Video game images migrate to movies

Hardcore Henry poster

Hardcore Henry was filmed in the style of a first-person shooter game.

Terrible idea. Take a genre of video games—first person shooter– that is especially likely to provoke seizures. Make an action movie filmed entirely in that style. Put it on the big screen for release in theaters. The larger an image is, the greater the area affected in the brain’s visual cortex, and therefore the risk of visually triggered seizures is increased in those who are vulnerable.

Hardcore Henry opened (and in most cases, also closed) in theaters this month. It’s described by the student newspaper of Washington College as 90 minutes of “non-stop chase scenes, splatterhouse shootouts, and barely comprehensible fistfights that often end in ridiculous dismemberment.”  Glenn Kenny’s New York Times review explains the film’s R rating thusly: “for not letting a minute pass without subjecting one character or another to grievous bodily harm or worse.”

I suppose it’s possible to produce such subject matter without seizure-inducing images, but given such descriptions of the content, I wanted to check. Without going the movie. So I tested** the movie’s promotional trailers for compliance with seizure reduction guidelines. The guidelines were designed to protect all but 3 percent of those who may have seizures triggered by visual stimuli. After watching the trailers (I do not have photosensitive epilepsy), I was not at all surprised that the movie does not comply.

FAIL in red from FPA

This is hardly the first movie to include images that could trigger seizures. But based on the trailers and reviewers’ accounts of a relentless pace of action, most likely there are many potential seizure triggers during the film. Researchers of photosensitive epilepsy believe there is a cumulative effect on the brain; the risk of a seizure increases after prolonged exposure to potential triggers.

“non-stop chase scenes, splatterhouse shootouts, and barely comprehensible fistfights that often end in ridiculous dismemberment.”

Review: “non-stop chase scenes, splatterhouse shootouts, and barely comprehensible fistfights that often end in ridiculous dismemberment.”

Strong stomach required

Many reviewers of Hardcore Henry cautioned readers about motion sickness. One reviewer interviewed the movie’s producer about apparently significant (yet not entirely successful) efforts to minimize it. The producer said those efforts were begun long before film production began, with many tests and test screenings.

Some representative remarks:

“…many people are going to feel ill when they try to watch Hardcore Henry on the big screen…make sure everyone in your party either has no issue with motion sickness, has taken their Dramamine, or rolls into the theater with an empty stomach…” — The Daily Dot

“…as I waited for my nausea to subside, I began to appreciate the dastardly marketing plan built into Hardcore Henry: It’s essentially a dare to see if audiences can finish the whole thing without throwing up.”  — Vox.com

“Hardcore Henry will probably go down as the film of 2016 that is most likely to make you feel nauseous from watching it (due to motion sickness, that is, not the gory, over the top violence).” — Screenrant.com

Back-handed seizure warnings

A number of reviewers mentioned seizures, but not with the same concern with which they write about motion sickness. Sure, motion sickness is unpleasant, but a seizure is not only unpleasant, it can be dangerous and life-altering, and its effects on the brain can linger. You wouldn’t know it from these reviewer comments, though:

“It’s remarkably watchable, in fact, with none of the motion sickness you might expect, which is especially amazing given the film’s unswerving dedication to full-bore, seizure-inducing action.” – The Georgia Straight 

“…Hardcore Henry is a 90-Minute Cinematic Seizure…a frenetic editing style that can make you feel like you’re having some kind of seizure…I don’t see how anyone could watch it and not experience motion sickness…I definitely felt like I’d suffered from some sort of brain trauma when I walked out of the theater. (Can you get a concussion just from watching a movie?)” — Esquire  

Treating seizures (and those who have them) with respect:

Just 2 reviews of dozens I read seemed to be genuinely concerned about the movie’s potential to trigger photosensitive seizures in audience members:

“If 3D gives you a headache, Hardcore Henry is enough to bring on epilepsy.” Moviehole.net

“I left the theater wondering if the jittering, disoriented feeling I had buzzing through my skull was some sort of sudden onset epilepsy.”University News

Review: "like sensory assault and battery"

Review: “like sensory assault and battery”

If you live in the UK, there are real warnings about the risk of visually induced seizures. Listings for movies with images that don’t comply with seizure reduction guidelines warn of “a sequence of flashing lights which might affect customers who are susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy.” That’s because the UK regulates the appearance of TV, movies, and advertising to protect those individuals. Some of these people with photosensitive epilepsy don’t realize they have the condition. It may have developed only recently or it’s quite possible they were never aware of experiencing a seizure. Not all seizures look like what you typically see portrayed.

What lies ahead?

What’s most worrisome is that the consensus among reviewers — regardless of how well they liked Hardcore Henry — is that the influence of video games on movie-making is only going to grow.

 “Virtual reality is on the way. Video games and movies will soon start to blend and borrow from one another in many ways. And this movie, imperfect and nasty and often astonishing, is a vanguard.”  Slashfilm.com

“…the visual language of games will soon come to have as much of an impact on up-and-coming film directors as cinema does… and it’s safe to say that we won’t be short of films based on video game properties…With an increased push towards the home viewing experience in movies and interactivity in media, it will be interesting to see how the cinema of tomorrow is influenced by gaming perspectives. “ Den of Geek

We will certainly see more of the first-person perspective, too. Some  hailed the project as a technical marvel and “a revolutionary approach to narrative filmmaking.”

**How I tested the movie trailer

I run downloaded video clips through an application called the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. (Graham Harding is one of the world’s leading experts on photosensitive epilepsy.) The FPA is widely used by producers and networks in the UK—including by the BBC—to reduce the risk of seizures from material on broadcast TV.

The analyzer examines video sequences frame by frame for very specific and measurable image qualities that researchers have found can trigger seizures. When such images are found, it displays  and indicates the specific frames that violate seizure reduction guidelines. Violations occur with:

  • rapidly alternating light and dark images (flash/flicker)
  • certain stripes and geometric patterns with high contrast
  • large areas of very bright (“saturated”) red
  • problem images take up more than one quarter of the total screen area

 



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