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Behind the Scenes: How Physicists Maintain Movie Realism

Moviegoers crave imaginative storytelling and fantastic settings. But they also want movies to be believable, and that's where scientists play their part. Behind some of Hollywood's biggest movies—such as Watchmen, Tron: Legacy, and Star Trek—there's a team of science consultants that help directors create new worlds that remain (mostly) true to the laws of physics. And some of that movie magic has translated into exciting new technologies.

Since 2008, the Science & Entertainment Exchange has connected filmmakers with scientists in an effort to more accurately depict science in movies and television. The exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences, bringing together some of the brightest minds in science research across many disciplines. Nonetheless, before the exchange existed, scientists still regularly contributed their expertise to film studios.

For instance, the 2002 film Minority Report featured Tom Cruise deftly controlling his computer special gloves and various hand gestures recommended by a computer scientist. Although the technology seemed a bit far-fetched at the time, it has evolved into something very real. John Underkoffler served as the science adviser for Minority Report and created the system Cruise used in the movie. After working at MIT for many years, Underkoffler has started his own company focused on the innovative g-speak spatial operating environment originally featured in the movie. It's akin to Xbox Kinect on steroids, and you can see all of the cool motion capture in the video below.

Video Courtesy Oblong Industries.

Other consultants deal with more esoteric, theoretical physics. 2009's Star Trek, for instance, featured wormhole time traveling and warp speed spacecraft. Technologies like these won't be around any time soon, but they are certainly plausible consequences of theoretical physics.

Similarly, the comic book movie Watchmen featured input from University of Minnesota Physicist James Kakalios, particularly for the character Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan—a former physicist turned demigod after a physics experiment gone awry—has many superpowers: He can clone himself, travel to remote areas almost instantaneously and take apart complex objects with a wave of his hand.

In the video below, Kakalios explains how Dr. Manhattan's "intrinsic field" was removed. Although there's no such intrinsic field, Kakalios details how you can cancel out two waves by adding one with another that is 180 degrees out of phase, effectively removing a field. Kakalios also invokes quantum mechanics to explain how diffraction patterns could explain Dr. Manhattan's cloning ability. The filmmakers certainly stretched the available science pretty far, but Kakalios hopes that his consulting gave them a stronger scientific basis for their development of Dr. Manhattan.

Video Courtesy University of Minnesota.

While scientists are trying to keep accurate science in movies, nitpickers will always find scientific fallacies in movie scripts. But part of the enjoyment derived from movies, at least for this blogger, stems from stretching the imagination just beyond what is possible.

For more information on science consulting in film, check out the Science & Entertainment Exchange's website. If you're a scientist looking to break into the exciting albeit not so lucrative field of science consulting for entertainers, take a look at this blog post by Jennifer Ouellette.

From left to right, the top images are courtesy of Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, and Disney, respectively.


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