Let’s go to the movies

We savour the buttery movie theatre atmosphere, pry our runners off the sticky Coke on the floor, and lick the salt off our fingers as the projector begins to flicker. A scene lights up the screen before us. In seconds we might scan the Egyptian horizon from atop the great pyramids, or hack through the verdant Amazon jungle with a machete, or even touch down on the moon. Within the hour we could fall in love with a chisel-jawed man who jumps from a burning building unharmed. We could hate someone we have never met before. By the end of the movie we might think it would be a clever idea to build a baseball diamond in a corn field, or chuck aside everything and move to Seattle.

We see a scientifically created illusion. The action is not continuous but rather a series of still images run together to create the illusion of movement. The actors are not the characters they portray and they read words scripted in advance. Lighting manipulates the scene. Computer technology creates characters or entire worlds that exist only in our imaginations.

No illusions about the illusion

All educated adults in the theatre know they are watching actors and the movement is not real. They are under no illusions about the illusion. And yet, they laugh, they cry, they jump or they sit on the edge of their seats. They respond physically. People know what they see is not real, and yet they choose to surrender to it, suspend disbelief and be carried away. Not only do they choose it, they want it; some would say crave it. It fulfills a need.

The science

A mind-boggling collection of computer technology and engineering goes into even a few seconds of a completed movie scene. Studying it brings words into play that we do not hear in a typical movie review. A team from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) uses a fluid simulation system to create tumultuous seas in movies like Poseidon and Pirates of the Caribbean. Ron Fedkiw is an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University who received an Oscar for this system. Here is how he describes his work: “My research is focused on the design of new computational algorithms for a variety of applications including computational fluid dynamics and solid mechanics, computer graphics, computer vision and computational biomechanics.”

Electronics, computers, lighting equipment and sound effects are the tools of the movie craft. Highly trained and accomplished scientists develop these complex movie-building technologies. But that is not what draws the audience. We don’t hear movie recommendations like “You have to see it. There are 172,800 frames in it!” Or “The movie was fantastic. It was rendered at 1.42 megapixels!”

The story is what puts bums in theatre seats.

The story dimension

Can we have our movie story without the science? No. Every story needs some physical medium for the transferral of the message, and these physical media can be scientifically broken down into bits. Whether it’s spoken word carried on voice sound waves, a book written in ink on paper, or a celluloid movie reel, the story must travel via molecules at some point. Our cinematic storytellers need the microphones, the cameras, the wave simulators, the reels of film to get across their meaning.Without science, there is no story.

Can we have the movie science without the story?  No. Our brains just don’t operate that way. In order for us to navigate successfully in our environment, our brains need to take in information, process it and create a story for us about what is happening out there. In fact, everything around us is a 3D image created by our brain. Steve Grand says that what we think of as “real” is only a representation of real: “You and I do not live in the real world at all: we live in a virtual world inside our heads . . . There is plenty of evidence to show that we are not really conscious of how things are, but only of how we think they are, in our own models of the world.”

Story is our inevitable by-product of the science. Story is what is leftover when you remove the physical. 

Admiring the science and surrendering to the story

Anyone who has watched a movie with a techno-freak friend knows that nothing can suck the magic out of a movie faster than a scientific breakdown of the details. Imagine a scene from a science fiction flick. Alien invaders race in hot pursuit of the hero, getting closer and closer. The door to the hovercraft landing area opens. A long-fingered green alien hand reaches out . . . You grip the arms of the theatre seat tightly. The person beside you whispers, “They shoot this against green screen, you know.” Oooommpph.

Story interrupted.

In the 1964 version of Mary Poppins, a line of prim and proper British nannies arrive at the door in response to a job posting for a new caregiver for the children of the house. As the children watch from an upstairs window, a mysterious mighty wind blows in, picking the nannies up one by one and wafting them topsy-turvy through the air, off into the distance. It is a magical scene, if you don’t catch a glimpse of the visible wires hoisting the nannies.

Story interrupted.

Being rudely confronted with the secret tricks of movie making diminishes the magical feeling, temporarily. It seems we do have to set science to one side temporarily in order to live the story. The key word here is temporarily. You tell your know-it-all friend to shush and in a few short moments find yourself caught up in the story again. Seconds after the exposed wires of the flying nannies disappear, the charms of Mary Poppins enrapture you once again. When you leave the theatre, the story created by the technical elements and the actors goes with you. The lessons learned linger even longer

An integrated approach

Documentaries about “the making of . . .” are popular sidelines in the movie industry. Viewers visit the extra features on their DVDs to see the technical wizardry behind their favourite scenes. The same audience that cried, laughed, covered their eyes or cringed in horror moments earlier in response to the story, can watch the science behind the scenes with cool detachment. The pulse doesn’t quicken. Tears don’t come. They have set aside the story, temporarily, in order to appreciate the science.

Film makers create these extra features to satisfy audiences curious about the story behind the story. Viewers never tire of going to the movies to lose themselves in a story. Vacationers never tire of visiting Universal Studios to discover the amazing technology behind the scenes. Humans have an innate ability to enjoy the story and the science equally and independently. We don’t have to choose only one or the other.

We humans adopt an integrated approach naturally. We want to enjoy the magic of the show without someone whispering in our ears that it’s all a physical sham. We also want to satisfy the natural curiosity that we have about how things work. We want to walk out of the theatre of our lives saying, “What a fantastic story! I laughed and I cried and I cringed in horror—and the special effects were awesome!”


About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on June 1, 2010, in science, story and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be down… Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!


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