Viewer as Director: The Mise-en-Scene of the Computer Screen

by Jason Suzuki

The viewer has always had the freedom of looking where they want. Any portion of the frame is fair game; attention could even lead a gaze to wander off the screen to someone in the theater, the message on your phone, or some other distraction. But how does a film control, if it does at all, where the viewer is going to look? Do we look towards a master like Hitchcock who easily directed our attention towards objects or people, even if they are purposeful misleadings, or should we look to another master like Tati, whose crowded mise-en-scene allowed for various findings and required multiple viewings? But even Tati wasn’t above directing our attention to parts of the frame: in PlayTime (1967) the sound of a dropped umbrella directs our attention to a (fake?) Hulot at the Orly airport and Barbara’s green dress stands out in the almost monochromatic color scheme of the film’s Paris. Mike Figgis’ brilliant Timecode (2000) divided the frame into four quadrants each focusing on a specific part of stories that intertwine. While all four quadrants are always visible the sound from each one fluctuates in volume, sometimes favoring one quadrant while sometimes letting them all bleed into one another, in other words sound is used again to direct attention in an otherwise “freed attention” space.

A recent style of film has emerged which in theory could give the viewer more power to direct their own experience than ever before. A film that takes place on a computer screen has this potential for a dense frame containing multiple focal points, but beyond that allows for different ways to relay character information and subtleties. While certain films and even TV shows have dabbled in this format there are three films and two short films that take place in its entirety on a computer screen, they all lead up to Unfriended which I believe has set the current standard for what can be accomplished with this form of storytelling, both in terms of visuals and how it conveys things about characters. The works that will be discussed will fall into a few different categories but first a simple format categorization: feature length films (The Den, Open Windows, and Unfriended), short films (“Noah” and Joe Swanberg’s segment of V/H/S “The Strange Thing that Happened to Emily When She Younger”), and an episode from a popular TV show (Modern Family’s “Connection Lost”).

Among these works we will now separate them into two categories as to how information is presented. While they all take place exclusively on a computer screen, the way in which they do this is different yet two basic types of execution can be found: the Full Screen Mode, in which the entire screen is visible at all times or in other words, there is a 1:1 ratio between the frame of the film and that of the computer screen we are watching the story unfold within, and the Eye Tracking Mode, in which we get a roaming, zoomed in view of the screen, usually in order to simulate where the protagonist is placing their attention, hardly ever seeing the entire screen if at all. The Den, Unfriended, and “The Strange Thing that Happened to Emily When She Younger” are all in the Full Screen Mode set while Open Windows, “Noah,” and “Connection Lost” are in the Eye Tracking set with Open Windows differentiating itself within the group by whose view we are being given access to, but more on that later.

The full screen mode of Unfriended.

The zoomed in, eye tracking mode of Open Windows.

Despite whether we are being given a full screen or having our view be led by a magnified image, the PC screen gimmick lends itself to stories being presented in real time as can be seen in Open Windows and Unfriended. Even “Connection Lost” lets its episode play out in real time for the most part. The jump-cut heavy, almost montage collection of scenes style is able to be executed using the form. But it’s this call for stories to unfold in real time that hints at the amount of planning that must be done to properly begin to explore the potential.

The stories of the PC screen are essentially chamber pieces as there is a physical containment of the story, the user of the computer. There are still possibilities allowed by incorporation of the internet, making them more chamber pieces with infinite links to other chambers. Characters can drop in and out thanks to Skype and Chatroulette, something that all of the works discussed utilizes. Open Windows doesn’t let the technology limit where the character, and his computer, go physically. An internet connection that requires as little wi-fi spots as much as it does suspension of disbelief allows Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood) to go out into his car, along with his laptop, which is the true center of the film as without out it we could not be given the story. 

In Open Windows not only do we see a scene from multiple angles but also the various parties who are having an effect on the action.

It must be noted that of the six examples of this type of film, four of them would be classified as works of genre. The potential to create suspense is obviously utilized in Open Windows and in the use of a pop-up message or blank window sitting in the corner of the frame in Unfriended. Even the minimal desktop background of the computer user character in Swanberg’s short allows us to focus on the only folder there, which is named Emily, and therefore hints at possible sinister qualities her boyfriend may have. Beyond the potential for interesting ways to create suspense, in some ways similar to De Palma’s use of the splitscreen in films like Sisters as well as the ticking bomb/music video shoot sequence in Phantom of the Paradise, the computer screen film has great potential for drama, both mundane and melodramatic.

A folder named "Emily" barely covered by the video feed Emily herself suggests sinister ulterior motives of her boyfriend whose computer screen we are looking at.

The distortion of Emily's video chat connection creates an interesting and subtle foreshadowing of her fate,

Looking at the opening scene of Unfriended, in which Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) have a private conversation over Skype. We see the following frame:

In interviews Levan Gabriadze, Nelson Greaves, and Jason Blum (director, writer, and producer respectively) have stated how they wanted to see how long they could go without anything scary happening. After watching a Youtube video of her fiend Laura who was bullied to suicide, she has this Skype conversation in which both participants in the conversation are always visible; shot-reverse-shot can be mentally edited on one’s own or you can purely focus on one character ignoring the other. The clutter of photos in the top right corner of Blaire’s desktop can also be a point of interest. So while the frame is open for various paths of viewing, it pales in comparison to a moment later in the film:

Now we have many more potential focal points. The most obvious being Val, who appears frozen in a timed out connection. Her window being the biggest out of all. We also have all the other principle characters, the mysterious user with just the default Skype user pic providing a constant reminder of tension, as well as the message Blaire receives from the ghost that lingers below all the action, commenting on it. Immediately following this moment is another that raises the frame density yet again (see next page): Blaire searches for both meanings of police codes and where she heard that Val suffers from seizures. In the center frame we see Val’s place as the police have arrived. We get the other characters not only near the bottom of the overall frame but their cams alternate in the top right corner. And finally, a pop-up stating a new app is available may seem innocuous at first but to the careful viewer it should hold attention as the next supernatural attack.

Robert Zemeckis said, “Generally speaking, in blocking and faming a shot, the most important thing is to make sure the audience is looking where you want them to look.” With the computer screen though, there are two levels of blocking: the blocking of the windows within the frame and the blocking within each individual window. Each window can be blocked in the usual way to achieve most direct attention but if there are seven similarly blocked windows it’s not so easy to get the audience looking where you want them to look. This realization allows for this open space and the established film grammar is knocked down by the loss of viewer control, but also the film grammar is multiplied by how blocking and framing need to happen on multiple levels simultaneously. 

Moving beyond pure mise-en-scene discussion, Unfriended, for all its genre trappings and critical ridicule fueled by the film’s setting of a computer screen, feels refreshing in so many ways, most of all in the way it uses the frame but also how it treats the internet. Upon its release Unfriended stood in the shadow of The Den (2013), which was the go-to film for Unfriended naysayers thanks to both sharing a genre in horror. Even a film like Cam2Cam (2014) which features only seconds at a time of purely computer screen frame were mentioned in discussions of Unfriended’s lack of relevance/innovation despite the film actually sporting a much more interesting and cynical position. While films like Cam2Cam and The Den treat the internet as a scary, dangerous place disguised as a new frontier for social interaction thanks to the creeps who may be lurking in its corners, Unfriended says something less reactionary and exploitative: that the anonymity provided by the net has turned us all into monsters. When your final girl character turns out to be the most horrible person in the film, you are presenting an incredibly bleak view of youth culture. But beyond that the film has been read as a cautionary tale for the effects cyber bullying can have on an individual. A much more realistic premise than the underground fetish cult terrorizing the protagonist of The Den, whose main reason for frequenting a Chatroullette-esque site is for a research project for a board of education. People scoffed at the supernatural aspects of Unfriended but found this plausible.

For all the fear these films have of the computer as tool for the hacker voyeur, Unfriended goes a step further, in what’s now become a classic tradition: the audience as voyeur. We see every tab, every typed message, sent or not. The open nature of what we can choose to focus on at the same time makes us implicit. This participation has in a way foregrounded the density of the frame: our choices in what we see, and implications of what we see. This is much more than hunching over someone’s shoulder while they browse the web. A majority of these films take privacy as main issue, the irony being we are intruding on someone’s privacy when we watch, almost more so than your typical film as now the way a person uses their computer and what they look at is what’s personal in this day and age. And while we’re on the topic of the viewer as voyeur, there comes a point in Open Windows, most likely when we see through Nick Chamber’s webcam that he is looking away from his computer, yet we are still watching, and even still moving around the screen to other programs’ windows. Vigalondo’s highly calculated film is now Hitchcockian, he controls what we see aligning our attention with that of a character or taking more of a directorial function and guiding us. What’s amazing about the format though is that even though our attention is being guided, the frame is still packed with multiple goings on, and following someone’s else’s train of sight can be just as visually stimulating as seen in the first half of short film, “Noah” in which the rapid eye tracking replicates both the clichéd teenager’s attention span [In the eye tracking style, the joke of wandering attention is done in both "Noah" and "Connection Lost" (interestingly both to porn, organizational porn in the case of Modern Family's Claire Dunphy character)] as well as Noah’s frantic mood when he suspects his girlfriend is going to break up with him. Which moves us into the realm of how character is handled through the PC screen.

The way we are allowed to see all the revisions an instant message can go through before it is sent is also a device in service to character executed extremely well by “Noah” and Unfriended. A non-PC screen film could accomplish a similar effect through the use of voice over: we hear the character playing with what could be said before we hear what they will finally say. This method lacks in the potential subtlety that typed/backspaced text provides where even a misspelled word or use of punctuation could provide insight to a character or their current state without needing to see or hear them.

Noah hesitates before sending this message after logging onto his girlfriend's Facebook account. We see his knee-jerk reaction to his suspicions before following through on a different knee-jerk reaction more devastating to his relationship.

During the search for Hayley, her profile and more importantly profile picture remains in the frame as multiple characters discuss her potential whereabouts. 

Seeing a character’s open tabs or their bookmarks is also an easy way to quickly relate character to anyone who wants to scope out that info. Something as simple as Blaire’s tab for MTV’s “Teen Wolf” (also an inside joke as actress Hennig is on the show) functions in the exact same way a poster in a character’s bedroom or a t-shirt they wear does in terms of helping us get a sense of the character through their interests. 

There is a parallel to be drawn, possibly a small one, to the change in shot composition that occurred following the implementation of CinemaScope and similar widescreen processes. While CinemaScope was a wider format, it didn’t have a very big depth of field as compared to earlier films shot in academy ratio. So while there was the ability to still have a dense frame if you keep all players/objects clotheslined in the same area of depth, focus does have an effect on what the viewer will look at. If everything is in focus, the options can be overwhelming. In the computer screen film there is much opportunity to divert from the close-up heavy trends of current filmmaking and create dense frames that give us more information than we can handle. So while the second half of this piece turned into a defense of Unfriended, it’s because currently Open Windows and Unfriended stand as the prime examples of what can be done with the format, each belonging to a separate type of computer screen film but executing its mode in a way unique to itself. They are both films that see the potential and go for the most complicated way that format allows: multiple points of focus at all times, feature length stories set in real time, and embracing the fact that attention can wander [As there was nowhere else for this: in Unfriended, "Noah," and "Connection Lost" the score is diegetic as it is being played the protagonist on their iTunes playlist. A case of the character setting their own story's mood].

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift