Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

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Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, is perhaps the most scientifically accurate film ever produced. The film presented such a plausible, realistic vision of space flight that many moon hoax proponents believe that Kubrick staged the 1969 moon landing using the same studios and techniques. Kubrick's scientific verisimilitude in 2001 came courtesy of his science consultants — including two former NASA scientists — and the more than sixty-five companies, research organizations, and government agencies that offered technical advice. Although most filmmakers don't consult experts as extensively as Kubrick did, films ranging from A Beautiful Mind and Contact to Finding Nemo and The Hulk have achieved some degree of scientific credibility because of science consultants. I n Lab Coats in Hollywood, David Kirby examines the interaction of science and cinema: how science consultants make movie science plausible, how filmmakers negotiate scientific accuracy within production constraints, and how movies affect popular perceptions of science. Drawing on interviews and archival material, Kirby examines such science consulting tasks as fact checking and shaping visual iconography. Kirby finds that cinema can influence science as well: Depictions of science in popular films can promote research agendas, stimulate technological development, and even stir citizens into political action.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hollywood's employment of scientific advisors is more complex than mere verisimilitude—it's an intricate dance with risks and rewards for both parties, argues Kirby in his first book, a history of Hollywood's relationship with science. The participation of experts in blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Deep Impact not only help the filmmakers, but helps raise awareness of scientific issues like global warming and nuclear energy. Their participation can even impact fundraising efforts for the scientists and their organizations or concerns. Details like the handwritten equations in A Beautiful Mind and the removal of kelp from Finding Nemo, which grows in cold, not tropical waters, lend authenticity. Jurassic Park's depiction of dinosaurs as birds rather than reptiles both educated the public and spurred heated scientific discourse. Even when filmmakers get it wrong, as they did by both simplifying and overstating the effect of a gigantic asteroid in Armageddon, the benefits for NASA (exposure, script approval) outweighed the factual inconsistencies. From "prophetic" early films like 1929's Woman in the Moon science-focused movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey to admitted fiascos like The Core, Kirby's command of the subject makes for entertaining reading and, likely, more informed viewing. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"For movie-lovers everywhere, it provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how art and science meet in producing motion pictures we find delightful." — Science

"For that strange corner where science nut meets movie buff, this is a very enlightening book." — Booklist

"From 'prophetic' early films like 1929's Woman in the Moon science-focused movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey to admitted fiascos like The Core, Kirby's command of the subject makes for entertaining reading and, likely, more informed viewing." — Publishers Weekly

"[O]ne of the most in-depth books on the intersection of science and Hollywood to date." —

"Kirby's book is honest and true, well-researched, unique, and easy to read." — Jeff Schmerker, The Journal of Mind and Behavior

"This is a must-read for anyone interested in popular representations of science. Kirby describes the ways that visual media interpret, naturalize, and engage with scientific theories (be they well-accepted, controversial, or fantastical), and how some scientists in turn manipulate cinematic depictions for their own ends. Plus, have I mentioned how much fun it is?"—Carla Nappi, New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262014786
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/2011
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 1,544,552
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David A. Kirby is Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the Centre for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester, England.

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Read an Excerpt

Lab Coats in Hollywood

Science, Scientists, and Cinema
By David A. Kirby

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01478-6

Chapter One

Scientific Expertise in Hollywood: The Interactions between Scientific and Entertainment Cultures

Space may be the final frontier but it's made in a Hollywood basement. —Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Californication," 1999

In 2009 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hired Hollywood filmmakers to digitally enhance footage of the Apollo 11 Moon landings for the Apollo program's fortieth anniversary. NASA had taped over the original video footage and alternative footage was grainy. To clean up the images NASA employed Lowry Digital, which had previously remastered copies of Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942). Of course, the filmmakers' collaboration played into the claims of those who consider the Moon landing itself to be a hoax. This vocal minority believes that the pinnacle of humanity's scientific achievement was made in a Hollywood basement.

More accurately, many hoax proponents think that director Stanley Kubrick created the footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon in Shepperton Studios of Surrey, England. Kubrick's vision of space travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was so impressive and the visuals were so realistic that hoax supporters have claimed that the film was the means by which NASA tested the cinematic techniques for creating the hoax films. Alternatively, they argue that NASA only lent its assistance in making 2001 to coerce Kubrick into staging the Moon landings on the same sets. The televised images coming from the Moon bore too much resemblance to media images that the hoax supporters had previously seen in Kubrick's film and in other realistic space movies like Destination Moon (1950) and Conquest of Space (1955). 2001 can easily be called the most scientifically accurate film ever made for its time. Kubrick's film felt authentic and the scientific authenticity of this fictional text made it easy to see how some people believed filmmakers could fake the Moon landings.

Kubrick used cinematic language in 2001 as a means to explore complex ideas about the relationship between humanity and technology as well as humanity's place in the universe. For Kubrick, explorations of complex ideas did not emerge through simplification. Instead, they came about by displaying every detail of these complexities. Scientific verisimilitude was crucial for Kubrick not only in creating a visually rich film but also in putting the complexity of his questions into science, technology, and meaning on display. Kubrick's attention to detail was legendary, so it is not surprising that he went to great lengths to imbue his film with as much scientific accuracy as possible.

Influenced by both Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and the experimental style of the French New Wave movement of the 1960s, Kubrick's goal for 2001 was the transformation of science fiction movies from juvenile adventure stories into a medium of intellectual exploration comparable to science fiction literature. To this end, the filmmaker hired former NASA space scientist Frederick Ordway as his primary science consultant to work on the film for almost three years (figure 1.1).

Ordway had founded an aerospace consultancy and thus had contacts with every major organization working on rocket development. A glance at the list of organizations contributing scientific and technical advice for 2001 dwarfs such input for any other film before or since. With Ordway's assistance the production staff consulted with over sixty-five private companies, government agencies, university groups, and research institutions. In addition, Kubrick hired Ordway's business partner, aerospace engineer Harry Lange, as a production designer. Lange had previously worked for NASA illustrating advanced space vehicle concepts including propulsion systems, radar navigation, and docking techniques. Piers Bizony describes Lange's job at NASA as visualizing "as-yet-unborn vehicle concepts, so that NASA and its associated army of corporate collaborators could communicate their ideas for the future." Essentially, Kubrick was asking Lange to do the same for his film.

Kubrick needed assistance in planning how to portray on film events that were not even remotely in the near future. A manned trip to the Moon was right around the corner, certainly, but Moon bases were not on the agenda in the 1960s, nor were orbiting space stations and manned trips to Jupiter. In order to speculate on future space missions Ordway and Lange not only had to come up with suitable technology based on current thinking in the space sciences, but also had to provide logical explanations for why this technology would exist, how it would fit into 2001's narrative, and how it would impact the film's visuals. Ordway had to use his experience within the space science industry—whose experts were just beginning to work out these details for themselves—to extrapolate from current trends to future realities. So, for example, the "Cavradyne engines" used for 2001's spaceships were based on an assumption that continuing advances in gaseous-core nuclear reactors and high-temperature ionized gases in the 1960s would make this technology feasible by the 1990s. 6 In this way, Ordway, Lange, and Kubrick developed comprehensive background information for the spaceships, space stations, and manned missions that was logical and narratively integrated.

Although we most often associate 2001 with its groundbreaking displays of space and space travel, we forget that the film actually begins with the "Dawn of Man." Therefore, Kubrick also required scientific advice about the nature of early hominids. To get this advice Ordway brought in the famous anthropological father-and-son team of Louis and Richard Leakey. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, the screenplay's coauthor, also spoke with anthropologists about using anthropology to underscore one of the film's major themes concerning human evolution. Because Kubrick wanted the hominids' encounter with the alien black obelisk artifact to transform his hominid characters from vegetarians into omnivores, Clarke visited anthropologists Harry Shapiro and Ike Asimov to determine if such a biochemical change was possible in so short a time as a couple of weeks. Ordway also helped Kubrick work out a logical explanation for the film's one truly fantastical element: the alien black obelisk.

Kubrick was balancing a desire for scientific verisimilitude and a need for plausibility with his artistic and technical judgments as to the viability of incorporating science: "I think there were two problems in the design of anything. One was, is there anything about it that would be logically inconsistent with what people felt would actually exist; and the other one was, would it be interesting? Would it look nice?" Kubrick faced a series of choices. For example, should he incorporate a shiny, silver "look" for the interiors of his spacecraft because it was visually interesting and because audiences expected this depiction given the conventions of previous space films? Or should he work with the white ceramic look that NASA acknowledged it was using for its real-world designs (figure 1.2)? Should Kubrick ignore, as most filmmakers have done, the accepted fact that any long-term space voyage requires some means to generate artificial gravity? Or should he pay the Vickers Engineering Group $750,000 to spend six months building an actual working centrifuge (figure 1.3)? On the one hand, Kubrick's obsessive pursuit of scientific authenticity in the face of the same filmmaking constraints found in every film production (budget, aesthetics, dramatic needs, filmability, technical capacity) is what separates 2001 from other films. With both the ship's interiors and the gravity wheel (as shown in figures 1.2 and 1.3, respectively) Kubrick decided that authenticity was worth overcoming these constraints.

On the other hand, even the detail-oriented Kubrick had to sacrifice scientific authenticity when it conflicted with his creative desires or his sense of commercial necessity. Arthur C. Clarke related a story in which scientists working on the recently declassified Project Orion passed on documents to Clarke and Kubrick. Orion was a theoretical propulsion system, based on the generation of thrust using a series of nuclear explosions that push against a drive plate, which many scientists saw as the only hope for long-distance space travel. As Clarke told it, no matter how excited scientists were about this propulsion system it was abandoned because Kubrick "decided that put-putting away from Earth at the rate of 20 atom bombs per minute was just a little too comic." The Orion system did not conform to Kubrick's sense of visual drama so it was not included no matter how authentic it was.

It is also the case that some aspects of 2001 look inaccurate today even though these same aspects were considered highly accurate at the time. This is not because the special effects look dated but, rather, because the "facts" Kubrick used at the time have themselves become out of date. In order to design the surface of the Moon, for example, Ordway secured pictures from Boris Polikarpov, the Soviet science attaché in London, and from astronomer Zdenek Kopal of the University of Manchester. As Ordway recalled, these images were soon to prove inaccurate after the Moon landing of 1969 but they were the best information available when those scenes were filmed in 1966. This need to rely on science at the cutting edge also meant that several science consultants used the film's fictional nature to work through some of their own conjectural ideas. Ordway, for example, worked with several scientists on the film's astronaut hibernation scenario. One of the scientists, Ormond Mitchell of the New York College of Medicine, published an academic article based on the ideas that came out of his work on the film 2001.

Stanley Kubrick and MGM were not the only ones to profit from the large audiences for 2001 in 1968. Most of the consultants involved benefited from their association with the film's vision of the future and the space program. Kubrick traded screen time and publicity for access to dozens of organizations including IBM, Bell Telephone, Honeywell, RCA, Pan Am, and General Electric. They happily shared information on future technological developments and designs for free, just for the chance to have what I call "preproduct placements" that established their brand as "futuristic" in this high-profile film and to feature their film participation in their advertising. 2001 contextualized space travel for audiences in the same manner as Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond [Woman in the Moon] (1929) and George Pal's Destination Moon (1950) had done in previous eras. Unlike those two films, however, 2001 was not establishing the technological capabilities and societal necessity of space travel. Manned space flights had been taking place since 1961. What 2001 did was contextualize for audiences the cultural and social potential of space travel now that it was possible. Film scholar Robert Kolker contends that the power of 2001's images and narrative established the film as a modern myth: "2001 is not only a narrative of space travel but a way of seeing what space travel should look like" (emphasis in original). 2001's vision of space travel with its space stations, transport shuttles to the Moon, and interplanetary space ships is still influential.

It is tempting to view 2001 as an outlier regarding its utilization of science consultants. No other film can claim the amount and range of advice that 2001's filmmakers received during production. Despite Kubrick's obsession for details, however, 2001 only differs in degree, not in kind, from the other films I will discuss in this book. An examination of 2001 reveals the same features of science consulting found in other films with regard to both film production and cinema's impact on scientific culture. The exceptional feature of 2001 is that it demonstrates every facet of scientist/ filmmaker and science/cinema interactions. Scientific experts were called upon to help filmmakers create scientific visuals, to check facts, to provide logical explanations for speculative and fantastical situations, and to help the cast act like scientists. At the same time Kubrick and his team exerted their creative control over these elements using their own expertise to decide how to incorporate science. By the same token 2001's science consultants had an opportunity to realistically visualize their conceptions of the natural world and technological possibilities in an extremely high-profile film that disseminated their ideas to a mass audience.

Scientists working on entertainment productions certainly increase the chances that a film will contain a higher percentage of accurate science. It is important to note, however, that 2001 was successful, both critically and financially, not because of the volume of accurate science but because Kubrick used science as a creative tool to make the film visually remarkable and intellectually appealing, thereby increasing its box office potential. Kubrick's filmmaking genius was his understanding that for this particular film box office success could be achieved through an adherence to scientific authenticity as his consultants defined it within the confines of aesthetically interesting design.

Not every film can, or should, approach the level of accuracy found in 2001. Kubrick's attention to detail and rigid notion of accuracy would pose financial and technical problems for most filmmakers and with the likelihood of minimal box office gains. In addition, such an approach to scientific accuracy can make a film tedious—the opinion of many people who watch 2001 today. At the time, however, Kubrick's choice to lean heavily toward verisimilitude paid dividends given the cultural context in which 2001 was released. What this book demonstrates is that the goal for science consultants is to let filmmakers negotiate scientific accuracy within their own context of narrative, genre, and audience. Scientific expertise is incredibly valuable in helping filmmakers create plausible and visually interesting films. Yet their advice is only useful in cinematic productions if it allows filmmakers to better use their own creative expertise.

The Nature of Scientific Expertise in Hollywood

Expertise is central to interactions between scientists and the entertainment industry. The concept of scientific expertise, however, is not a simple delineation between those who possess scientific knowledge and those who do not. This is especially true of scientific expertise in Hollywood where expertise is an extremely fluid concept. It is clear from 2001's production history that filmmakers look to science consultants to contribute to areas of expertise beyond knowledge of scientific facts. The same is true of many other films: What does the surface of Mars look like? What equipment does a molecular biology lab contain? What would a paleontologist do if confronted by a living dinosaur? How can the surface of a comet contribute to a film's drama? What goes on in a United Nations meeting on climate change? How could nanotechnology be used to create a monster? I have identified the following aspects of expertise that scientists bring to the fantastical realm of Hollywood cinema:

• Fact checking is not a consultant's only duty, but it is certainly a major one. As I will argue throughout this book the question of accuracy in film is actually open to debate. Rather than fixating on scientific accuracy I try to understand how scientists and filmmakers negotiate their perceptions of this term.

• Filmmakers expect consultants to help shape science's iconography. Visual elements are of primary concern for filmmakers. Thus, they will seek out expert advice concerning visual aspects such as the look of scientific spaces and technology before they even think about other scientific elements. Iconography also includes advising actors on how to "act" like a scientist on the screen.

• One of the most important functions of a science consultant is to enhance the plausibility of cinematic events. Scientists' contributions to the believability of a film's narrative, representations, and events—the text's "film logic"—are even more important than scientific verisimilitude. Plausibility directly relates to maintaining an audience's suspension of disbelief, and thus, affects filmmakers ' ability to make money.

• Scientists' expertise helps position science into its cultural contexts, which contextualizes science's implications for society, its value as a human activity, the consequences of its use or misuse, and its ideological status. This expertise requires consultants to understand issues relating to political, economical, and social uses of science.

• Consultants are asked to use science in order to provide opportunities to create drama. Filmmakers look to scientists for help using science as a tool for drama and for tapping into the creative and speculative aspects of scientific thought.

• Studios prominently feature their consultants' scientific expertise in publicity material. By hiring scientists, studios borrow their expertise to claim legitimacy for the science on the screen.


Excerpted from Lab Coats in Hollywood by David A. Kirby Copyright © 2010 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xi

1 Scientific Expertise in Hollywood: The Interactions between Scientific and Entertainment Cultures 1

2 Cinematic Science: Scientific Representation, Film Realism, and Virtual Witnessing Technologies 21

3 Valuing Expertise: The Entertainment Industry's and Scientific Community's Motivations in the Science Consulting Relationship 41

4 Scientists on Screen: Being a Scientist, Looking Like a Lab 65

5 Cinematic Fact Checking: Negotiating Scientific Facts within Filmmaking Culture 95

6 Best Guesses: Scientific Uncertainty, Flexibility, and Scientists in the Aisles 119

7 Fantastically Logical: Fantastic Science, Speculative Scenarios, and the Expertise of Logic 145

8 Preventing Future Disasters: Science Consultants and the Enhancement of Cinematic Disasters 169

9 The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Cinematic Narratives in Generating Real-World Technological Development 193

10 Improving Science, Improving Entertainment: The Significance of Scientists in Hollywood 219

Notes 235

Index 259

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