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Cracking Hollywood’s Code: One Programmer Exposes Tech Secrets

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Bryan P. Carpender for – Your Universe Online

Not everything in Hollywood is exactly what it seems.

Hollywood is all about artifice. It doesn’t necessarily need to have any substance, so long as it looks good on camera. That’s the main test: is it pleasing to the viewer’s eye? Does it look cool for a few brief seconds onscreen?

From the set pieces to the props, it’s all about creating an illusion. Considerable effort goes into creating something that looks passably real, but in reality, wouldn’t hold up. Nothing is meant to withstand too much scrutiny.

Every beautiful apartment and office on every TV show looks great onscreen, but for the most part, they are only facades. If the camera pulled back to reveal what they really are, you would see a lot of free-standing plywood with paint on one side and some fixtures and embellishments with lighting rigs just out of the frame to ensure these sets are lit to look their best on-camera.

What about all that really cool computer code you see in numerous TV shows and films? If it’s an action movie, a thriller or sci-fi, you’re guaranteed to see some computer code onscreen at some point.

Rapidly scrolling combinations of numbers, letters and phrases that tell you that this is some seriously complicated stuff. It adds credibility to the actions of the characters and the events that are unfolding. This code tells you that this is not amateur hour; this is the real deal.

Although this code might be essential to a given plot or character development, directors don’t always give it the proper attention it deserves, failing to spend time and resources to ensure authenticity. Chances are, any credibility that onscreen code adds would be totally shot if you were able to actually dissect the code they are using.

One man has now begun debunking the myth of Hollywood coding. John Graham-Cumming is a computer programmer who has been coding since he was a teenager and is an established tech blogger and computer programmer. Now, he is taking Hollywood to task on his recently launched website.

“I was watching the film Elysium and some coding came up as the space station is rebooted, and I thought: ‘This is really familiar’, so I tracked it down,” explained Graham-Cumming to The Guardian. “It turns out that the code is actually taken directly from the Intel software developer’s manual, which I found amusing. So I tweeted that and got hundreds of responses.”

He launched a Tumblr page on a Friday and by the following Monday, it had already gathered 11,000 followers and a slew of suggestions of other movie codes to crack. It turns out that cracking the code of movie codes is pretty simple.

Graham-Cumming takes a screen grab of the code from a given movie or TV show and gives it a cursory examination to determine if it’s legitimate or if it’s a bunch of gibberish. He looks for unusual characters or variables, Googling them to discover their origins. Ironically, codes that facilitate severe acts such as guiding missiles or hacking into top-secret confidential databases are usually mundane and benign. They’re simple cut and paste jobs to provide something that looks official onscreen.

Think about iconic films like “The Terminator,” in which we see much of the action through the T-800’s heads-up display. The cold steel killing machine targets its subjects with infrared vision and crosshairs, accompanied by scrolling text and code.

In 1984, this code seemed ominous, as it spelled out certain doom for poor Sarah Connor. Had we known then that the code and text accompanying the Terminator’s targeting system was actually the assembly code for an Apple II computer, it might not have kept up the suspense.

Even recent box office behemoths are guilty of Hollywood fakery. For example, when Tony Stark boots up his makeshift suit for the first time in “Iron Man,” the code that appears onscreen is actual valid C source code. However, it’s actually programming language from a Lego computer.

Much of the code that appears onscreen is meant to look cool for only a few seconds at a time; it’s not intended to live up to the scrutiny of a screen grab and further analysis by a bunch of coding geeks. Therefore, accuracy is not always a priority, as these examples demonstrate.

Sometimes, though, Hollywood gets it right.

Way back in 1993, “Jurassic Park” was ahead of its time. It featured scenes in which actors worked on realistic Silicon Graphics computer systems in the dino park’s main control room. It also featured a classic scene in which a teenage hacker wannabe logs onto the computer in an attempt to get the perimeter fences and power back online. “It’s a Unix system! I know this – it’s all the files in the whole park, it tells you everything,” exclaims Lex, who uses her skills to save the day. This was a nice example of attention to detail; Unix is an actual operating system. (Though simply knowing Unix will not necessarily protect you from velociraptors.)

Another recent example is “The Social Network,” in which the Mark Zuckerberg character performs a hack using actual code and script. In the scene, he details the process by interweaving voice over narration and the typing of actual text and HTML on his blog. Obviously, the producers knew that this film would be of particular interest to coders, so they chose to strive for authenticity – and succeeded.

Of course, casual viewers and moviegoers are not likely to focus on the coding authenticity in a given film or TV series. But there is a tribe of coding enthusiasts and geeks out there who delight in taking a deeper look and seeing if the code is real or…Hollywood real.

Graham-Cumming asserts that either way, this Hollywood code-breaking can be entertaining. “My advice to movie producers? I can’t decide whether it should be ‘do something relevant’, because if it is accurate, it is very cool…but I also like it when it’s just silly,” he said according to BBC News. Either way, Hollywood should be aware that people are paying attention, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response to his site.

“It’s not aimed at a mainstream audience – more a bunch of nerds having a laugh about how this stuff works. It was a bit of fun that’s caught the imagination of a lot of people,” he added.

It will be interesting to see how Hollywood reacts. If a movie goes the extra mile to preserve authenticity and relevance, it could be viewed as a love letter to the coding nerds in the audience.

Conversely, if they cut corners and take the easy route of using generic code in the old “copy-and-paste”, they should probably expect to be prominently featured on Graham-Cumming’s site, as the techy masses crack the code of their coding and poke good-natured fun at them.

Lights, camera…coding authenticity! Your move, Hollywood.


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