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Lab Coats in Hollywood

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

David A. Kirby
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Lab Coats in Hollywood
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29549-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History, General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Scientific Expertise in Hollywood: The Interactions between Scientific and Entertainment Cultures
    (pp. 1-20)

    In 2009 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hired Hollywood filmmakers to digitally enhance footage of theApollo 11Moon landings for the Apollo program’s fortieth anniversary.¹ 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 ofCitizen Kane(1941) andCasablanca(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 achievementwasmade in a Hollywood basement....

  6. 2 Cinematic Science: Scientific Representation, Film Realism, and Virtual Witnessing Technologies
    (pp. 21-40)

    There is certainly a tongue-in-cheek element to the newspaper story quoted here, whose alternative title could easily have been “Trained Professionals Confused by Toy.” The playful juxtaposition of “chicken soup” as the Thermos’s possible contents with the frightening and dangerous-sounding “teratogenic and mutagenic agents” is consistent with the lighthearted tone of the reporting. Despite this flippant tone, however, there is a serious undertone about the very real likelihood of mistaking a harmless children’s lunchbox Thermos for a container full of toxic biological chemicals. Imagine a firefighter who sees a white container with “WARNING: BIOLOGICAL MATERIAL” emblazoned above the international biohazard...

  7. 3 Valuing Expertise: The Entertainment Industryʹs and Scientific Communityʹs Motivations in the Science Consulting Relationship
    (pp. 41-64)

    In January 1951 astrophysicist Samuel Herrick received a phone message that producer Julian Blaustein wanted to hire him as science consultant forThe Day the Earth Stood Still(1951).¹ Herrick was the world’s leading authority on celestial mechanics who founded the Institute of Navigation and taught the first university course on astronautics. Blaustein and director Robert Wise wanted to tap into the astrophysicist’s expertise to craft a realistic interstellar spaceship as well as feature him in their publicity material. For his part, Herrick saw the film as an opportunity to promote rocketry. His research on astronavigation was not particularly practical...

  8. 4 Scientists on Screen: Being a Scientist, Looking Like a Lab
    (pp. 65-94)

    Contact(1997) was partly filmed on location at the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which is a component of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Filmmakers hired radio astronomer Bryan Butler to control the radio telescopes during filming and to serve as on-site science consultant. Butler also worked with them in Los Angeles while they filmed scenes at a mockup of the VLA’s control center. Filmmakers asked him to review script pages and to contribute unique dialogue.

    In one instance, on the spur of the moment director Robert Zemeckis needed to know: What would Contact’s star Jodie Foster’s...

  9. 5 Cinematic Fact Checking: Negotiating Scientific Facts within Filmmaking Culture
    (pp. 95-118)

    It is no surprise that film studios bring in scientific experts to fact check. The makers ofDante’s Peak(1996) had questions about portraying a volcano nearing eruption so they called volcanologists John Lockwood and Norman Macleod, and seismologist David Harlow. To visualize the Antarctic’s geological features inWhiteout(2009), the filmmakers contacted geologist Bill Coughran, the National Science Foundation’s manager for McMurdo Station. To make sure their depiction of string theory was correct,Déjà Vu’s(2006) filmmakers turned to theoretician Brian Greene who is one of string theory’s progenitors. Filmmakers require facts ranging from specific subjects, such as the...

  10. 6 Best Guesses: Scientific Uncertainty, Flexibility, and Scientists in the Aisles
    (pp. 119-144)

    King Kongwas box office champion in 1933 by a wide margin and is thought to have singlehandedly saved RKO studios from bankruptcy. The film’s groundbreaking special effects not only brought the giant ape to life, but also provided audiences with visions of long-extinct animals includingStegosaurus, Apatosaurus, Plesiosaurus, and Pteranodons. One ofKing Kong’smost memorable scenes was Kong’s battle with the king of the dinosaursTyrannosaurus rex. Special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien worked relentlessly to ensure thatKing Kong’sdinosaurs were as paleontologically correct as they were for his previous dinosaur filmsThe Ghost of Slumber Mountain(1919),...

  11. 7 Fantastically Logical: Fantastic Science, Speculative Scenarios, and the Expertise of Logic
    (pp. 145-168)

    A distinctive stylistic contrast existed between American and European approaches to science fiction cinema in the 1920s. European filmmakers favored darker lighting and expressionistic sets, while American science fiction followed the form of classical Hollywood cinema featuring a realist visual style that did not call attention to cinema’s artifice. Differences extended to narrative elements such as thematic motifs, characterization, and temporality. Film historian John Baxter argues that a significant component of the American approach was the necessity of rational explanations for fantastic situations.¹ According to Baxter, European audiences understood that extraordinary events depicted in such films as the RussianAelita...

  12. 8 Preventing Future Disasters: Science Consultants and the Enhancement of Cinematic Disasters
    (pp. 169-192)

    In “The Imagination of Disaster,” her seminal work on 1950s science fiction cinema, Susan Sontag argues that these films offer audiences pleasure in watching the “aesthetics of destruction” while presenting morality plays about dangers inherent to science and technology.³ For Sontag, science fiction films play to the medium’s strength in visualization, what she calls its “sensuous elaboration,” in communicating these dangers.⁴ While 1950s cinema highlighted the dangers of science, the tide has turned with regard to disaster films in the 1990s and 2000s. They are no longer about scientific perils. Rather, recent cinema’s sensuous elaboration of disaster highlights our need...

  13. 9 The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Cinematic Narratives in Generating Real-World Technological Development
    (pp. 193-218)

    On September 19, 1981, audiences witnessed the first successful implantation of a permanent artificial heart. The patient, a twenty-year-old woman, did not experience any physical complications after the surgery. As she walked out of the hospital the doctor told her that he had given her “a heart as good as any God ever made.” We will never know how long this woman lived because this transplant took place within the fictional filmThreshold, not in the real world. A year after the film’s release the first real permanent artificial heart transplant took place on December 2, 1982, at the University...

  14. 10 Improving Science, Improving Entertainment: The Significance of Scientists in Hollywood
    (pp. 219-234)

    In his 1959 Rede Lecture entitled “The Two Cultures,” C. P. Snow made a distinction between the cultures of science and of the arts that still forms the basis for discussions about art and science. These two cultural activities traditionally are seen as representing incommensurable world views and as distinct ways of knowing. On the surface, the interaction between scientists and the entertainment industry seems to conform to this generalization. There is certainly a long-standing perception among scientists and members of the entertainment industry that they represent two distinct cultures, with different languages, customs, value systems, cultural assumptions, and practices....

  15. Notes
    (pp. 235-258)
  16. Index
    (pp. 259-265)