Hollywood's Computers: Telling A Story In A Flash Ever wonder why the computer screens in movies look nothing like the one sitting on your desk? The guy who makes those screens says that's because movie computers aren't designed to surf the Net or balance your checkbook.

Hollywood's Computers: Telling A Story In A Flash

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GUY RAZ, host:

So, here's the scene: there is a man or a woman hunched over a keyboard tapping in codes and commands, maybe to steal some sensitive information or hack into a government database. And then, inevitably, a message flashes right up on the computer monitor:

(Soundbite of beeping)

RAZ: Access denied. This movie scene is such a cliche it's practically expected in every thriller or action film. And yet if you look at those sophisticated computer interfaces in films like "Mission Impossible" or "The Bourne Identity," well, they don't really resemble anything that exists in the real world.

Our producer, Petra Mayer, has been digging around trying to find out why what you see on a movie screen looks nothing like what you've got on your computer at home.

And, Petra, what did you find?

PETRA MAYER: Well, I found a guy called Mark Coleran, and he's a visual interface designer. And he's one of the guys that thinks up those computer screens that you see in movies. And so what he told me is when you see that big red access denied and it's flashing and it's blinking, the idea for that actually comes from video games, and it all goes back to the '80s. So, do you remember "WarGames?"

RAZ: With Matthew Broderick, right.

MAYER: Mm-hmm. Exactly. And that came out in 1983. And you have to remember back then not everybody had a computer at home. They weren't all that familiar with what computer screens looked like. But what Mark Coleran told me is they did know about video games.

Mr. MARK COLERAN (Visual Interface Designer): So, that's where design cues came from, games. So, it's like the game over thing is a big word that splashes across the screen and tells you exactly what is, you know, happening. And that is the whole point of those things, is, you know, is to tell a story. How do you tell somebody in two seconds on screen that they can't get into that thing?

RAZ: By putting access denied on the computer screen.

MAYER: Exactly.

RAZ: Now, Mark Coleran, we should say, did not work on "WarGames," right?

MAYER: No. I think that was a little before his time.

RAZ: Okay. So, what movies has he worked on?

MAYER: A ton of blockbusters - "The Bourne Identity," "Tomb Raider," "Mission: Impossible 3," "Children of Men," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

RAZ: Wow.

MAYER: Have you ever seen the last Bourne movie, "The Bourne Ultimatum"?

RAZ: Yeah.

MAYER: Right. So, there's a scene where Matt Damon is in London and he's trying to meet a reporter at Waterloo Station.

RAZ: Right. Matt Damon's a CIA agent. They're trying to kill him.

MAYER: Um-hum, right. So, he and this reporter are on the run from CIA assassins in the middle of Waterloo Station.

RAZ: Right. And there's a shot of CIA operatives, like, you know, watching him on a surveillance feed.

MAYER: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Bourne Ultimatum")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Give me all of CCTV's eyes.

MAYER: So, you hear right there the head CIA guy is saying, you know, get me the surveillance video from the station. And the technicians are clicking, clicking, clicking, and then there it is, it's on their monitor screens.

So, what's actually happening is, you know, those technicians, they're actors, right? They're just clicking away on dummy keyboards. They're not connected to anything. And Mark Coleran and a bunch of guys like him are sitting off the set and they're - what they're doing is when a CIA guy says get me that video, he just presses a button on his computer and, beep, there it is on screen.

Mr. COLERAN: So, it looks like they're interacting with the device but what is actually happening is we're watching them do what they do and we have ways of controlling it and firing it off and cueing it up. So, it looks like they're doing stuff in real time.

RAZ: Now, a minute ago, Petra, you mentioned that Mark Coleran worked on that film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They play a married couple who are both assassins, right?

MAYER: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And there's a scene, I remember, in that film where Brad Pitt's computer pops up and it is the most ridiculous computer I have ever seen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith")

Unidentified Woman: Hello, John.

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (as John Smith) Morning, Blair(ph).

RAZ: It's got this sort of triple panel monitor, rises out of his desk, speaks to him. I covered the Pentagon, Petra. I've been to Northern Command. I've seen some pretty cool computers but this is just so over the top. I mean, all these mini-windows, real-time views, graphics.

MAYER: Yeah. But, you know, you'd be surprised how many of these things actually end up on the market at some point. I mean, Mark Coleran told me, you know, he's looking at video games but he's also looking at prototypes from companies like Microsoft and, you know, things that are going on in university software labs. And occasionally, something will end up on the market that looks like an awful lot like, you know, something that he designed for a movie.

RAZ: Like what?

MAYER: Do you remember that movie "The Island" with Ewan McGregor?

RAZ: Yeah.

MAYER: Yeah. It came out a couple of years ago. Mark Coleran designed a tabletop, sort of a touch screen interactive table top screen. And a few months later, Microsoft came out with this thing called the Surface Computer.

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

MAYER: Yeah. Which was pretty much the same thing. So, you know, you never know. One of these days you might end up with as fancy a set up as Brad Pitt.

RAZ: That's our producer, Petra Mayer.

Petra, thanks.

MAYER: You're welcome.

RAZ: And you can see a slideshow of some of Mark Coleran's famous movie computer screens at our Web site. That's npr.org.

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