Notes following the Science in Hollywood: Content and Communication meeting on January 11th, 2003/ amcd



Film Industry

Film is a young art, barely a century old – its structure is not written in stone.

Minority Report proved that a dialogue between film and science is not only possible but was easily established. Once in place, the relationship had a profound effect on the look and content of the film, in ways subtle, subversive and significant.



If I have a hidden agenda, it is to perpetuate a creative collaboration with scientists and other specialists outside the industry that had its addictive genesis in Minority Report but that I hope to continue in as many films as possible. I relished the open access offered by you, Media Lab, the various experts that came through Peter Schwartz and GBN, and in particular that remarkable young man John Underkoffler.


Minority Report

The film was a unique opportunity for a designer to create a future society that needed to be conceived from the ground up, with technology and environments that were required to be whole and real. The fact that the ‘future-reality’ aspect of Minority Report has resonated with its audience comes largely from the deep research into all aspects of the possibilities of this society, which in turn was made possible by the close contact we had with scientists, architects, sociologists, and ‘futurists’.


To reiterate the process:

THINK TANK: Walter Parkes (head of Dreamworks) put Steven Spielberg in contact with GBN and Peter Schwartz. The director, producers, writer and design team laid out which areas of the future they most wanted to discuss, and what the parameters of this future would be in story terms; at this point there was no script. Prior to the think tank, the art department had produced a package of existing and original images that reflected the direction that Spielberg seemed to favor. Two days in a hotel in Santa Monica in closed discussion between a dozen science experts and the filmmakers covered a huge range of possibilities, which supported some of our ideas-to-date and effectively debunked others. Thus the direction of the film was realigned both in story and visual terms.

MEDIA LAB: Myself and the prop-master were invited for a day-long visit of MIT Media Lab to witness a variety of practical demonstrations from gesture recognition to a kitchen of the future. We gained further insight into Science for the film as well as a first introduction to John Underkoffler.

CORPORATE SCIENCE: One of the great advantages of working with Spielberg is the sweeping access his name gives. As a result, the film reaps income from product placement of large corporate brands. A valuable perk from these sponsors was to have our designers meet their scientists who were willing to speak of their specific research into the future of various technologies. For architectural consultation, we met with Frank Gehry’s office and with architect Greg Lynn, both of whom gave us great insight into cutting-edge trends in environmental and architectural design.

We also brought into the art department specific vendors for screen and advertising graphics, who did their own deep research and brought a lot of content to the table.

THE SCIENCE ADVISOR: The most significant step in securing a chance at a scientific reality in the film was when I was able to hire John Underkoffler, initially as a gesture recognition consultant, given the importance of establishing a visual language for Tom Cruise to use in interacting with his environment. Dr. Underkoffler went on to provide a day-to-day consultation through the end of production that dealt with a huge range of details in the film (which he only touched on in the most modest way in his presentation) - from the details of future props to details in the technical dialogue. John fielded a constant stream of questions from art director, vehicle designer, storyboard artist, set decorator, prop master, director, writer and actors. The advantage of having him on staff and integrated with the filmmaking process is incalculable.


The Director

Steven Spielberg is both a wonderful and a frustrating director to work for, in both cases because he retains complete control of the film. His process of infrequent but very clear and directed meetings allows his team great creative freedom between meetings, and his expectation is that each key dept. head takes full responsibility for their department and output. It gave us great opportunity to conduct our research as we saw fit, once the direction he wanted was established.  Ultimately we answered to him alone, and if he was happy, there was little other vetting process beyond fiscal.  

However, if he doesn’t like an approach, or has specific requirements, there is often no way past that line in the sand, regardless of (for example) science and logic! So you do pick your battles:

We fought strongly for transparent and flexible data screens to try and overcome the perpetual outdating that you see in science fiction (however good) that come from seeing the state of the art playback technology of 1968 in 2001. Happily, despite the cost involved in compositing every screen, Spielberg agreed to this early on. At the same time, for example, we were concerned from a science standpoint that he wanted Tom Cruise to wear data-gloves for the gesture screen, and that the phones bore such a resemblance to phones of today (knowing from many tech conversations that miniaturization is going to enable a phone to be incorporated a piece of jewelry or in clothing). In the end, Spielberg needed something the contemporary audience would recognize that would require minimal exposition and that the actor could touch and relate to.  

Ultimately the story drives many of the most significant decisions, so the early integration of a science advisor on a film allows the story and the design logic to become inextricably entwined, and to minimize the potential conflict.



As mentioned previously, the schedule on a film is very tight and specific, and at the same time can change on a dime to accommodate say script, budget or actor.

In broad strokes, film production breaks up into 4 parts:

DEVELOPMENT – the raising of finance, the writing of script, and the attachment of key players to the project a period from long to interminable. During this time there may be early conceptual design, or there may not yet be a director. Usually this part of the process is fairly impenetrable in my experience, but it’s a good target for early consultation for specific projects (for example, I, Robot is in development at the moment). A science/film office should have the ability to track productions in development and approach the producers of the likeliest projects at an early stage.

PRE-PRODUCTION – the start of hiring leading up to start of shooting. Traditionally the production designer starts now, and begins to hire his crew within the first month. The director starts to break down and work on script changes and this is probably the best time to introduce the ‘What if…’ factor. This period can be from 2 months (simple location based picture) to 10 months (complex studio-based fantasy picture), seems to average 6 months, and is the time in which all research and consultation is at its most active. It’s important to time the contact with production to the early part of pre-production.

PRODUCTION – Principle photography, from 40 to 90 days. This is the full chaos of filmmaking and the most expensive period with maximum crew and tight schedule. It’s a hard time to introduce new concepts or changes.

POST-PRODUCTION – By now most of the production crew is finished, including the design team, and the film is in the hands of editors and visual effects, working with director and producers. Hopefully there are no design decisions left to be made.


The Art Department

In film, the art department represents a central core in the production. Beyond the production designer creating a design team that will shepherd the look and design of the film, the art department is central to building an environment that can consciously or sub-consciously infect the key players with a visual framework for their work on the film.

My job is to translate script and director’s vision into a cohesive and integrated approach to the film’s design. This is then passed through the designers to set construction, paint and dressing, locations, props, vehicles, etc. It becomes the basis for the collaboration with cinematographer, costume designer, special effects, stunts, and visual effects departments.

Because the production designer is often the first hire after director and producer, and continues through the end of production, the art department is uniquely placed to provide the hub through which all visual decisions pass. In the case of Minority Report (this is relatively unusual) we started design at the same time as the writer started on the script, which became a great opportunity to cross pollinate development of the background setting and broad context of the story.



Clearly there are opportunities to build a relationship between Film and Science in a broad range of pictures (and other media – I very much agree with the meeting that Games and Interactive is probably the richest vein to mine), and in varying degrees. There are many filmmakers in all branches of the industry who would leap at the chance to work with scientists if they knew the opportunity existed and were able to see how the relationship could be structured.


Media and Publicity

Media interest in the ‘real science’ aspects of Minority Report was very high, and shows that the Press might be a useful way to focus attention on the idea. A Science/Film office might be able to offer the Press a stream of Art and Science stories both during film production and in the release period.

As an impetus toward press interest, it might be interesting to poll the NAS members for example on the films that they have found to be most interesting and successful in portraying science, and those that they consider to have failed most pathetically. This could lead to an award (another award ceremony!) for science film of the year…

Also, I would be fascinated to watch a film series that brought together not only the filmmakers but also the science and technology consultants involved in any stage of the process to discuss the film --Marvin Minsky, Michael Creighton and Steven Spielberg…!



Alex McDowell/ Jan 16th 2003