David Kirby's Lab Coats in Hollywood Explains How Science Makes Sci-Fi and Comic Book Movies Plausible

Jodie Foster plausibly listens for aliens in Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel Contact.
Jodie Foster plausibly listens for aliens in Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel Contact.

When we watch 2001 or Deep Impact or Avatar, how is it that we accept (at least for two hours or so) what we are seeing? As Professor David Kirby of the University of Manchester argues in his new book, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, much cinematic plausibility results from the contributions of science consultants.

Kirby's book looks at the history of science advisers working in the film industry, and the ongoing relationship between the science establishment and the media. He'll be at Book Soup this Saturday to discuss and sign copies, but we interviewed him first:

How are working relationships established between science consultants and filmmakers?

In the 1990s and earlier, it was almost always filmmakers approaching the scientists. But over the last ten years or so, programs at USC, and the Science and Entertainment Exchange, run by the National Academy of Sciences, have become more active in reaching out to filmmakers. Some consultation happens incredibly early. Writers doing spec scripts will grab a scientist and take them to dinner and get ideas that way.

There's a recurring idea throughout your book about science consultants not just lending information, but actually contributing story content to films.

Particular filmmakers -- Spielberg, Cameron, Ron Howard and others -- respect science at a deep level. They bring scientists in early on because they know their input will contribute to the drama of the story. One of my favorite stories in the book is about the film Deep Impact, where the entire sequence showing astronauts landing on a comet was largely created by science consultants -- because the filmmakers didn't know what happened on a comet's surface.

This all comes back to the idea of plausibility versus accuracy. Plausibility is far more important in terms of science in cinema than accuracy. "Accuracy" is a loose concept in any case. I like to show my students the opening sequence from Ang Lee's version of Hulk. And I ask them, "Is that an accurate representation of the Hulk?" And it throws them for a loop, because the only way it could be accurate is if the Hulk is real.

Filmmakers who understand what science consultants can do for them already understand plausibility. They don't get bogged down by "accuracy." Even all of these comic book movies that are out now use science consultants to help in terms of plausibility.

Really? How do science consultants contribute to a comic book film?

On Thor, consultants helped with the scientific sets -- the astrophysics lab. Then of course there's the notion of acting. You need a scientist to tell actors how to act like a scientist, how to repeat the jargon, the body language.

Then there's the fact that it's 2011 and you don't think your audience is going to buy into the notion of Norse gods existing and coming down to Earth, so you switch them to this scientifically advanced race. You bring a scientist in to explain how these characters could travel instantaneously across vast distances and give the whole thing a scientific veneer. Once you've taken care of that, it helps allow an audience to enjoy the non-scientific aspects of a film.

Can you give me a few examples of "science done right" in the movies?

Scientists generally love Contact, the Jodie Foster film based on the Carl Sagan novel. Because Sagan originated the project and continued to work on it on his deathbed, the filmmakers felt a real commitment to making the science as accurate as possible.

Certainly 2001 is often held up as the gold standard for scientifically accurate films. Kubrick went to great lengths to make sure it adhered to what scientists were talking about at the time, and it was very accurate for its time. Deep Impact is considered pretty accurate, although that's usually in comparison to Armageddon, which came out the same year. Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain has some incredibly accurate lab scenes, dialogue, and scientific procedures.

Dr. Frank Poole waches the news on something that looks suspiciously like an iPad in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dr. Frank Poole waches the news on something that looks suspiciously like an iPad in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What about "science done wrong"?

The recent film 2012 had scientists going crazy. I talk in the book about Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2000 film The 6th Day, where they didn't bring any science consultants on. The science in that movie is totally ludicrous.

Lately it seems like Hollywood's emphasis on gadgetry -- 3-D, DBox, special effects in general -- would be employing more scientists on the technical end rather than as consultants.

Right, and a lot of scientists have fed into that machine in Los Angeles. It used to be the military-industrial complex. Now you could refer to it as the military-entertainment complex. The technology is very expensive, but science consultants are usually free, so the industry has found a way to hedge its bets. The films need to be plausible, or no one is going to want to see them. If you've spent all this money on a 3-D special effects extravaganza and people don't buy it, you're in trouble.

David Kirby will discuss his book and sign copies at Book Soup this Saturday, June 25, at 5 p.m.

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