Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

The face as digital canvas

Experimental design can pop up in the unlikeliest places, as Iain Softley’s 1995 film Hackers will attest. Art direction and set decoration and production design are old hat in feature films, but Softley’s corny youth-oriented computer caper is that rarest of things, a motion picture featuring actual graphic design.

That only makes sense, seeing as how virtually every character in the flick has his or her eyes glued to a computer screen half the time. Fading ‘80s wunderkind Neville Brody designed the various computer screens visible in the film, all of which vary in implausibility from modest to hopeless. (Though millions of moviegoers use computers, Hollywood hasn’t figured out how to represent them realistically, even in computer-centric movies.) Softley uses a few obvious filmic techniques that show off the movie’s graphic design: Unabashedly fake mattes, like the face of hero Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller) superimposed on and dissolving into a “data soup” of swirling mathematical equations, fractals, helices, and amoebas; quick intercut images meant to link the virtual with the real, like an overhead view of New York City that morphs into a salmon- and teal-hued circuit board; a City of Text that models data as a forest of glowing skyscrapers.

However, the big graphic surprise is Softley’s innovative second-order device of simply reflecting computer screens onto the actors’ faces. We see big fractal blobs ringed by diffuse wiggling flames; snippets of blank photographic film, sprocket holes and all; sawtooth edges as though cut by pinking shears; Roy Lichtenstein-style patterns of dots. Nowhere are these projections more winsome than on Miller’s face, where they mix with his moles and scratches and five-o’clock shadow and gloriously mismatched dyed hair and natural eyebrow colours to form a living canvas.

Despite its threadbare storyline, Hackers is a must-see as one view of a future in which graphics are quite literally a reflection of computers and popular culture and aren’t restricted to the high-class gulag of coffee-table art books.

Now go read my Hackers minireview.

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