Communicating science in films

This blog is a review of the research article “Scientists on the Set: Science Consultants and the Communication of Science in Visual Fiction”.

“What does a dinosaur excavation site look like?”, “What equipment would a bio-level 4 laboratory include?” and “What kinds of instruments do volcanologists use?” Filmmakers for Jurassic Park need to know these questions. To find out the answers, they engaged professionals called “science consultants” or “science advisers”.

Science consultants include people from high-profile scientists to laboratory technicians. Besides facts checking, they also help to give a “scientific culture” to the film. This includes helping the filmmakers to portray a scientist, assisting actors to pronounce the scientific words and phrases, and designing the scientific set, such as the molecular biology laboratory in Jurassic Park.

Jurassic_Park_raptors.jpg

A laboratory scene from Jurassic Park (1993)

Motivations

The motivation for fimmakers to engage science consultants is clear. By associating a scientist’s name to the film, they are telling the audience “Hey, the science in our film is accurate. We have consulted the expert”. For the same reason, they often highlight scientists in the film’s press and marketing material.

The reasons for scientists to work on fictional films, on the other hand, are multi-fold. Many scientists see it as their responsibility to portray the science correctly to the public. Others take it as an opportunity for promoting scientifically based social movements (such as environmental issues). In terms of financial gain, most of the science consultants prefer to receive research funds or no compensation at all, rather than actual payment for their services. Many of the researchers felt that it is their “duty” to impart knowledge to the public, and that it will be “unethical” for them to take money for this otherwise noble act.

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A scene from Missions to Mars (2000)

Other than individual scientists, scientific institutions such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is also actively collaborating with the entertainment industry. It has its own specialized “Entertainment Industry Liaison” department and has been involved in the production of several films, including Deep Impact (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), and Space Cowboys (2000). On each of these films, NASA provided technical advice on the sets, access to its scientists for scientific advice, script analysis, and the use of facilities and equipment. While they may not receive financial benefits, NASA views fictional consulting as an excellent way to promote its agency’s mission and the scientific projects.

Conflicts

Although both the entertainment industry and scientific community have incentives to work together, they have conflicts in their needs as well. Unlike scientists, the primary agenda of a film is not to produce accurate or educational communications about science, but to produce images of science by either encouraging excitement or instilling fear about science and technology.

Oftentimes, “scientific accuracy” needs to give way to issues of filmability, budget, and drama. In reality, presenting the science realistically could be very costly. Some have the view that scientists are only “advisers” and hence filmmakers have various reasons for accepting or rejecting their advice. However, it is wasted time and money for filmmakers to hire a scientist only to ignore all their advice.

Most consultants understand filmmakers’ constraints, but they are also impressed with most filmmakers’ efforts to accommodate their recommendations. There are many examples where scientists’ advice changed the presentation of science in a film, justifying the need for the presence of science consultants in the filmmaking process.

Must we represent scientific accuracy in films?

Studies have found that fictional portrayal of science have an impact on public attitudes towards science. A film is likely to negatively affect public attitude toward science if scientists are depicted as “mad or bad”, science is presented as “dangerous”, or laboratories expressed a sense of secrecy. Science consultants can help to prevent the depiction of scientists as one-dimensional stereotypes. Similarly, they can help filmmakers to create images and narratives that convey the “excitement” of scientific research or communicate a sense of “awe” about the natural world. For instance, whether the surface of Mars matches the “real” Mars or not does not matter if the film is able to inspire people about the possibility of Mars exploration. In this regard, when saying the presence of scientists in the filmmaking process can improve the public understanding of science, we mean more about public appreciation of science.

Reference:

Kirby, D.A. (2003). Scientists on the set: science consultants and the communication of science in visual fiction. Public Understand. Sci. 12. 261-278.

Photo credit goes to:

http://i100.photobucket.com/albums/m38/jovsg/TV%20and%20Film%20Images/Jurassic_Park_raptors.jpg

http://scienceinseconds.com/cmsFiles/pageImages/mars_mission.jpeg

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