Zhou on Texting in Film and TV: On the Analysis of Local and Shared Problems

In a recent post, I argued that when trying to explain why movies look the way they do, it is vital to consider verifiable intentions and decisions. Filmmakers’ intentions, moment to moment decisions, goals and commitments–all of these lead to creative behaviors on the set, and these behaviors shape the final look of a film.

I also mentioned that filmmakers working on a film recognize and pose artistic problems, and devise solutions, and these solutions build to make up the final film itself.


I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent video Tony Zhou, of the wonderful site Every Frame a Painting, makes use of the concept of problem-solving to analyze how movies and TV shows visually represent texting and the internet. In this post, I’d like to consider the implications of his analysis.

So, what are the benefits of discussing filmmaking as a creative process of stating and solving problems?

Zhou makes some of the benefits clear when he says right at the start of his video analysis: “One of the reasons I like filmmaking is that sometimes you have to design a solution to a particular stumbling-block. For example, how do you show a text message in a film?

Zhou has this just right. From the cinephile’s or the historian’s standpoint, “problem-solving” can be a useful tool in appreciating and reverse engineering aspects of a work–in understanding the ways artists think, exercise volition and skill and above all, overcome hurdles in the creative process.

Let’s call this first beneficial aspect of the problem-solving approach the spotlight on local problems in a single film. Think about how many film critics tend to write about a movie. Very often, critics encourage us to see the movie as an “expression” of the personal vision of a filmmaker, suggesting that the highest form of appreciation one can grant a film is to acknowledge that it appears to have a single person’s way of understanding and making sense of the world behind it. These critics ask: how did the filmmaker express him or herself in this movie?

But is this the only way to appreciate the art of an individual film? It seems to me that problem-solving is a useful alternative to the “art-as-personal-expression” idea because it draws attention to, it encourages appreciation of, a richer variety of traits in the movies we love. Consider the Zhou video. If we only take notice of the “expressive” aspects of a film, then we ignore the artistry involved in its efficient and engaging use a wide range of visual and storytelling elements, like text messaging, which may or may not be a result of “personal expression.” In short, appreciating a film or episode of a TV show through the lens of local problems faced on the set brings to light the rich range of specific challenges artists face, and how they display their ingenuity in overcoming them. Not all artistry is reducible to expression.

Before moving on to a second benefit, let’s focus for a moment on a particular aspect of Zhou’s commentary: the idea of a problem as a stumbling-block. Films and TV shows aren’t the only art forms that pose problems. Art historians have long recognized the importance of overcoming stumbling blocks in the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture.


In his amazing book, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (1985), art historian Michael Baxandall writes this about the problems faced by painters and the historian’s responsibility in analyzing them:

There may be a danger of equivocation here. A ‘problem’–practical or geometrical or logical–is normally a state of affairs in which two things hold: something is to be done, and there is no purely habitual or simply reactive way of doing it. There is also the connotations of difficulty. But there is a difference between the sense of problem in the actor [i.e., the historical agent, like a filmmaker–CB] and in the observer [i.e., the critic, cinephile or historian]. The actor thinks of ‘problem’ when he is addressing a difficult task and consciously knows he must work out a way to do it. The observer thinks of ‘problem’ when he is watching someone’s purposeful behaviour and wishes to understand: ‘problem-solving’ is a construction he puts on other people’s purposeful activity. The intentional behaviour he is watching does not always involve an awareness in the actor of solving problems. Indeed, when the observer is of a different culture from the actor […] he may put the construction of problem-solving on behaviour that is habitual: the culture has taught the actor the trick of solving unreflectively a problem that he does not know exists. An attention to ‘problems’ in the observer, then, is really a habit of analysis in terms of ends and means. He puts a formal pattern on the object of his interest.” (pp. 69-70)

There is a lot to chew on here. In a sense, Baxandall is encouraging us to think ethically about the implications of applying the concept of problem-solving to the work of an artist. To begin with, the cinephile or historian must step back at times and recognize that there may be a “gap” between his or her understanding of an art work and what actually occurred during its making. In such cases, “problem-solving” becomes a “construct,” a useful heuristic–an aid to comprehension and appreciation–for those intrigued by the purposes and activities that led to the production of a work. If the painting or film is an end result of purposeful activity, by what means did the artist get there?

This passage from Baxandall also suggests that we view problem-solving as the resolution of a tension. A filmmaker wants to act, and has some notion of where he or she wants to end up, but he needs to devise a path to reach that goal. Just think of all the tensions, or problems, that might arise in the process of making a movie. Here are but a few (schematically considered): tensions between the medium (its potential, its techniques, its demands, etc.) and the demands of the story a filmmaker wants to tell (or the experiences the filmmaker aims to create with the work); between differing or opposed intentions, especially in fiction filmmaking where personalities’ aims, aspirations, commitments can collide; tensions that arise from the adoption of new technology or techniques (“new” either for a group of artists or for a single one); etc.

Fig. 1. Onscreen texting in Non-Stop (2014).
Fig. 1. Texting in Sherlock (2010-2014).
Fig. 2. Onscreen texting in Sherlock (2010-2014).
Let’s focus for a moment on this last tension: moments when a filmmaker wants to achieve something, but there is no set way (or effective way) of doing it. This brings us back to the Zhou video once again. At one point, Zhou argues (quite convincingly) that the BBC show Sherlock (2010-2014) has developed a particularly effective solution to the “text message” problem. Like other movies and shows, it uses onscreen texting to “pare down” the image track and avoid disruptive insert shots that take attention away from the actor’s facial reactions (fig. 2); but unlike previous visual representations of texting, Sherlock omits the text box (which we see in Non-Stop (fig.1)), which serves as a visual distraction in a number of movies, and it simplifies and standardizes the typeface, so that the identity of the sender sometimes remains a mystery. Onscreen texting thus becomes a crucial component of the viewer’s emotional engagement in the modern detective show; it initiates a guessing game about who is sending and receiving the message.
Notice that Zhou doesn’t begin with a discussion of Sherlock‘s solutions. Instead, he takes steps early in the video to situate the show in a history of attempts, and this shows the second beneficial aspect of the problem-solution approach: its ability to act as a spotlight on shared problems in a sequence of films. That is, the concept of problem-solving doesn’t just help us appreciate the moment-to-moment artistry of an individual film; it encourages us to think historically and comparatively, to situate a film’s solutions in the development of a “habitual” or “reactive” way of doing things (as Baxandall would put it).
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In an article I published in 2008, “A New Look at the Concept of Style in Film: The Origins and Development of the Problem-Solution Model” (here’s a pdf. of the piece: Burnett-New_Look_Style) I showed that in the 1980s and 1990s film studies looked to art history and discovered there the concept of artistic problem-solving. Film scholars subsequently shaped it into a powerful tool for understanding how cinematic representation develops. In his own way, Zhou builds on this point by showing how the historian can trace visual representations of social media (and their use as a storytelling device) not just as a cinematic but as a transmedia and transnational phenomenon. A shared problem has materialized, and the history of solutions to the onscreen texting problem links detective shows, soap operas, teen movies, and a variety of films from France, Japan and South Korea.

In the “New Look” piece, I neglected to mention one important source for the problem-solution model, the art historian George Kubler. In a challenging book, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962), he argues that we do away with the concept of “styles” as a way of imagining the history of art, and that we replace “style classes” (like “Mannerism” and “Impressionism”) with what he calls sequence classes. A sequence is simply a story the historian tells about the effort among artists to solve a common problem. What the historian does, then, is group together (in a single “class”) those works that constitute the history of attempted solutions, from the initial “clunky” efforts to the later stages of refinement of and habituation to a common answer.

Zhou’s video essay suggests that we turn a spotlight on the fact that we seem to be living through an emerging sequence class now. A number of filmmakers and TV producers have shown an interest in onscreen representations of social media, they have recognized the storytelling and visual problems of such, and at this very moment they are trying to devise simpler and more captivating solutions.

In the age of social media and online criticism, this is what art appreciation looks like.