Phone Calls in Movies: How Remote Communication Can Enhance a Scene

Watch two video essays analyzing how phone calls, texting, and video calls can be used creatively in modern media.

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In an era when everyone has a phone in their pocket (and seems to be spending increasing amounts of time on them), it is only natural that they play a role in film and television. Film-Drunk Love’s 2015 “Scene Breakdown” video for The Social Network outlines David Fincher’s excellent use of scene framing during phone calls in order to emphasize the dynamic of the conversation. Watch it below.

Having the actors face each other, then look away in moments of conflict denotes their mindset and the state of their relationship. Fincher also uses camera movement (or a lack thereof) to demonstrate the characters positions and mood.

Phone calls can also be used to take advantage of extremely iconic voices in film. The first example that comes to mind is Liam Neeson’s famous “very particular set of skills” monologue from Taken. The phone (or other device) itself can become a key prop in the scene.

Liam Neeson Taken 2008

But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. The skills of a lush, velvety voice, perfect for narration or monologues. (‘Taken,’  2008)

In the Tropic Thunder call between Tom Cruise’s character and the kidnappers, he punctuates his rant by literally throwing his cell phone over his shoulder. There are countless scenes in which a phone, tablet, or computer are pulverized at the conclusion of an aggravating call.

Film-Drunk Love only touches briefly on other forms communication between characters such as texting and video calls, but these methods are becoming increasingly important in terms of realism in film. How often do people really have conversations on the phone anymore?  And these methods can provide different opportunities than phone calls.

Texting

Texting is an excellent method of communication between characters when you want one to remain anonymous. This maintains the suspense of an unknown character without having to use a goofy voice-spoofer.

Texting has been well-done recently in the media, notably in television shows such as Sherlock and House of Cards. Rather than zooming in on the phone screen, they instead choose to show the text floating over the screen. This makes it easier to read, provides better pacing in a scene without having to cut to the phone screen, and allows the viewer to focus on the reactions of the character receiving the messages.

Unlike phone calls, you can also show the characters drafting messages, discarding them, and rewriting before finally deciding to send. This gives significant insight into the train of thought and mindset of the character on screen. Timing the arrival of messages can have a comedic or dramatic effect on the scene, and the relationship between characters and tone can be communicated through font, emojis, etc.

Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou goes into more depth on the development of texting in film in his great video from 2014 called “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film.” Watch it below.

Video Calls

Video calls can be trickier as they tend to require focusing on the screen itself. Some films use videos calls for all of their footage, such as the 2015 film Unfriended, which takes place entirely over Skype calls. However, focusing on the video screen can break the pacing of a scene. The characters in the video have limited framing options. Workarounds include using larger screens or alternate technologies.

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‘The Expanse’ (“Fight or Flight,'” 2018)

Sci-fi makes good use of the video call with large screens — and occasionally holograms — for communication. These allow for broader movement of the characters giving and receiving the calls and can allow characters who are in different locations to appear in the same shot and interact with each other. The characters can share other information in the form of images, video, or holograms, giving the audience further insight into a situation.

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A glass case of emotion — and scene framing. (‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,’ 2004)

Each technology has its own disadvantages in film. Texting must be kept brief and to the point, lest it become dull or take away from the acting in a scene. Video calls tend to necessitate more basic camera work. Phone calls tether the actors to a device so their other actions may be limited. Nonetheless, the creative use of these technologies allows viewers to draw meaning from a scene outside of the basic dialogue and gives filmmakers even more opportunity to add nuance to scenes in unique and interesting ways.

(Intern)

A politer reciter, a Canadian writer. Hiking with my puppy is my happy place.