In 2018 I wrote a review for The Incredibles 2, the sequel to the hit Pixar film about a family of superheroes. In that review, I decided to forgo actually talking about the film itself and talk about the serious topic of epilepsy and how my having that illness completely destroyed any potential enjoyment I had regarding the film.
To be honest, I’m still pissed about that experience (Obviously, you’re reading an editorial piece that is only being written because I haven’t quite done complaining about how much that film irritated me over two years ago) but you know what’s upset me even more? That everyone seems to have pretended that it didn’t happen. We moved on. That film still got critical praise out of every orifice it had, got nominated for almost every single award it could be (Thankfully losing almost every time to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which also had potential photosensitive issues but nothing on the level of Incredibles 2 which almost actively tried to cause seizures) and Disney didn’t suffer any actual consequences for what they did.
Let’s make this clear, Disney got a worse reception to firing a man for telling bad jokes a decade ago than they did when they ACTUALLY CAUSED SMALL CHILDREN TO CONVULSE UNCONTROLLABLY ON THE FLOORS OF CINEMAS AROUND THE WORLD. I’m sorry, maybe I’m just a little bit biased here but I kind of think that maybe Disney should get some sort of pushback on literally giving children seizures.
In Disney’s defence, which is something no one should ever have to type, they aren’t the only ones who have this issue. Seizure inducing lighting has been common long enough that The Simpsons have even referenced them. In their season 10 episode Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo there was a scene where Bart watches “that cartoon that causes seizures”, a reference to the (at the time) recent episode of Pokemon called Electric Soldier Porygon. In the Simpsons episode everyone falls to the floor and makes strange garbled sounds, their arms flailing sporadically in a comical fashion that is actually funny as hell to watch and a brilliant piece of satire… except, it seems like that’s what people think a seizure is like. It’s not. You wanna know what an actual seizure looks like?
This is a video of Christine Lowe having a seizure. You can see where The Simpsons went and exaggerated a lot of the motions to make such a thing watchable, because an actual seizure is not in any way funny to witness when it’s happening. It’s horrific and terrifying if you see someone having one, and worse to actually experience one, as I vividly described in my Incredibles 2 “review”. This is not something you want to experience, nor is it something you want to witness someone else experience. It’s not fun for anyone involved and Hollywood keeps threatening to make entire cinemas full of people have that not-fun collective experience together.
NOW A Warning!?
Now, I can almost hear you calling out “But if they warn you about it then it’s your own fault if you have one, they did their part”. I can sense some of you will point the finger at the epileptics who turned up and took a risk and claim that it’s not fair to those who aren’t epileptics to say that they can’t use a certain effect.
Let’s start by just pointing out one little fun fact… you don’t know you’re a photosensitive epileptic until a set of flashing lights triggers you. A warning means nothing if you don’t know that the warning is meant for you. Some people find out they’re epileptic young and can make it a regular part of their lives and prepare accordingly, while other people just don’t know until they’re older. Finding out you’re an epileptic is never fun no matter when you find out, I found out while at home in my bed surrounded by family and it’s still one of the worst memories I have in my life (and I’ve lived between 2016-2020 so my bar for shitty memories is low) so I can’t imagine how bad it would be to learn you’re an epileptic in a darkened cinema surrounded by scared strangers who saw you try and swallow your own tongue on the floor.
Here’s the second reason why them issuing a warning isn’t enough… it means I basically have to either risk my health or not see one of the most anticipated films of all time. Even if the strobes are only used for one scene, that can be enough to set someone off and as the Incredibles 2 debacle showed us, studios aren’t going to warn you ahead of time that strobes are coming. Even if they do warn you, a warning about a potentially seizure causing video means nothing except that the director didn’t care enough to find an alternative visual trick and went with the most basic, and dangerous, thing they could think of.
I know some people might say to look up time stamps and find out when a certain shot is so you can just look away… OK, let me run through that scenario using Incredibles 2 (My favourite example of all time). The movie is currently out on DVD so I go to Google and I type in “Incredibles 2 Strobe Lights Time Code” and… nothing. There’s articles about the twitter thread that sounded the alarm, but I couldn’t find a specific time code.
Keep in mind, this film is on DVD now so it should be even easier… but it’s not, because no one bothers to check WHEN the scene is. If it’s in the film at all, they slap the warning on and then it’s up to the viewer (again, some of whom will not know they’re epileptic) to look away when it pops up or to stay away. Now imagine this when the film was in cinemas where you can’t check on time codes and basically have to hope someone went and saw it and took notes of what lines of dialogue came before the strobing effect and timed it.
This isn’t much better on streaming services either, as I found out when watching True History of the Kelly Gang which has heavy strobes near the end which does have the warning that it contains strobes but those strobes only pop up in one scene near the end. They’re avoidable (and useless to the plot) but the warning is in text in the description… a description I was able to avoid easily because most streaming sites let you start a movie directly from the home page without having to read that single paragraph of text. Also, one more time, the strobes mentioned here were not in any way important to the plot and could’ve been cut out with literally no problems.
Then there’s the warnings that basically tell the audience “I do not care about epileptics”, as evidenced by the warning before the music videos for Kanye West’s songs Ni**as In Paris and All Of The Lights, which is a horribly appropriate title. Both those music videos are basically 3 minutes of strobe lights almost designed to set off seizures. Kanye’s aren’t the only music videos to do this, seizure inducing music videos are so common that there can be top ten lists of the most seizure inducing videos.
It’s a horrific list that I can’t believe someone wrote and includes the phrase ” Everyone knows the best vids come with a surgeon general’s warning”. See, it’s funny because someone could literally die while watching a music video for an artist they like… that’s how you know it’s funny, right? Fun thing I did, I went through that top ten list and sure enough they’re all pretty bad for photosensitives (my headache is not going to be fun to experience) but you wanna know how many came with a warning? 1, the Kanye West one. Every other video started almost instantly with the flickering lights that only hurts people.
Music videos using strobes are perhaps the worst ones because music videos are now found out in the general public. Personally I know my local McDonalds and my local gym both play music videos on a loop and no one is checking them for this kind of content. I know this because my local gym once happened to play a music video that featured heavy strobes (not the gyms fault, they simply tune in to one of those channels that plays nonstop music videos) and I was on a bike and had to look down the entire song in order to just barely avoid a headache. Just imagine if I had been on a treadmill or was lifting a weight above my head and was prone to the kind of seizure I linked to earlier. That 3 minute music video, and I do not say this lightly, could’ve literally caused serious injury or death had anyone in that building been photosensitive.
So, what to do?
The truth of the matter is that the best thing to do is make a fuss any time you hear of a film using strobes and for studios to just stop using them. I know some people might say “It’s censoring art” but, frankly, if an artist’s act was to fire a loaded weapon over a crowds head and there was a good risk that they might hit somebody then I think we’d want that work to be censored. I view strobes the same way, they have no use beyond making audiences ill at various degrees. So the ideal would be if they just stopped using them and audiences were willing to make a big deal about them. There’s a reason why my worst of the year lists now include the “This film tried to kill me” award, because in my own small way I hope to raise a bit of a fuss. Sadly, my own small way is just that, small.
For reviewers of the mediums that use strobe lights… stop showing that footage. I watch several YouTube reviewers who review music and movies and every time they talk about this stuff they’ll warn the audience verbally, maybe even put time stamps, but you have no need or reason to show the footage. You’re commenting on the movie or the song and could slow the footage down to remove the hazard or replace it with something else entirely. It’s a pointless risk to the audience that, at best, means you have to be on camera for less time. Plus some just put the strobe warning at the beginning of the review and then move on, which doesn’t help.
Sadly, the only people who can do something about this, if the studios won’t stop using strobes on their own accord, is the ratings system. Specifically the American ratings system, the one almost all films go through first. They only allow PG-13 movies in America to have one use of the word “Fuck” and a second use bumps it to an R, smoking in a film risks giving it an R-rating and Team America almost got an NC-17 for a scene involving large amounts of puppet sex… so why can’t strobe lighting that could cause a seizure hold the same power?
Just spitballing a system here but you have strobe lights for up to 5 seconds? That’s a PG-13 right there, up to 30 seconds and you get an R… under my system, Incredibles 2 I would’ve probably been NC-17 until they cut all the flashing out. If we have to have ratings warnings for swearing, violence and sex, why not have it apply to something that could actually cause harm to actual people? Why not at least create a warning that they can’t remove or forget? Films nowadays have ratings written into their contracts, they have to achieve certain ratings to even be released so if they know that a single strobe will hurt their box office then watch as it goes down.
Maybe all of this is pointless, maybe they’ll never do anything. Star Wars came out with strobes every single time a major character was on screen and it didn’t hurt the box office at all, nor was it brought up as one of the major issues of the film when “The film has a lethal amount of strobe lighting” should’ve been the only thing brought up. Until Hollywood is forced to change, they won’t. They won’t stop doing this on their own back, we need to push them to do it which means we need to scream louder when we see a single strobe in a film. Until they finally realise that the strobing effect isn’t worth the hassle, just remember to keep your hands away from the mouths of the person convulsing on the cinema floor and be a dear and move any drinks away so they don’t come too soaking wet. You’ll have to be prepared for this, it will happen until Hollywood finally decides to stop flashing us.