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Science in Movies: Keeping It Real

Superheroes, robot warriors and cartoon characters of all types have finally deserted the streets of San Diego, marking the close of Comic-Con International. The Physics Central team was busy all week handing out copies of our Spectra comic books about our original laser superhero. We still found some time to sneak away to a handful of the Comic-Con panels as well, and some of the panels even included some real science talk.

In particular, one of my favorite panels was titled, "The Science of Science Fiction: Canon Fodder." Hosted by Phil Plait, the "Bad Astronomer" known for his popular blog, the panel included a mix of science advisers and screenwriters for major television and film projects. Writers for movies including Prometheus, Thor and X-Men First Class explained how they try to accurately portray science, create self-consistent universes for their characters, and tell a great story all at once.

It was no surprise that the two scientists on the panel, Phil Plait and astronomer Kevin Grazier, supported the inclusion of real science in TV and film. But all of the writers were on board too for more than purely educational reasons. In fact, many of the panelists agreed that knowing more science helped them craft better stories.

"When the writers know more science, they have more choices," Phil Plait told the audience.

The panelists agreed. Jane Espenson, a writer known for her work on Firefly and Torchwood, recalled how consulting a physician for one Torchwood episode gave them a new angle on immortality. Espenson noted that there were certain implications about immortality that, "we never would have heard about without a scientist there."

I think many movie fans would agree as well. Whenever screenwriters include fascinating yet accurate science, the audience engages even more with the story. Science in films can be overdone, however, and the writers have to walk the line between adequately explaining the science behind the story and losing the audience in a sea of jargon.

"There is no story in sci-fi where you're not going to lost someone down the road," said Jon Spaihts, one of the screenwriters for the recent film Prometheus. "The goal is to get as far down the road as you can before people start falling off."

To avoid losing the audience, the panelists stressed the importance of maintaining a self-consistent universe for their characters. That's where the "Canon Fodder" plays a role. If your story is riddled with inconsistencies, the audience will pick up on that and quickly lose interest. As long as the writers stay true to the canon (the laws and assumptions built into a film's background) within their character's universe, they admit that they sometimes let scientific accuracy slide in favor of more drama.

Explosions in space are one such example. Countless science fiction movies have included thunderous explosions in space despite space's lack of a medium to transmit sound waves. But sometimes the audience just needs a bang.

Although the silence of space can be used for great dramatic effect, the panelists felt that some scenes would not be the same without sound. To justify this science slip, Jane Espenson suggested classifying the space explosions as part of the movie's soundtrack as opposed to a sound effect. It was an interesting idea, but I'm not sure if a film audience would detect that subtle difference.

Ultimately, the panelists concluded that science in movies often becomes a compromise between drama and accuracy. Whenever they can include the science accurately, the writers do so, and they seem to actively seek out science advisers for much of their work.

Sometimes, however, including all of the relevant science detracts from the story. In these cases, the writers and sometimes begrudging science advisers just have to let it go and enjoy the ride.

The Science and Entertainment Exchange sponsored the panel, and you can learn more about how they connect science advisers and TV/film writers via their website.


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