Technical communication in film
by Danny Naylor
For those of you that follow us on our socials – the usual suspects – LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, you will be familiar with our #TCFilmFriday posts. These look at some of the best examples of technical writing, and sometimes translation, in film and television. While creating these posts, it’s actually been surprising to learn just how many examples of good technical writing there are in fiction. Of course there are also plenty of terrible ones, but we’ll leave that for a future article.
So in this post, we thought we’d share some of our favourite examples, explain why they are so good, and discuss what technical authors can learn from them.
Our first example is the 2015 film ‘The Martian’. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a freak storm that leaves astronaut Matt Damon marooned on the red planet without any supplies or shelter. Tricky. Now, we could probably write a whole blog post about the ingenuity of Matt Damon’s character repurposing all sorts of bits and pieces into innovative solutions to the many challenges of trying to survive on Mars. However, we’ll focus on the first major hurdle he must overcome – growing enough food to stay alive until a rescue mission arrives.
In what might seem a rather fortunate turn of events, Matt Damon just happens to play a botanist – a botanist who was sent to Mars to write a technical manual on the feasibility of growing plants on, well, Mars. So using his freshly written manual, some outside-the-box thinking and some er… ‘fertiliser’ left by the crew, he manages to grow a small field of potatoes.
While unusual in that the user of the manual was also the person who wrote it, and we never actually see more than the front page, we can only assume that it was an excellent technical document, since, using very few resources, Matt Damon is able to grow enough food to survive on a completely barren planet. For this reason, we are giving the manual a 10/10. You can see it in action below:
So, although ‘The Martian’ is fiction, it highlights how important it is to be thorough, precise and, above all, instructive when it comes to writing a technical manual as, without sounding too dramatic, good technical writing can be the difference between growing potatoes on Mars and meeting an untimely end.
Next up is Disney’s ‘WALL-E’. Despite its cutesy art style, one thing WALL-E depicts realistically is the power of technical writing. Set 700 years into the future, WALL-E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class, is a robot left on what is assumed to be a lifeless Planet Earth. His job is to tidy up all the rubbish left behind after humans have abandoned it for life in outer space.
After an EVE reconnaissance robot, sent to Earth from the giant Axiom spaceship humans now call home, finds evidence of plant life, a chain of events is set in motion that sees the captain of the spaceship prepare a return to Earth. What follows is a comprehensive instruction document in the form of a physical operations manual, coupled with video instructions. Despite some initial confusion caused by having to use a comparatively low-tech document – a paper manual – the captain is soon able to understand new concepts (including gravity), and master strange new skills (like walking).
While the old analogue format caused some initial confusion, the detailed instructions accompanied by basic video instructions give the captain all the information he needs to start humanity’s journey back to Earth. So we are giving this documentation a 9/10. See it in action below:
Back in the present day, the delivery of technical information over multiple channels, both analogue and digital, is something that has become increasingly common in technical writing. That’s because it’s a great way of making sure your intended audiences get the information they need in a format that suits them. In fact, we wrote a blog about this a while back, detailing the different places you can find technical writing.
While not technically a manual, we couldn’t help but include the medical texts used in ‘Game of Thrones’ to cure Jorah Mormont of greyscale, a mysterious and fatal disease that slowly petrifies its victims. Luckily for Jorah, the scholarly Samwell Tarley has access to ancient medical texts, and he uses them to work out a cure for greyscale. When Samwell is questioned about how he managed to cure Jorah, he says something that must have had technical writers joyously punching the air. He simply states – ‘I read the book. I followed the instructions’.
Since the instructions in the medical texts meant Samwell was able to save Jorah from a terrible fate (at least – spoiler alert – in true ‘Game of Thrones’ style, temporarily), we give the medical texts a 10/10. See the clip in question below:
While dusty, ancient texts may seem like a strange place to find technical writing, it’s not uncommon to find good documentation in unexpected places. Indeed, video games manuals, church maintenance guides, and instructions on how to survive falling out of a plane are just some of the examples of the technical writing we cover in a quick fashion parade of unusual user guides.
Up next, we look at the field manual used in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. While organising the defence of a key bridge from an Axis counterattack, the American GI’s have a problem – they don’t have any weapons capable of destroying enemy tanks. So Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, devises a plan – lure the tanks into a narrow street, and disable them with sticky bombs made using a combination of explosives and axle grease stuffed into socks. And how did Captain Miller come up with this idea? By reading his field manual.
While we never get to see the field manual in question, the fact that Captain Miller is able to remember the instructions, possibly months after reading them, and after going through the terrible events depicted in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, demonstrates how well they must have been written. So, we give this manual a 7/10.
Interestingly, technical documentation has actually helped change the course of many important historical events, like the Second World War for example (see our article A brief history of Technical writing). Although Saving Private Ryan is a fictionalised account inspired by true stories, it’s an example of how good technical writing can really stay with people, and help them find answers in the face of huge challenges.
Lastly, we look at one of my favourite summer blockbusters, the 1993 film ‘Jurassic Park’. After a series of unfortunate events and quite a lot of dinosaur carnage, our plucky survivors are trying to restore power to the doomed park. After Laura Dern’s character ‘Ellie Sattler’ makes a perilous journey to the park’s generator, Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum manage to use some schematics they find to guide her through a maze of maintenance tunnels. They then help her to turn the park’s power back on using the instructions in an operator’s manual.
Fortunately, she is successful in her quest and the power is restored right at the last nail-biting minute. And this really is down to the fact that the information in the operator’s manual could be found fast enough, and is clear enough, to be relayed by radio to someone in a rather stressful situation. Beacuse of this, we give this manual an 8/10 – obviously we had to knock a few points off due to poor Timmy getting a rather nasty electric shock. See the scene in question at below:
While it’s unlikely any of us will be stuck on a tropical island with hungry prehistoric reptiles, this fictional situation illustrates well that sometimes technical information is needed in very stressful circumstances. It’s crucial a document is well structured so information can be found quickly and easily. Funnily enough, one of my colleagues wrote a blog post about how to ensure your technical documentation works by keeping the information both relevant and easy to access. While he doesn’t specifically mention how to deal with a pack of ravenous velociraptors, he outlines what you can to do to write a manual that is accessible and effective.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of our favourite examples of technical writing in film, and also picked up some useful tips on what they can teach us about technical writing in the real world. Next up, we will be looking at some bad examples of technical writing in film – unfortunately there are plenty of those. Don’t forget to follow us on our social media channels if you want to see more examples of the good, the bad and the downright strange representations of technical writing in film. And if you’re interested in having your own documentation worthy of immortalisation in film, feel free to get in touch with us here.
Working as a Marketing Manager, Danny thrives on thinking up novel ways to reach customers, as well as creating and running campaigns over digital channels. Away from the office, Danny relaxes by obsessing over films and music, annoying his neighbors with his guitar collection and shouting at the England rugby team.