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3 min read

How digital aesthetics have changed the movies

Film tends to lag behind the online world with awkward representations of the web. Now, production designers are changing that.

An illustration of a cinema camera projecting a ray of light, showing a digital interface with multiple screen

Illustration by Anita Goldstein and Vered Bloch

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For years, the humble text message confounded Hollywood. Even as the world started sending trillions of texts every month, filmmakers still found themselves tripping over how to depict messages on screen. The first attempts to depict text messages in films like 2014’s Non-Stop were clumsy, with words popping up around a character in a cheesy, graceless way of conveying key information.

But whatever nerves filmmakers had about putting our increasingly digitized and interconnected lives onscreen have been banished. The technique of simply slapping text on a screen has been left behind, giving way to an aesthetic that more naturally integrates everything from social media to memes into film.

The influence of internet design can readily be seen in everything from prestige television — Killing Eve brought in legendary design firm Pentagram to design its bold, unmistakably modern typeface often used to denote a scene’s geography — to big ticket feature releases like Nerve (2016) and Ingrid Goes West (2017), films that put the power of social media on display narratively as well as aesthetically. Even one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, the feminist revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, goes so far as to transform the humble text message UI into something into something reflective of its own aesthetic inspirations. (Emerald Fennell, the movie’s writer, director, and producer, is also an executive producer and writer for Killing Eve.)

The web as a hodgepodge of visual influences

“Color, texture, lines — these have been used in the theater for thousands of years,” says Michael Perry, Promising Young Woman’s production designer. “Film has only been using them for about a century. The internet, barely a blink in the grand scheme of things. Aesthetics there can still be pushed in any direction.”

Perry is among the new vanguard readily embracing internet aesthetics. His work on one of this year’s buzziest films nods to nostalgia and the web in equal parts, and Perry credits early talks with the film’s writer-director Emerald Fennell that around a mood board bearing a greater-than-usual similarity to its distant cousins on Pinterest. Fennell had taken an interest in one of Perry’s best known projects, the 90’s television show Sweet Valley High, as an inspiration for her thriller and tapped Perry as a production designer that could bring that nostalgic aesthetic to life. “When I did Sweet Valley High, web design was just starting to take off, and it does seem to me like there’s been a back-and-forth,” Perry says. “A lot of web design tries to evoke period-specific movements… There’s nostalgia in the style of the web.”

A mood board with a collection of visual inspiration against a pink background
Some of the visual inspiration and research for the film Promising Young Woman.

Perry has also been in the industry long enough to have witnessed the rotations of influence that come to dominate film aesthetics — including how his own work has been digested and re-processed through filters of irony and nostalgia, which could very well describe modern digital design. When Perry and Fennell created the set for Promising Young Woman it was awash with an electric-charged rainbow color palette and girly-girl imagery to create a backdrop that was sinisterly reminiscent of those 90s teen dramas.

Perry and a handful of his peers are staking out the edge of a new breed of plugged-in cinema, adapted to a time when web literacy is second nature. Beyond simulating the internet with accuracy that is miles ahead of the text bubble designs that sullied screens less than a decade ago, each production designer is also absorbing and synthesizing online reference points into something fully their own. There’s no mistaking the power of digital aesthetics in film anymore, and you don’t need a text box slapped across the screen to tell you why.