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Watch: how the screens inside movies build fictional worlds

The computers, televisions, and phones in a movie can be key to building a cinematic world. Here’s how it’s done.

The screens inside movies can build an entire world.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Todd Marks has spent decades behind the scenes of major Hollywood projects. He puts screens onscreen — and that’s a crucial part of cinematic world building.

Marks and his company have worked on films ranging from 1995’s thriller The Net to 2015’s Steve Jobs. The above video shows some of the highlights of Marks’s work, which involves putting images, videos, and other graphics onscreen so they can be filmed live along with the rest of the scene.

That’s a key choice when it comes to making realistic, lived-in cinematic worlds. Though the job involves lots of logistical headaches, from coordinating rights clearances to getting computers to display at a camera-friendly frame rate, Marks believes it’s worth it to give actors, editors, and directors a more vivid world.

Today, that job can’t be taken for granted — digital effects have made it possible to add a lot of elements long after scenes were actually shot (even Marks and co. have done that work, as in Netflix’s Spectral). For filmmakers, modern movies and TV shows are likely to use both onscreen graphics and digitally added ones, indistinguishably mixed.

But there’s something unique and worthwhile about making these graphics before the cameras roll. It seems obvious that some scenes featured in the video above, like those from Steve Jobs, wouldn’t be the same without the opportunity for actors to actually see what they’re operating. Fortunately, chances are that a computer playback supervisor will figure out a way to make it happen. They just might have to untangle a few wires first.