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Prime Suspect: Did the Science Consultant Do It?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It’s no secret that Jen-Luc Piquant is a huge fan of the TV series Bones, and last week’s episode was particularly amusing because it poked fun at Hollywood and science consultants. Entitled “The Suit on the Set,” the plot brought Booth and Brennan to Tinsel Town to visit the set of a fictional movie being made of Brennan’s (equally fictional) bestselling novel. True to form, once the camera starts rolling and Brennan hears the first line of Hollywood “science-y dialogue,” she hollers “Cut!” and launches into a lengthy objection about the inaccuracy of the scientific details.

The VP of production assures Brennan that the crew does have a science consultant on the set — and it turns out to be a Canadian forensic podiatrist named Doug Philmore who appeared in an episode last season. But Doug confesses that, despite his best efforts, the film’s director couldn’t care less about scientific accuracy, and rarely incorporates his input. On the plus side, when the stunt corpse is replaced with a real one — a murdered studio exec, natch! — and Booth and Brennan take over the case, at least they’ve got a fully functioning forensic lab to work with, because it turned out to cost just as much to buy real equipment as build prop replicas.

Man, I love it when the Bones writers get all meta! Here they’re sending up a rarely seen aspect of film and TV production: the role of the lowly science consultant, and all the tensions inherent in putting science into storytelling. I wasn’t the only Bones fan who noticed: Kristina Killgrove over at Powered by Osteons writes up every episode, analyzing the science in particular, although with this one being so deliberately tongue-in-cheek, Killgrove admits it kinda took all the fun out of nerdgassing.

Sure, there was the usual scientific handwaving, with Brennan magically determining the victim’s age and gender without ever explaining her process. And Killgrove says she doesn’t buy the premise that it was just as expensive to make a fake lab as set up a real one.

Actually, she’s wrong about that: when Marvel was shooting Iron Man 2, they ordered a very large number of high-end lasers for Tony Stark’s fake lab. Real ones. Nobody had the time or money — union labor doesn’t come cheap, my friends — to build a bunch of realistic looking prop equipment. And they needed a laser specialist to come onto the set to unpack them all, because nobody in production knew the first thing about lasers. (Ask them about the latest cutting-edge camera technology, though, and they’ll put any hardcore techno-geek to shame!)

Granted, Bones took it one step further, to a fully functioning forensic lab — because it was a cheeky send-up of their industry. I doubt very much the VP of production would ever take a direct call from George Clooney on the set either. (Nobody in Hollywood dials their own phone; they have “people” to do that for them. It’s like you get to a certain level in the hierarchy and lose your ability to work speed dial overnight.) And there’s no way Doug Philmore is getting paid a princely wage for his science consulting services. He’s lucky to be paid at all!

Speaking of not listening to one’s science consultants, Chad of Uncertain Principles also jumped onto the nerdgassing bandwagon, objecting to the laughably inane science-y dialogue in Marvel’s new box office juggernaut, The Avengers. Specifically, this bit:

BANNER: How many spectrometers do you have?

SHIELD REP: We have the cooperation of every university in the country.

BANNER: Tell them to put the spectrometers on the roof, and set them to detect gamma radiation.

As Chad correctly points out, “spectrometer” is such a general term, describing a broad class of instrument, that for anyone with a smidgen of physics background, the exchange is ludicrous. He helpfully offers some alternative dialogue that would have easily solved the problem, no muss, no fuss, no extra cost:

BANNER: How many gamma-ray spectrometers do you have?

SHIELD REP: We have the cooperation of every university in the country.

BANNER: Have them look for a peak at 1337 MeV.

How simple was that? Chad opines, wondering why the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to incorporate better technobabble. It’s a valid question, and a sentiment I support.

The best answer is to paraphrase James Cameron’s sarcastic response when Neil de Grasse Tyson complained about the inaccurate night sky in a key scene in Titanic. This is what I imagine director Joss Whedon saying to Chad:

<snark on> “Gosh, The Avengers only grossed $1 billion worldwide in its first month of release. Just imagine how much more money it would have made, if we’d only managed to get the technobabble right.” </snark off>

Only he’d sound way cooler when he said it. Look, I get what Chad is saying and I agree. Why bother with a science consultant at all if you’re not going to take the input? But the reality is, despite best intentions, these are huge projects. Did you see those ending credits? Thousands of people worked on the film.

The script went through multiple revisions. The Time Lord consulted with Marvel early on for The Avengers, but the script changed dramatically on its journey to the silver screen, and nobody contacted him for follow-up to make sure the revisions were correct. Why would they? There were umpteen other movie-making details to worry about, things that could derail the entire production. As much as we root for better science in film and TV, the harsh truth is, it’s not going to make or break a film’s box office success.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, though. It takes time — a lot of time, years of time — to change attitudes and values in an entrenched industry like Hollywood. The cheeky, good-humored send-up of science consulting in Bones tells me that change is happening because there’s self-awareness on the part of the writers, at least. (The first step is acknowledging there’s a problem.) So don’t give up on the dream just yet, science nerds.

Anyway, the whole thing has inspired me to dust off and revamp this earlier post from the old blog. If you’re a scientist interested in consulting for film and TV, you should read David Kirby’s most excellent book, Lab Coats in Hollywood. In the meantime, I offer my own humble tips, gleaned from two years with the National Academy of Science’s Hollywood outreach program, the Science and Entertainment Exchange. First and foremost:

(1) Manage Your Expectations. Shhh! Keep this under your hat, but Hollywood isn’t nearly as glamorous as you think. I know, you think it’s all just one long episode of Entourage (the colorfully foul-mouthed Ari Gold character is, indeed, based on a real-life agent, Ari Emmanuel). But power lunches and club-hopping are what people do in between projects, and even then, it’s mostly agents and studio execs with expense accounts — or A-List stars — who can afford that.

Once a film or TV show is in production, everyone is working much too hard to have time for an actual life. Catering services are huge in Tinsel Town because often nobody leaves the set (or production office, or editing room) for 12- to 16-hour stints. So don’t expect that you’ll be whisked off to Spago or Mr. Chow’s for a chic lunch meeting with Big Name Producer/Director. The reality is that you’re more likely to have a short afternoon meeting in a makeshift production office with some soda, coffee or cookies to nosh on.

That said, one scientist who came to a studio consult jokingly demanded champagne when asked if he’d care for refreshment — only to be mollified when the earnest young production assistant magically produced a bottle sent to the producers as a gift. I told him if he truly wanted to be shockingly outrageous, he should have demanded a few lines of cocaine. Although even that might not have been shocking. Apparently, it used to be quite common in the 1970s to show up to a pitch meeting and find bowls of coke on the (glass-topped, natch!) coffee table. I heard this from a longtime executive producer, who sighed wistfully in remembrance: “These days it’s all just bottled water.”

(2) Listen, Don’t Lecture. This is probably the single most common mistake scientists make when consulting with Hollywood for the very first time: they walk into a meeting and proceed to expound on their area of expertise, with little regard for whether it’s relevant to the developing story. This is understandable: scientists are accustomed to certain kinds of communication: giving class lectures, technical talks for colleagues, and an ever-larger fraction are also reasonably adept at speaking to the press about new research results.  But Hollywood is looking for more of a dialogue, a brainstorming session among equals — not a lecture. Remember, they’re smart, skilled professionals in their own right; they just have a different expertise than you. Don’t treat them like they’re stupid, because they’re not.

(3) “No” is Not Enough. It’s not enough to tell a writer, director or producer that their nifty plot twist is bad science. That’s just pointless nerdgassing; it might be cathartic for you, but the goal should be convincing Hollywood that paying attention to the scientific details results in a more successful film or TV series. Instead of “No, you can’t do that,” make sure you put a positive spin on your input: “Well, that’s stretching the science a bit too much, but have you considered this?”

(3A) A corollary: they’ll be more likely to listen to your input if The Science Serves the Story. Or the special effects. Or anything else about the creative vision that goes into making a fabulous piece of entertainment. Hollywood is not in the business of creating PR campaigns for science out of the goodness of their hearts. It will always be about the narrative. Make sure you honor that. The payoff, when it works, can be terrific, adding something unique to the film while still being reasonably true to science.

Case in point: Years ago, the Time Lord met with producers Brian Grazier and Ron Howard to discuss the science in the film adaptation of Angels and Demons. You remember, the one filmed partly on location at CERN that involves the detonation of an antimatter bomb. Lots of scientists weighed in on the question of just what such an explosion might look like (assuming one could ever manufacture and store sufficient antimatter to make a bomb in the first place).

Sean and his fellow physicists determined it would be an unusual kind of explosion. You’d have this tiny pellet of antimatter that would be released into the air and its outer shell, at least, would annihilate upon contact. But the force of the explosion would push the air away, creating empty space — at least for a moment, and then the air would rush back in, and you’d get a second explosion. It was all brought beautifully to cinematic life and I think it looks awesome:

(4) Honor the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Discretion is very much the better part of valor when it comes to advising on Hollywood projects. Ideas are bona fide currency in this town, and projects in development — and even in production — are treated as closely guarded state secrets. Think I’m kidding? I organized a local team of five scientists with varying expertise to consult on TRON: Legacy. They expected to be emailed the draft script. Instead, production assistants brought each scientist an individual copy of the script stamped with their name on every page — so if pages leaked, it could be traced back to the miscreant — and waited in their office while they read it, then took the manuscript back to the production office “vault.”

Even if nobody asked you to sign an NDA, it’s still a good idea to say as little as possible, even if it seems like a pretty trivial detail; not doing so could get you blacklisted from future consultation. So, even though it’s tempting to regale your friends down at the pub with tales of your mind-blowing meeting with Big Name Director at a Major Studio, resist that temptation — until the film comes out or the episode airs. Then you can reap the reward of all that reflected glory. It can also be a great educational opportunity, as Jim Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes) discovered when he made this Webby-nominated YouTube video on the science of Watchmen (for which he consulted):

(5) Your Input Is Never Wasted. Don’t feel discouraged if few, if any, of your ideas make it onto the screen in the end. Maybe you consulted on a project in early development that never made it into production, or you were brought in too late to have much of an impact. (I cringed inwardly during one consultation when, towards the end of the meeting, the director commented, “Wow, this would have been really helpful, like, four weeks ago….”) Maybe the writers just didn’t take your suggestions, because the story ended up going in a new direction, or the studio demanded changes (or gave “notes”). A lot can happen to a film or series in development between the draft script and final cut. That doesn’t mean your input wasn’t valuable, or that you wasted your time. If nothing else, you’ve established a good foundation for future interaction. They may call on you again for another project, and next time, your input will make it to the final product.

(6) Expect Small Perks in Lieu of Payment. In last week’s episode of Bones, the podiatrist admits to Brennan that the producers don’t seem all that interested in really getting the science right — adding, “But then I got my first paycheck.” Woo-hoo! Except this is largely fiction.

In reality, it’s a rare occurrence when a science/technical consultant gets paid; some do, but it’s the exception rather than the norm. And even then, I’d advise you not to quit your day job. I’m asked about this constantly: why don’t get consultants get paid more often? And I explain that most of the time, when creators need input the most is during the early development stage — also the stage where a science consultant can have the most impact in shaping the story. But at that point, there’s usually no budget, either.

Trust me: everyone is working on spec. (Hollywood is a town of freelancers at heart.) Make a strong enough pitch — for which you need good science input — and you might get picked up by a network or studio. But it’s only when a project gets “greenlit” that it goes into actual production — and until then, there’s really not any money to be made. Be the person who helped them in the early, unpaid stage, and you’re far more likely to be approached about paid consulting when the budget finally materializes. Or not. Like I said, don’t quit your day job.

Not everyone likes to hear this. I’ve had more than one scientist stuffily inform me that s/he received so much per hour as a technical consultant for industry, and lawyers received similar rates for their consulting services, so why shouldn’t scientists who consult for film and TV be paid accordingly? One such person was so insistent on this point that, exasperated, I finally said, “Look — you keep telling me how you think things ought to be. I’m telling you the way things actually are.”

I’m sympathetic. I think science consultants should be paid. They worked hard to acquire that expertise. But it all comes down to what the market will bear, and currently, the market will bear…. practically nothing. This will only change when it becomes clear to the folks who hold the purse strings in Hollywood that a technical consultant is absolutely essential to the success of a given project. And I think their numbers are growing. But a blockbuster film with bad science is still a blockbuster film. So it might be awhile.

That doesn’t mean the creators don’t care about getting the details right — they do! — or that they aren’t generous. They are! They’ll find some way to express their appreciation. We have a growing collection of DVDs, baseball caps, sweatshirts, even a pen in the shape of a bone (from the writing staff of Bones, of course). The Time Lord is justly proud of his Stark Motor Racing sweatshirt, courtesy of Marvel Studios in thanks for his consultation work on Thor and The Avengers. I’ve been invited to watch shoots for Bones, Castle, and The Big Bang Theory and toured the set for Tony Stark’s lab in the Iron Man films. And I’ve met some truly wonderful people in the bargain.

Having fun, getting to be creative, and hopefully feeling like you’ve made a difference in some small way is actually pretty darned rewarding. If those are terms you think you can handle, congratulations — you could make an excellent science consultant.

 

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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