Opinion: Films need photosensitivity warnings

“Incredibles 2” shows the need for photosensitivity warnings when flashing lights appear in films. Image from Disney/Pixar

Incredibles 2” is still fresh in the public’s minds, but the movie’s flashing lights controversy has mostly died out. However, if the film industry doesn’t change, intense effects will pose a threat to viewers.

The film’s antagonist, Screenslaver, can brainwash people using TV screens. Brainwashing screens are stereotypically portrayed in media by either flashing lights or spirals, both of which can be harmful to watch, but many movies tone down the effect so they’re not as intense to the audience as they are to the characters. However, Pixar was indecisive and used both effects simultaneously, as Screenslaver uses spirals that rapidly flash.

Unlike films that use the effect once or twice, “Incredibles 2” feels the need to shoehorn it into every other scene as if the film is a prideful parent showboating its child in every conversation. At least 10 scenes have a few seconds of flashes, but at least five scenes have extended and intense usage. In other words, while the effects move too quickly, they leave the screen too slowly.

The intense scenes have fast flashes of black and white, often up close or covering the whole screen. One such scene is a fight scene between Elastigirl and Screenslaver inside a closed room where the walls, ceiling, and floor are covered in screens. The longest instance of nonstop lights that covers the whole screen lasts about 90 seconds, which is far too long no matter how intense the effect is.

Then again, “fast flashes” is an understatement.  According to epilepsy.com, between five and 30 flashes a second can affect someone who’s photosensitive, and since the standard movie framerate is 24 frames per second, that means flashing for a fifth of a second at least, and at worst, flashing for every frame, which “Incredibles 2” does undoubtedly.

Even putting aside how frequently or intensely the effect is used, Pixar gave no warning before the film or in its advertisements. Within its debut weekend, theaters put up warnings of their own, but it says something when perhaps one of the most intense uses of flashing lights in recent history warranted no official warning or response from Disney.

Furthermore, flashing lights aren’t just harmful to those who suffer from epilepsy. People on the autism spectrum, people with PTSD, people with a history of vertigo or migraines, and people with vision impairment are just a few groups who can be affected. Even people without light sensitivity or other conditions complained on social media that the effects were too intense and irritating to them.

Why, then, is it necessary to bring this up three months after “Incredibles 2” released, especially if this issue has already been raised alongside it? Just because the movie isn’t relevant doesn’t mean that epilepsy warnings aren’t any less important. In fact, effects this intense show that movies need to be held to the same standard as other media, if not higher standards given the circumstances.

Take it from the writer of the gaming column, Electric Retrospective: most games have seizure warnings, even if they only contain one minor flashing effect or none whatsoever. Warnings are visible on the box, and warning screens appear before players can begin the game. Games like “Celeste” even include a photosensitive mode that removes or reduces these effects so players with light sensitivity can still enjoy the full game.

To see how harmful flashing lights can be without warning, though, one only needs to remember an infamous episode of the “Pokemon: Indigo League” anime titled “Electric Soldier Porygon.” In this episode, Ash and company enter a PC with the help of a digital Pokemon, Porygon. For those who don’t remember watching this episode, it’s because the episode was banned after its first Japanese airing due to intense flashing lights.

After Pikachu blasts missiles with its Thunderbolt attack, a six-second sequence flashes red and blue about 12 times per second. Out of about 4.6 million households the episode was viewed in, 685 children were taken by ambulance due to seizures, vertigo, and other symptoms, and over 150 children were admitted to hospitals. Over 12,000 other children felt sick after watching the episode according to a Skeptical Inquirer article.

“Indigo League” went on hiatus for four months, and despite Pikachu having caused the lights, Porygon has never appeared in the anime since the episode to prevent viewers from experiencing traumatic memories, nor have its evolutions, Porygon-2 and Porygon-Z. Japanese broadcasters created the Animated Program Image Effect Production Guidelines to tone down similar effects in other anime, and shows nowadays include warnings to watch in well-lit rooms to reduce intensity.

To be fair, say Disney was unaware that flashing lights can induce seizures and other effects. Disney could’ve simply taken advice from whoever distributes the Pokemon anime, since the distributor would know a thing or two about flashing lights. Oh, wait, that’s right, Disney recently acquired rights to distribute the Pokemon anime on Disney XD. There’s no excuse for the company to let this happen when it has prior knowledge.

The film industry needs mandatory photosensitivity warnings before movies with flashing lights as well as at ticket booths, especially since a dark theater only makes effects more intense. The best case scenario would be removing effects that prove too intense in test screenings, but if creators are unwilling to budge on removing the effects, there should at least be sensory-friendly screenings that remove them, similar to photosensitivity modes in games.

While the “Electric Soldier Porygon” incident was a tragedy with long-standing impact, “Incredibles 2” had much more dangerous effects with the added benefit of hindsight, and it still got away with no repercussions. If films aren’t held to the same standard as other mediums, an even worse flashing light incident isn’t far away. Screenslaver shouldn’t be allowed to get away scot-free as Porygon is left to be forgotten.

Sean Mullins – Technology Columnist

This is Sean’s third year on the ECHO, having contributed to the site during journalism class in his sophomore year and becoming a columnist and blogger in his junior year. Sean writes Electric Retrospective, a column dedicated to gaming editorials and reviews, as well as a blog also titled Electric Retrospective that posts news stories and reviews every Tuesday.

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