David Kirby wrote the book on science consulting for TV and film – literally. The molecular biologist turned Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester became interested in science in film and TV during his time as a professor at American University. His book, Lab Coats in Hollywood, explores the intersection of science and entertainment, with some really great examples that he discusses in the interview below. Plus, Kirby tells us what surprised him the most in writing the book, what inspires him, and what message he wants to share with future screenwriters and producers.
Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in evolutionary genetics?
What I found most appealing about evolutionary genetics was that it was about understanding how important connections are to evolution. My Ph.D. work examined the adaptive value of genetic interactions in natural selection. I found that mutations at two separate DNA sites could be deleterious on their own, but would be advantageous for an organism when found together. I was very proud of that work and my publications on that topic are still heavily cited in the field. In fact, that work fed into my future research on science and cinema. It showed me how cooperation can be a good strategy for media production when you have participants bringing complimentary expertise to a production like scientists and filmmakers.
You transitioned from teaching biology at American University to teaching science communication at the University of Manchester. How and why did you change your teaching track?
During my time at American University I organized a “Film and Biology” night that fuelled my interest in the relationship between fictional representation of science and attitudes toward science in American culture. In particular, I became fascinated with the ways fictional films utilized scientific ideas and concepts within their stories. Following this interest I wrote an academic essay showing how the movie Gattaca (1997) serves as a bioethics text that does not fault the technology of genetic engineering, but instead critiques the ideology of genetic determinism. I subsequently wrote a number of other essays exploring how science-fiction movies simultaneously reflect and influence the cultural meanings of genomics and genetic engineering.
Even though I was pretty successful as a bench scientist, I felt that researching science and the media was a better way to make a difference for science as an institution. I decided to work in the field of science communication not as a practitioner, but as someone who could study the process of science communication and make recommendations to the scientific community on how communication practices could be improved. The more I wrote about the topic of science and media, though, the more I realized that if I wanted my work to have a larger impact I would have to re-train myself to do research in the humanities and social sciences. So, in 2001 I left bench science to undertake a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Re-training Fellowship in Cornell University’s Department of Science and Technology Studies and Department of Communication.
How did you become involved with The Exchange? What do you think of the program?
In the spring of 2008 I met the founders of The Exchange before it was unveiled that fall while I was giving a talk on science and entertainment at a workshop in Los Angeles. I also wrote a blog piece for The Exchange during its first year on the controversy in the United States about the Darwin bio-pic Creation. I interviewed The Exchange’s former director Jennifer Ouellette for my book Lab Coats in Hollywood. She was kind enough to put me in touch with physicist Jim Kakalios who The Exchange had placed within the production of the film Watchmen. Jim provided me with some great anecdotes that ended up in the book.
I think The Exchange does a great job. Funnily enough, the initial concluding chapter of my book was a call to have a scientific organization start a program like The Exchange. When The Exchange was unrolled in 2008 it made this recommendation irrelevant! I think there are several elements that work well for the organization. It is well located in Los Angeles and has developed significant connections within the entertainment industry. Likewise, it draws legitimacy from its parent organization the National Academy of Sciences, which can open many doors. Most importantly, the program has shown concrete results during the last three years that highlight how scientific authenticity can improve entertainment products. I also think it is important that they do not pressure filmmakers or TV producers to take on board scientific experts. They offer to pair up scientists with entertainment professionals and let them see the value of these collaborations themselves. The more entertainment professionals who find success working with The Exchange, the more it is becoming standard practice to seek out their scientific advice. Could it be better? Of course, any initiative like this will need to grow and change but they are on the right track as far as I am concerned.
Why did you write Lab Coats in Hollywood? What impact did you want the book to have?
In writing this book, I wanted to uncover the backstage role that scientists have played in the production of movies both recent and historic. There are plenty of books that examine the depictions of science and/or scientists in movies and TV shows. There are also a large number of books that look at the “real science” of movies and TV shows, showing what science in these texts is wrong and which science is correct, which can be fun. But, there were no books that asked the question: What decisions were made during production that explained why these depictions of science are the way they are? I was particularly drawn to the fact that scientists could be involved in helping filmmakers make these decisions. Studying the interactions between scientists and filmmakers would also help us better understand the nature of scientific expertise. What do filmmakers consider “science-y” enough to bring in an outside expert?
I had three audiences in mind for the book in terms of impact. First, I wanted the public to understand that incorporating science in movies is an incredibly complex process. I also would like the public to see how creative science can be as an activity and that scientific expertise is much broader than merely a collection of facts in a textbook. For entertainment professionals, I am hoping that the book’s concrete examples of how scientific advice improved a wide variety of movies will help facilitate more scientist/entertainment interactions. Finally, I would like the book to motivate the scientific community to think more critically about the notion of scientific accuracy in movies and TV shows. It is just not possible to get 100% accuracy in movies. Scientific facts serve as the starting point for filmmakers who then use their own professional judgment to determine if, and how, these facts must be subverted during production. But, science consultants can help filmmakers craft high-profile cinematic narratives that have the potential to excite the public about the possibilities of scientific research.
Lab Coats in Hollywood is full of examples of science onscreen. Can you share one or two of your favorite examples?
One of my favorite examples from the book involves computer scientist John Underkoffler’s work as a consultant for Minority Report. What Underkoffler’s experience showed me is that for some scientists and engineers, Hollywood movies are a golden opportunity to create cinematic technologies that function as “real” objects within the film world (what I call “diegetic prototypes”) that can stimulate desire in audiences to see these potential technologies become realities. The creation of fictional technologies within cinematic narratives has since proven to be a successful strategy for technological development and diegetic prototypes are a new addition to designers’ tool kits.
Underkoffler developed Minority Report’s “gestural interface” technology that allows Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, to move objects around on his computer screen through hand gestures. Underkoffler understood that the most successful cinematic technologies are ones that are taken for granted by characters in the film world. For Minority Report, this meant that the gestural interface technology appeared to be something Anderton has used before it appeared on the screen and something he will use again even when the camera is gone. Underkoffler created an entire system of commands and gestures for his fictional gestural interface, including training videos, manuals, and a dictionary of gestures based on American international sign language, SWAT team commands, air traffic control signals, and the Kodály hand system for musical notes. He even added a design “flaw” to the technology to make it seem more like a real technology. Ultimately, his onscreen technology was so compelling that it convinced funders to provide the financing Underkoffler needed to start the company Oblong Industries, which turned the fictional technology into a real-world technology called the “g-speak spatial operating environment.” From Underkoffler’s perspective, his work as a science consultant on Minority Report was not simply a minor component in this story; his well-worked-out cinematic technology was the crucial element in the development process.
The mathematical authenticity of movie equations provides some of my other favorite examples. One of the key duties for the science consultants I spoke with was to help actors “act like scientists.” One element of acting like a scientist that most people would not think about is the fact that writing out mathematical equations by hand is a skill scientists develop through years and years. It is very difficult for actors to pick up this skill quickly and they rarely look natural writing out equations themselves. So, in many cases the filmmakers had to rely on film techniques to make it seem as if the actors were mathematically inclined. In one case they had a mathematician write out the equations while on camera, or at least his hands were on camera. Mathematician Dave Bayer of Columbia University served as a “hand double” for actor Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind so that the writing of the equations had a natural flow. This also meant he had to serve as Crowe’s hand double in all other scenes involving close-ups. Along these same lines, filmmakers for the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still not only needed the equations on the blackboard to look authentic, actor Keanu Reeves had to look like he was writing the equations out himself. To achieve this, the art director had SETI astronomer Seth Shostak write out the equations on a blackboard in pencil. Reeves then traced over these equations in chalk during filming to make it look like he was writing them out. The filmmakers later used editing tricks to make it look like Reeves was writing faster than he was.
For me, examples like these made the book fun to write. For one thing, they show that being a scientist is more than just knowing scientific facts. These examples also reveal what is fascinating about movie magic. That by using standard movie techniques filmmakers can turn anyone, even Keanu Reeves, into a scientific genius.
In writing Lab Coats in Hollywood, what surprised you the most?
The biggest thing that surprised me was that most filmmakers care a great deal about scientific integrity. The stereotype, of course, is that Hollywood filmmakers are money-driven hacks who will abandon scientific accuracy at the drop of a hat. In my interviews with both scientists and filmmakers I found that this could not be further from the truth. Sure, some filmmakers are pretty cavalier with scientific integrity, but most filmmakers see the value in scientific authenticity. Filmmakers are professionals who take pride in their artistic creations, and the constraints of scientific realism provide them with challenges. It bothers most filmmakers when they have to abandon scientific accuracy, because it means they were unable to meet the challenges of creating an entertaining story within these constraints. As someone with scientific training, it should not have surprised me that another profession could be just as detail-oriented as scientists. The amount of work that goes into making sure that the smallest details of a set or a special effect are correct is staggering.
Another thing that surprised me was that entertainment cultures differed from scientific cultures in some pretty substantial ways. For one, scientific cultures tend to be egalitarian academic communities. Ph.D. students and post-docs can generally speak with senior researchers without much problem. Entertainment cultures, on the other hand, are not egalitarian communities. Instead I found that film crews have a very rigid hierarchy of superiors and subordinates. The problem for science consultants is that they do not have a specific place in this hierarchy. So, scientists can often end up overstepping their bounds. I also found that some scientists felt that they needed to be careful about how they spoke with entertainment professionals, especially about the ways in which they phrased their advice about a script’s “bad science.” As professional science consultant Donna Cline told me, when she recommends dialogue changes to a script writer she does it carefully, “with tea and scones.”
Thinking of the next generation of TV writers and producers, what message would you like to share with them?
My research shows very clearly that scientific expertise can be incredibly valuable in helping you create plausible, authentic, and aesthetically appealing movies and TV shows. It is most useful if you bring scientists into your production as early as possible. Not just for their expert knowledge, but also for what I refer to as scientists’ “expertise of logic.” Scientific training develops an ability to parse through small details, but it also gives scientists a capacity for understanding and seeing the connections within complex systems, a skill that can prove beneficial for screenwriters, producers, and directors as you flesh out the structural foundations of your plots. A common public perception of science is that it is devoid of creativity or that creativity hinders a practice built around objectivity. Yet, science is an incredibly creative process built around the skills of speculation, synthesis, integration, and problem solving. Certain entertainment professionals, like James Cameron, bring scientists in as advisors very early during production because they understand that scientists’ expertise can be used to examine film and TV scenarios holistically.
Although scientific expertise can be very useful, I would also caution you not look at science in films and TV shows exclusively through the lens of “accuracy.” (Accuracy is a term I consider very problematic in the context of fiction.) Remember that films and TV shows do not generally succeed critically or financially because of the volume of accurate science they contain. Rather, movies and TV shows are successful when you use science as a creative tool to make your texts visually remarkable, intellectually appealing, and dramatically engaging. The goal for your science consultants, then, is to assist you in negotiating scientific authenticity within your own context of narrative, genre, and audience. Just as scientists are scientific experts, you are entertainment experts who understand best how to deal with the constraints imposed by the media of film and TV. Rather than inhibit creativity, working with a science consultant should compliment your skills at creating entertaining products.
What inspires you? Anything you can share about your next project?
I am grateful every day that I get to combine my two passions of science and movies. But I am also inspired by the idea that my research can help enhance the public image of science. My next project actually stems out of an early blog post I did for The Exchange. I am working on a book tentatively titled Playing God: Science, Religion, and Cinema, which will analyze how cinema served as a battleground over science’s role in influencing morality in American culture. I am looking at how religious and scientific communities attempted to influence what appeared on the screen and how filmmakers negotiated this cultural minefield. This book will examine how censor boards, including the Production Code Administration, often dictated what scientific subjects were considered appropriate for films and which were considered indecent. Many films, such as Blind Bargain (1922) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), ran afoul of censor boards for their inclusion of evolution and Darwinism. The book will also illuminate recent controversies concerning religious objections to films featuring evolutionary themes such as the 2009 film Creation, whose sympathetic portrait of Charles Darwin prevented it from initially finding a distributor on the United States. I will also consider the various ways religious organizations have responded to scientific depictions in popular movies for their own propagandistic purposes, such as the intelligent design inspired The Happening (2008), the family values friendly March of the Penguins (2005), and the evolutionary pantheism of Avatar (2009). In many ways I am going back to my roots as an evolutionary biologist. Given the continued battle about evolutionary thought in America, I think it is vital we understand the role of films and TV shows in shaping our cultural meanings of science.