Going Hollywood | October 31, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 44 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 44 | pp. 53-54 | Book Reviews
Issue Date: October 31, 2011

Going Hollywood

A look at the history of science advice in the film industry and how scientists today can participate
Department: Books
Keywords: film industry, science advice
Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, by David A. Kirby, MIT Press (2011), 264 pages, $27.95 hardback, £19.95 (ISBN-10: 0-262-01478-5; 13: 978-0-262-01478-6).
Credit: MIT Press
Cover of Lab Coats In Hollywood book
Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, by David A. Kirby, MIT Press (2011), 264 pages, $27.95 hardback, £19.95 (ISBN-10: 0-262-01478-5; 13: 978-0-262-01478-6).
Credit: MIT Press
In making the sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick went to great lengths to get the science right.
Credit: © 1978 John Jay/mptvimages.com
A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”
In making the sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick went to great lengths to get the science right.
Credit: © 1978 John Jay/mptvimages.com

Read through any archive of science fiction movies, and it’s clear that the merger of pop culture and science dates as far back as the dawn of cinema. Even more surprising than the enduring prevalence of science in film is that the relationships among film directors, scribes, and the science advisers who have influenced their works are equally rich and timeless. “Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema,” one of the most in-depth books on the intersection of science and Hollywood to date, serves as the backdrop for recounting the history of science and technology in film, how that merging influenced real-world research, and the scientists who contributed their ideas to improve the cinematic realism of science and scientists.

Written by David A. Kirby, lecturer in science communication studies at the Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Manchester, in England, the book offers a surprising, detailed analysis of the symbiotic—if sometimes contentious—partnership between filmmakers and scientists. This includes the wide-ranging services science advisers can be asked to provide to members of a film’s production staff, how these ideas are subsequently incorporated into the film, and why the depiction of scientists in film carries such enormous real-world consequences. Thorough and honest, “Lab Coats in Hollywood” is an exhaustive tome of the history of scientists’ impact on cinema and storytelling. It’s also an essential and realistic road map of the challenges that scientists, engineers, and other technical advisers might face as they seriously pursue science advising to the film industry as a career.

The essential questions the book addresses are these: Is it worth it to hire a science adviser for a movie production? Is it worth it for the scientist to be an adviser? The book’s purposefully vague conclusion is that it depends solely on how the scientist can contribute to the film’s story line and visual effects. Kirby wisely writes with an objective tone here because the topic is open to considerable debate among the scientists and filmmakers profiled in the book. Sometimes a scientist is so key to a film’s development that he or she becomes an indispensable part of the day-to-day production.

A good example is Jack Horner, paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., and technical science adviser to Steven Spielberg on “Jurassic Park” (1993) and both of its sequels. Horner, who drew from his own research on the link between dinosaurs and birds for a more realistic depiction of the film’s contentious science, helped filmmakers construct visuals; write dialogue, character reactions, and animal behaviors; and map out entire scenes. J. Marvin Herndon, a geophysicist at Transdyne Corp., approached the director of the disaster film “The Core” (2003) when he learned the plot was going to be based on his controversial hypothesis about a giant uranium ball at the center of Earth. Herndon’s ideas were fully incorporated into the film’s plot, and Herndon rode the wave of publicity from the film to publish his research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0437778100 ).

Kirby hypothesizes that sometimes a film’s poor reception might have been avoided with the help of a science adviser. He cites Arnold Schwarzenegger’s futuristic sci-fi bomb, “The Sixth Day” (2000), in which the main plot line centers on an implausible use of human cloning. Although the film may have been destined for failure in any event, Kirby posits that it could only have benefited from proper script vetting by a scientist.

By contrast, the 1998 action-adventure thriller “Armageddon” came under heavy expert criticism for its basic assertion that an asteroid “the size of Texas” could go undetected until 18 days before impact. Director Michael Bay patently refused to take the advice of his hired science gun, NASA researcher Ivan Bakey, admitting that he was sacrificing science for plot. But “Armageddon” went on to be a huge box office hit anyway.

Quite often, the presence of a science adviser is helpful though unnecessary. One anecdote from the book recalls Dustin Hoffman’s hyperobsessive shadowing of a scientist for the making of the pandemic thriller “Outbreak” (1995). Hoffman was preparing to play a virologist and wanted to infuse realism in all of his character’s reactions. He kept asking the scientist to document reactions in mundane situations that we all encounter—a traffic jam, for example—only to come to the shocking conclusion that the scientist was a “real person” just like everyone else.

The book emphasizes Hollywood’s bottom line: The story is king. Including scientists in the filmmaking process is at the discretion of the studios. When a writer, producer, or director hires a science consultant, the scientist’s expertise is utilized solely to facilitate, improve, or augment story elements for the purpose of entertaining the audience. Because of this, one of the most difficult adjustments a science consultant may face is secondary status on the set despite, perhaps, superstar status in his or her own field.

Some of the other less glamorous aspects of film consulting include heavy negotiations with unionized writers for script or story line changes, long working hours, a delicate balance between side consulting work and a day job, and most important, an inconsistent (sometimes nonexistent) payment structure per project. I was notably thrilled to see Kirby mention the pros and cons of programs such as the National Science Foundation’s Creative Science Studio (a collaboration with the University of Southern California’s School of the Cinematic Arts) and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange, both of which provide on-demand scientific expertise to the Hollywood filmmaking community in the hope of increasing and promoting the realism of science that is portrayed in film. The programs, however, have had the unfortunate effect of Hollywood studios expecting to get high-level scientific consulting for free.

The gold standard for Hollywood science advice was set by the multiple experts Stanley Kubrick consulted for his 1968 masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It is widely considered the greatest science fiction movie ever made, and certainly the most influential. Kirby devotes an entire chapter to recounting the film’s production and its integration of science. He tells how Kubrick took painstaking effort with scientific accuracy in order to explore complex ideas about the relationship between humanity and technology. He hired a wide range of science advisers—anthropologists, aeronautical engineers, statisticians, and nuclear physicists—for various stages of production.

NASA space scientist Frederick Ordway spent three years helping Kubrick develop realistic concepts for the space technology depicted in the film. What’s more, Kubrick’s staff consulted with more than 65 different private companies, government agencies, university groups, and research institutions. In the end, the technology depicted in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was so realistic that moon landing conspiracy theorists believe that the Apollo moon landing in 1969 was actually taped on Kubrick’s sets. Kubrick’s influence on the film industry’s fascination with science and technology is an undeniable legacy.

As the director of a scientific consulting company for the entertainment and media industries based in Los Angeles, I am often asked “What exactly does a science adviser do?” “Lab Coats in Hollywood” does an excellent job of answering this question. In addition to case studies, the author tells what might be expected, or not, of scientists on set and lists different areas of expertise that are in current demand in Hollywood.

He breaks down cinematic fact-checking, the most frequent task scientists are hired to perform, into four areas: facts that cannot be disputed, such as the existence of gravity; “public science,” something we all know and would think was ridiculous if filmmakers got it wrong; “expert science,” facts that are known only to specialists and experts; and, most problematic for scientists to dispel, “folk science,” incorrect science that has nevertheless been accepted as true by the public.

Another area of high demand is in helping actors look and act like real scientists. Scientists have been hired to do everything from doctoring dialogue to adding realism to an actor’s portrayal of a scientist. The movie “Contact” (1997), starring Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, is a good example of this.

Finally, Kirby writes, a scientist’s expertise can be used to help construct plausible scenarios and story lines for films. An entire chapter, the book’s finest, is devoted to two case studies, “Deep Impact” (1998) and “The Hulk” (2003), where science concepts (near-Earth asteroid impacts and genetic engineering, respectively) were researched and integrated into the stories depicted.

Kirby cautions, though, that just because science advice is sought, it may not always be welcome. A science adviser is constantly navigating cinematic storytelling constraints and a filmmaker’s desire to utilize only the most visually appealing and interesting aspects of science, he writes.

Ultimately, C&EN readers will enjoy “Lab Coats in Hollywood” for its engaging writing style, detailed exploration of the history of science in film, and, most of all, valuable advice from fellow scientists who transitioned from the lab to consulting on movie sets. Whether you are a science fiction film buff or a research scientist aspiring to be a Hollywood consultant, you will find some aspect of this book fascinating. Given the rapid proliferation of science and technology content in movies (even those outside of the traditional sci-fi genre), and the input from the scientific community that it will surely necessitate, knowing the benefits and pitfalls of this increasingly in-demand career choice is important in ensuring the accurate portrayal of science and scientists to the general public.

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