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The Hacker Who Cracked the Code in Iron Man and The Social Network (wired.com)
82 points by jgrahamc 1407 days ago | hide | past | web | 39 comments | favorite

Well if nothing else this suggests there is a lifestyle level business in the Entertainment industry doing "code" inserts. The article lays out all of the things that are challenging (copyright issues, continuity issues, and cost) so building a small consulting firm around providing "code" for these situations cost effectively and reliably solves a need.

The go to market strategy is to get writers in the screenwriters guild aware of your offering, and let the lswyers know you provide guarantees, both that your "set" code will not conflict with anyone else's copyright, but also that copyright can be asserted on it so that the film has greater protection out there. Which gets the lawyers insisting the writers use your stuff.

You'll need a good design asthetic and some markov-chain like software which can generate plausible looking code on demand.

Did you see the article by the guy who did the effects for Tron: Legacy? Brilliant stuff.


Not a markov chain, he just recorded himself at the shell. It made me grin when I saw that bit in the movie and the commands actually made sense (the rest of the film... not so much)

Wow, that is obnoxious to read the whole thing in that font.

This isn't an important enough specialty to make a living out of, because the number of people who are about what the actual code is such a tiny % of the viewing audience that it's not going to have any meaningful impact on sales. If there's a big budget with lots of VFX (like Iron Man) the VFX crew will get the job of sourcing 'teh codez' and most likely will just use some deprecated code of their own since high-end VFX software is all script-based anyway.

For non high-end productions (eg where you just have one person with After Effects or suchlike) you can just buy/rent/pirate sample material or fake it up quickly with some 'computerish' looking font - hence the proliferation of fake smartphone screens. It's a pain to photograph a real smartphone with an actual camera; they're usually too bright (even on minimum setting), the screen has reflections, and there are often awkward interference artifacts between the camera's frame rate and the refresh rate & lag of a phone. So if you're doing things on the cheap it's usually easier to just use some color app and make the whole screen a dim green and then match in a generic screen showing a text message or picture of the character who is supposed to be calling.

While this is certainly something a video graphics person could develop a specialty in, you'd have a hard time making it your only thing, same as being a sound designer that only does automobile noises or something. Likewise, when you look at a shot of someone fixing a car you probably don't pause to eyeball the diameter of the nuts and bolts lying on the ground, though pro car mechanics probably hate watching such scenes.

That is an interesting position. My reasoning is that more and more people are becoming "developers" of a sort, certainly being exposed to this stuff earlier, and that makes them more discriminating consumers. Nothing quite takes me out of my suspended disbelief like a botched 'tech' reference. So as the pool of moderately computer literate people expands, the impact of 'bad tech' in the movies will hit more audiences negatively.

To use a classic example, the computer "interfaces" of Star Trek the original series were perfectly serviceable for people who had never seen an actual computer, but trying to use them on an audience that got their first laptop in grade school just doesn't work.

My speculation is that as people become more sensitive to 'bogus' code standing in for some prop, they will become more put off by it and set designers are going to have to work harder. If you're a shop that can amortize the cost of developing the tools to create 'realistic code inserts' across a number of customers, you can achieve ramen profitability or better.

I totally agree about the audience coming to expect better; I just don't think it will ever make for a specialized job because as more people write code (or something) as part of their job, so will the number of people who do so within Hollywood and who will quickly lay their hands on the relevant imagery.

I mentioned the example of a sound designer who only does vehicle sounds, because that's my particular line. At one time I thought there would be room for developing and selling big libraries of authentic sounds, and I still make a point of recording as many prop-specific sounds on set as possible. But it's a case of diminishing returns - as long as the library and use of stock sounds on a picture is not completely awful/inappropriate, 'good enough' is the prevailing standard, and you're better off layering and recycling sounds in combination with effects or hiring a foley artist. There's an in-joke among sound designers known as the 'Wilhelm scream' (after the character who first uttered it) which has been dropped into thousands of films by now in bittersweet recognition of the fact that 99.99% of moviegoers won't notice its rampant overuse.

I wonder if the show CSI used a Markov Chain to create the last line in this scene:

"For weeks I've been investigating...the killer with a certain morbid fascination..."

"This is in real time!"

"I'll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic...see if I can track an IP address!"

Link to clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkDD03yeLnU

I would suspect they mostly would not care enough about it to spend more than what they already do on what amounts to a special effect which most of the time they could just do without. Bear in mind that outside of programming circles, nobody minds how implausible code actually looks, so long as it looks sufficiently "computery."

That's true, but it's so easy to grab actual code with a permissive license that I don't think either this or the "we have time time constraints" explanation given in the OP can explain this.

That still assumes there is someone in the decision making chain who cares that much about it. It's important to you, and it would be annoying to me to see something like HTML being passed off as an encrypted intercept or alien transmission or something. But realistically it's almost always a brief sequence with "stuff" on a screen, and it's probably part of a scene which can (as the article mentions) be changed or canceled at a moment's notice, and you're meant to be looking at the actor(s) anyway. If it's being handled by an effects team, they're probably prioritizing other things which get more screen time.

I think this is a key line:

>The stuff that ends up looking the most legitimate, he says, is the stuff that needs to be the most legitimate.

except I would translate this as "the things which aren't meant to be noticed don't have to make sense."

> That still assumes there is someone in the decision making chain who cares that much about it.

Could be a good thing if you can get enough attention that someone in the decision making chain even has to think about it. You'll become the go-to source for an industry with low standards and no incentive to try out your competitors so long as your rates remain reasonable. The guy who started this Tumblr is actually pretty well-positioned to offer a little white-label service to generate this stuff.

Or, they just walk over to the desk of the nearest friendly developer and ask him to do it in 10 seconds.

I think the best clients to focus on would be the visual effects artists themselves. It might be better done as a software package or library rather than a service.

> and some markov-chain like software which can generate plausible looking code on demand.

... or you could even just write some code for the occasion on the occasion - it could be quite fun. :)

My biggest surprise is that nobody did something like this sooner. Especially how distracting it is when someone in a movie is controlling a weapons system or saving the world with code written in ActionScript.

Unless ActionScript somehow becomes the dominant programming language of the future, in which case the future looks darker than I thought.

I just saw a post on another site where someone did something similar with Chess:


He said he already has a lot of requests, so I can assume he'll probably do something similar.

I'm pretty sure that this will have been done in the many years of newsgroups, IRC, SomethingAwful, 4chan, HN, reddit and random tripod/angelfire/geocities sites.

This guy was the first one to be mainstream. It's like the MP3 player: Jobs had the audacity to say that Apple basically invented the MP3 player because their MP3 player was the best, not because it was the first. Same story with the iPhone. It wasn't the first touchscreen cellular phone, but it was the best. When a product is the best in class, it gets noticed. This was surely the lesson Jobs learned from Microsoft's success: don't worry about being the first, just worry about being the best or, at least, the loudest.

And in this digital age, that's actually fine. If we valued people only because they had ideas first, nothing would actually be done about it and inventions would not be successful because half of the inventors would keep their creations tailored to their preferences rather than extending a generalised product that caters to everybody.

I know it is a little off-topic. But what is so bad about ActionScript?

Nothing, when assuming it's being used for an appropriate use case. In the previously mentioned use cases it's likely the wrong tool for the tasks in question.

I personally feel like AS3 is a less-dynamic version of Java. Making a statically typed language less dynamic than Java does not impress me.

(I know that you can write in the more dynamic Javascript style w/o type markers, but the integration between those two worlds in AS3 is very poor)

Nothing in particular, it is very similar to other languages like Java, I just wouldn't recommend it for saving the world. Unless the world is being attacked by Flash game loving aliens.

At the point where I'm fighting aliens in a metal suit with a super compact free energy source strapped to my chest, I think the runtime performance characteristics of the software involved is the least of my concerns.

Nothing. It doesn't seem all that different from JS to me. I think people just dislike the IDEs.

ActionScript 2.0 was very much like JavaScript, as it specifically attempted to be ECMAScript compatible. There were some dialect differences, but they were essentially the same language with different APIs (Flash API vs browser DOM).

ActionScript 3.0 added optional static typing and classes and efficient binary blob handling and other features and at one point was going to serve as the basis for ECMAScript 4.0 via the Mozilla Tamrin project (so ActionScript would have actually been modern JavaScript) but this was killed (primarily by Microsoft and Yahoo) for political reasons.

AS3.0 was actually a pretty nice language and I would have loved to see it replace JavaScript back then as the usable set of JavaScript features is still quite a bit behind where ECMAScript4 would have brought it years ago.

How interesting, thanks for your insight. I'll have to play with it sometime.

I remember there was a poll on HN with a huge majority vote against AS; perhaps people confuse it with ActiveX and that's why they seem to dislike it so much.

I think most of that is just misdirected Flash hate. Having worked with the source code to the Flash player, I understand better than most why Flash was hated, but ActionScript wasn't bad (especially at 3.0), and the Flex framework for ActionScript had a lot of really sweet features like two-way binding with smart property re-evaluation that are just now becoming common in JavaScript via frameworks (though it also had some horrible stuff as well, not all roses).

You may want to check out the haxe language as it borrows quite a lot from ActionScript 3 with tools that allow you to compile your haxe code down to JavaScript, AVM1 (AS2), AVM2 (AS3), C/C++, etc, and while it is a relatively niche language it is a lot more "alive" than ActionScript 3 currently is.

> Unless ActionScript somehow becomes the dominant programming language of the future, in which case the future looks darker than I thought.

Agreed, but I am ready for the call from Mr. Stark.

Be a movie hacker: http://hackertyper.net/

the code it's using - http://lxr.free-electrons.com/source/kernel/groups.c - is GPL so hollywood may choke on the copyright issue. Press alt x 3, caps lock x 3 or esc for special stuff

I don't get it: If you're some bored (and/or clueless) computer consultant for a movie, isn't it much easier to randomly google "C++ code" or grab from github, or, even better, grab the source code from the Linux kernel than pasting from an obscure Intel Architecture Manual?

Do you think this manual was just sitting on the guy's desk when his manager came with the request "Create an authentic looking code snippet, you've got 5 minutes"? Who are these people who create these "code" snippets anyway? If anyone with knowledge enlightens me I'd be much obliged.

Maybe it was decided by a non-technical person. "Code? I have no idea, grab an Intel manual!" This sounds plausible from someone who would have never heard of github.

Who are these people who create these "code" snippets anyway?

Junior visual FX slaves straight out of art school. Picking it out of an Intel Architecture Manual is the sort of thing you do to neutralize producer/director/supervisor insecurities about authenticity: 'yeah, this is the stuff that the engineers at Intel use, this is as real as it gets.'

Nah, the guy probably just looked at his PC, saw the "Intel Inside" sticker and started Googling. It wouldn't have taken him long to find something that looked realistic.

"The 'quality' of the code really comes down to deadlines".

Fairly sure I remember the Archer guys pointing out some of the code they wanted to put up on the show needed quite a bit of checking to make sure there's no IP fowl ups. Including the output from the program, it can still need correct licencing.

The Social Network paid particular attention to this, to the point that they tracked down[0] the actual slides[1] Zuckerberg would have seen in his Harvard OS class for the scene in the classroom.

[0] http://matt-welsh.blogspot.com/2010/10/in-defense-of-mark-zu... [1] http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~mdw/course/cs161/notes/vm.pdf

Nothing new, we had similar articles and discussion on HN:


Movie director David Fincher uses computer monitors with a green/blue Screen, the computer graphic is added in post production. Check out the behind the scene footage of "Social Network" (2 disc DVD ed)!

Am I the only one thinking " Who cares "?

Hmm, ctrl+clicking the links in the article does nothing.

Check your popup blocker. I was surprised by that, too.

So movies are superficial?!

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