For example, Anchorman 2 , featuring some of Marks’s work, takes place in one of the world’s first 24-hour news stations. This means that we’ve got screens all over  the background. But the information on those screens has to be period-appropriate — and that information has to come from someone like Marks. So, in comes the research portion of the job: what did screens look like at the time? What visual tells do these media have that we can recreate?

How the Screens You See in Movies Enhance Realism — Background Screens
Image via Anchorman 2 (Paramount).

Marks and his team actually recorded some footage themselves because this was the easiest way to create the look of the ’80s. They had full visual control over the background imagery without reverting to archival footage.

Another challenge that computer playback supervisors face is getting the timing right. Does the scene take place before the anchors go on air? Then the screens wouldn’t have live footage — they would be displaying “off air” symbols or countdown sequences.

How the Screens You See in Movies Enhance Realism — Timing
Image via Steve Jobs (Universal).

The amount of detail that goes into these background scenes is absolutely necessary because when a viewer sees something in the background and it feels “off,” it can ruin their immersion in the story. Take crime shows for example: anyone with a basic knowledge of computers knows that the “enhance” feature on a computer would not be able to zoom in on a mirror’s reflection of a different house. (See below.)

Digital Burn-Ins vs. On-Set Screens

How the Screens You See in Movies Enhance Realism — Digital vs On-set
Image via The Change-Up (Universal).

So there are two schools of creating screens: digital burn-ins (adding the screen in post-production) and actual screens on set.

Digital burn-ins have their place. They are super versatile, and filmmakers can alter their footage at any moment in post. If you want to check out how digital screen replacements, watch our video on the subject:

There are a few downsides to digital burn-ins, though. For one, your actors are at a huge disadvantage when trying to act along with a green screen. When they have a physical screen that’s displaying information that they can react to, the acting can seem much more genuine.

But don’t worry: if you do record with physical screens, you can always digitally burn-in screens later to mask the real one if there’s a problem.

Cover image via The Net (Columbia Pictures).

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