Film and TV leaders explain why physicists are welcome in their worlds

27 June 2016

Scientists are playing a greater role than ever as expert advisers in film, television, and video gaming and there is a shortage of people with STEM skills in the sector, according to speakers at a discussion of physics and film on 21 June.

Film and TV leaders explain why physicists are welcome in their worlds

At the event, held in London by the IOP’s Physics Communicators Group, Dr David Kirby said that concerns over the way science was portrayed by Hollywood had led to greater involvement by scientists as consultants for films with a scientific or science fiction theme.

Kirby, a former evolutionary geneticist who is senior lecturer in science communication studies at the University of Manchester, said it was now “almost becoming standard” for consultants to be asked to check facts and give advice on films that touched on science.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab had fact-checked The Martian, for example, while many scientists had praised the scientific accuracy of Deep Impact, a film about a comet on a collision course with Earth that had had considerable input from consultants.

There had also been extensive consultation with scientists in the making of Jurassic Park. Showing a clip from the early stages of production where a velociraptor was mistakenly given a lizard-like tongue, Kirby said this had been changed on the advice of scientific consultant Jack Horner, who instead suggested making use of the dinosaur’s warm breath and complex communication skills for dramatic effect. “It’s not about just telling film-makers that they’re wrong but about offering alternatives,” he said.

Actors playing scientists also needed and sought advice on pronouncing scientific vocabulary and carrying out “scientific actions” such as using a pipette or even writing equations rapidly on a blackboard, he said. In A Beautiful Mind and in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, for example, scientific consultants had had to act as “hand-doubles” to perform these tasks.

Scientists were motivated to work on such films because they were a really good way of calling attention to a scientific issue, Kirby said. They were also “acting like the Ghost of Christmas Future,” he said, helping film-makers to create bleak expectations in some cases, but also to depict desirable technologies in others, sometimes stimulating demand for creating these products. Scientists’ involvement was useful for both the science community and the entertainment industry, he argued.

Film and TV leaders explain why physicists are welcome in their worlds

Award-winning astrophysicist Professor Giovanna Tinetti also paid tribute to the scientific accuracy of films such as The Martian and said that fiction could be good at conveying scientific information. But, she said, “the truth is stranger and sometimes even more interesting than the fiction”.

Describing some of her research on exoplanets, she compared several of the fictional planets depicted in science fiction films with the types of planets now being discovered. There were super-Earths, some of which might be water worlds like the planet Miller in Interstellar, planets that could be ice worlds like Mann in the film, and others that were circumbinary planets like Tatooine or lava worlds like Mustafar in the Star Wars series. No exo-moons, like Pandora in the film Avatar, had yet been discovered, though some scientists were trying to find them, she said.

She went on to describe future plans for exoplanet research missions such as ARIEL, which is competing to be the European Space Agency’s next medium-class space mission, as well as Twinkle, and its related education project EduTwinkle. “I really believe that it’s important to send a strong message to the next generation early on,” she said.

Steve Crabtree, series editor of the BBC’s programme Horizon, also believed that interesting narratives were crucial to communicating science to the public. “If we can entertain people while taking them through a difficult explanation of physics, then job done,” he said. He described the history of Horizon, which is the world’s longest running science documentary series, having started in 1964.

Showing clips from the early years of the series to the present day, including a programme on particle physics with contributions from Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, one showing Stephen Hawking speaking in his own voice and another with Brian Cox at CERN before he became more widely known, he described how the style of Horizon had changed.

From the latter half of the 1990s the programme had started to employ film-makers who brought in grand music and sweeping shots, but some elements remained the same. Crabtree said that he was not a scientist and had left school at 15 to work in a shipyard, before going to art school then getting into making films. Though the ultimate choice of topics was down to him, he was advised by teams that included journalists and scientists, he said.

The meeting heard from two speakers who described how the creative industries were hungry for people with STEM skills. Yen Yau, talent development manager at cultural education charity Into Film, said the creative industries, including film, television and video games, accounted for one in 12 jobs in the UK but were not able to attract enough UK entrants. The job opportunities could be found around the regions and there was a need for people who were creative as well as good at STEM subjects, she said.

Rob Pieke, head of software at the Moving Picture Company, spoke about how the ability to understand and apply physics was crucial to creating visual effects and computer-generated images. In order to give artists the tools to turn concepts into believable 3D worlds, the industry needed to recruit people who could “do something useful with the equations”, he said. “The skills shortage in our industry is staggering. We are hiring,” he said.