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The BBC's Sherlock (July 2010-) uses a novel visual trick to show the contents of an SMS message directly on the television screen, so we can all read it without having to look at a dull phone screen.

Here's a few examples (via i heart subtitles):

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Michele Tepper explains:

Now, we’re used to seeing extradiegetic text appear on screen with the characters: titles like “Three Years Earlier” or “Lisbon” serve to orient us in a scene. Those titles even can help set the tone of the narrative - think of the snarky humor of the character introduction chyrons on Burn Notice. But this is different: this is capturing the viewer’s screen as part of the narrative itself.

(Tepper also gives some other examples of on-screen typography in Sherlock, and there's some more at Wear Sherlock.)

The American re-make of House of Cards (2012) also uses this storytelling technique.

"Where are you?"

Apparently the British Married Single Other (2010) pipped Sherlock by a few months (ref), and "British teen soap opera ‘Hollyoaks’ has been doing it for years" (ref) but I couldn't find any screenshots.

What was the first TV programme (or film) to do this?

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Neighbours (Australian soap opera) has also been doing that for a few years. – DisgruntledGoat Feb 6 '13 at 14:39
Is this different from seeing on-screen the content of a typed or handwritten letter? this is a cartoon, but the same has been done on TV – Dan Feb 6 '13 at 17:06
@Dan: Well, it's certainly similar -- avoiding showing a "boring" phone or letter to keep the story moving forward. I think it's somehow different with an SMS, short by definition, that pops up on screen almost as if your television screen is the mobile (somehow like second screens and all that). – Hugo Feb 6 '13 at 20:26
It's definitely been established in the language of modern film, and it's absolutely the right way to handle it. Just watched the trailer for "Non-Stop" starring Liam Neeson (rel. date 28 February 2014), and they use it there as well. There's a 3D element added to the text blocks, so that they move in virtual space as the phone moves and/or the camera pans/trucks around it. – user6453 Oct 17 '13 at 10:27
Gossip Girl incorporated it in the show akin to Sherlock/House of Cards in 2007 – user20255 Apr 6 at 1:32

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Happened across this very nifty video series on film analysis, and the creator actually has an entire video devoted to the art of depicting text messages (and computer messages in general) on-screen.

His video indicates that the earliest film he could find that depicts on-screen text messaging is All About Lily Chou-Chou, a Japanese film from 2001. A more concrete example would be Take Care of My Cat from South Korea, released a little more than a month after the previously stated film.

Therefore, I submit these two films as the earliest films found depicting on screen text messaging similar to House of Cards.

Clips from these films with their depictions of on screen texting can be found in the video I noted.

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According to this article from the Wall Street Journal called From Talkies to Texties, Sherlock is actually credited with this:

The texting seen in "Disconnect" and other coming films adheres loosely to a convention credited to the BBC's "Sherlock," featuring a wired Sherlock Holmes in modern-day London, and more recently, Netflix's hit series "House of Cards." The 13-episode show centers on a scheming U.S. congressman, Frank Underwood ( Kevin Spacey ), and his efforts to manipulate everybody he knows.

It appears Sherlock brought it to the screen for all to enjoy.

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Thanks. The article says of House of Cards: David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes of the show, decided that he wanted the texts to appear almost as text bubbles with a pale blue or gray background, depending on who was sending the message, as opposed to showing close-ups of phones. After he proposed the caption idea, Mr. Willimon showed him some clips from "Sherlock," which depicts texts on screen as white subtitles in a Helvetica font, and asked "Is this what you had in mind?" Mr. Fincher "was a bit bummed that it had been done before," he says. "But good ideas are good ideas." – Hugo Feb 12 '14 at 11:56
This can't be correct: Hollyoaks (A very poor, teen-oriented TV show in the UK) has been using it for at least 6 years... – John Smith Optional Apr 15 '14 at 20:49

This question merits a shout-out to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which used a similar technique way back in 1986. This wasn't showing a text message from a phone, but was certainly "capturing the viewer’s screen as part of the narrative itself":

enter image description here

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The use of pop-op text goes back a long time. Silent films mostly used intertitles rather than overlaid titles; these were both technically easier to produce and more dramatically effective than subtitles in the absence of a soundtrack to establish timing continuity, but certainly be the 1920s overlaying text on a scene for dramatic effect was not uncommon.

After the end of the silent era, on-screen overlaid text became less common, though films exhibited in regions whose language differed from the one in which the movie was shot would of course add translations in subtitles. Such translations were primarily focused on dialogue, but many translators would also subtitle signage, or documents that were shown on screen and read by the characters, etc. when such things were relevant to the plot of the film.

Further, while such techniques were not often employed in narrative films, it has for a long time been common for educational motion pictures to incorporate elements of educational slide shows (or non-moving film strips). Something like the Ferris Bueller clip shown above could be seen as a spoof of such films.

Although Sherlock may have established a particular style of pop-up messaging, many aspects of such usage go back many decades.

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