What is Computer Playback?

What is Computer Playback? This is one of the most common questions I am asked when people find out I work “in the movies”.

I guess the easiest way to describe what I do is; When watching a TV show or movie, and in the movie you see a TV screen, computer monitor, tablet, or a smartphone-essentially anything electronic that can display an image, it is my responsibility to not only put images on those screens but to also operate the image to sync up to the actor’s actions. 

Malcolm in the middle computer playbackFor example, in the TV show Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm is seen watching a game of golf on TV. No, that TV did not have the Sports Network, nor did it have even basic cable. That clip wasn’t a random clip that they just decided to put on the TV at the last second. Instead, these things are discussed and determined weeks in advance and then the rights to said clip are acquired. Only then will the video end up in my hands.

Then, it is up to me to hook up my computer source into the TV and play the clip at the right time when the cameras are rolling so that the actor can then act according to what is occurring on screen. When they cut, I would reset the clip, pause it, and have it ready to play when the director calls “action!” Now, this is a basic, straight forward example, but it does get more complicated and technical.

Many TV shows such as Fringe and Smallville use information displayed on screens to further plot lines and drive home certain information visually as well as through dialogue. Lab results are a good example, as are news segments which reveal new information to both the characters on the show and the audience watching.

As I mentioned before things can get a lot more technical and complicated in the ever-changing world of computer playback. For instance, on the TV series UnReal there is a wall of “live feeds” in the control room set, as each screen displays a different image according to how many computer sources are needed. Also, there are many other factors to take into account, such as time of day in the script, making sure all the videos are in sync, and ensuring that the same clip isn’t overused. A show such as Fringe, for example, had such a massive fan base that would pause and dissect each shot frame by frame, that it is paramount that details are not overlooked.


A classic video error is found in the film Jurassic Park, whereby Dennis Nedry-who is a computer programmer-is supposed to be monitoring the “live” feed of the T-Rex enclosure, but if you pay close attention to the screen you’ll be able to tell that it is nothing but a pre-recorded video playing back on a very early version of QuickTime. Since then, the computer playback department in the film industry has grown a lot, as the addition of smartphones, projectors, and big screen TVs has forced members of this department to adapt to the evolving technology around them.

Jurassic Park video computer mistake


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