Tales From The Industry, VIII

“So are you the Talent?”
“Uh… Yes… Maybe.”
“You’re the Physicist?”
“You’re a real Physicist? Not just playing one?”
“I’m… real.”

Snippet of conversation between myself and a woman from the art department at the studio, while we stood waiting for our green tea to brew. The floor is full of tables all around, mostly occupied with various people sitting at them fiddling with Macs. (Macs everywhere, as I’ve come to expect from the people in the Industry.) There’s a serious-looking table with more senior looking people discussing something in earnest, and another serious-looking table with people editing video on more Macs. All the tables are serious, of course, but overall there is a fun atmosphere. There’s also a big situation board that is consulted regularly by groups of people. It is covered in bright yellow stick-notes covered in writing that are being moved around. There are people coming in and out with a sense of purpose, and some of the crew I am with tv shootare milling around with bits of equipment. All very exciting-looking. It is all made a bit comical by this totally out of place and thoroughly splendid trio of bright red chandeliers that are hanging down from the ceiling over what looks like the head table for the senior folk. Strange but well-appreciated quirk of decoration, for what is otherwise a high-ceilinged warehouse-type space.


The situation? Shooting some fun things about physics for a TV show. It will air on a station near you (in the USA) next year some time. Details then. We converted a corner of one of our teaching labs at USC into a mini-studio:

tv shoot

Joe Vandiver, the director of our teaching labs, got to bring out some nice little demos to fill up the background and make it look interesting… I wrote some equations on the board and played with preparing a demonstration model. We shot a lot of stuff in the lab, and then I got into a van with the crew and we drove off to Hollywood for a demo. I’ll just say that it involved a crash test dummy, and I got to do the smashing up… several times!

tv shootBut the best thing? I pitched an idea for something I’ve always wanted to do, and they went for it. Let me explain. Do you know the Back to the Future films? One thing I love about them is that they are the same film done three times, with the same set pieces, more or less. One of the excellent set pieces is the point where they need to figure out how they are going to get the Delorean up to the right speed so that the time machine can work properly and get them back to the time they want to get to… There’s always -always!- this moment when Doc Emmett Brown (the scientist with the hair, etc, played wonderfully by Christopher Lloyd) is about to explain what the car needs to do. He turns to reveal a beautifully and unneccessarily detailed model of the entire village that he has constructed to explain the setup… and he says “I apologize for the crudity of this model”. [Update: I checked this just now… Of course YouTube exists now. See here. He actually says “Please excuse the crudity of this model” -drat!- but it’s close enough.]

tv shootI love that line. Every time I watch that movie (or any of them) I just wallow in that line. I’ve been waiting for the day when I am presenting some research in a seminar and I present a rather nice theoretical model of something so that I can say “I apologize for the crudity of this model”. Nobody will get it, but I will titter uncontrollably like a schoolgirl for a few seconds, and I don’t care. The next best thing would be to do this on camera and show a real model of some situation, and then do it. This is exactly when they let me do! I was able to tv shootexplain with a model (constructed by their art department from my hasty description on the phone… that’s one of them on the right constructing another model for a part of the show I’ll not be involved in…), look at the camera and say the line, and then later do it for real in an “experiment”. I hope they edit it correctly so that it works. I’m not sure the director really understood the idea. He was a great guy, but he might have been too young to know or appreciate the movie. Sigh.

tv shootAnd yes. I did wear a lab coat for some of the scenes. I laughed when they showed it to me. But why not have some fun with it? I even helpfully completed the cliche by adding a pen to my breast pocket.

(Note: “The Talent” is a term used in this town to mean, I think, the people in front of the camera. I’m not sure it applies entirely to actors, so was not sure of my answer in the opening exchange above… but later I did a bit of acting, and so I suppose I covered all the bases.)


(For earlier posts in the series of this title, search over on CV using “Tales From The Industry”.)

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22 Responses to Tales From The Industry, VIII

  1. MJ says:

    For us readers outside the US, will you put this gem on youtube once it’s aired? We’re all very intrigued. (Actually when I’m saying we, I can only speak for myself. But I’m sure others agree.)

  2. Clifford says:


    I doubt I’ll have control over the items. I’m just a player in a larger scheme of things. I sign my rights away…. more or less. If someone finds it interesting enough…. (maybe they’ll edit it to have me doing something wrong or funny, for example)… No doubt it will show up there. There might be other projects though…

    Thanks for the interest!


  3. John says:

    So, you are going to be a movie star!! well, TV star! Sounds very exciting, looking forward to seeing you on screen.

  4. nc says:

    “The floor is full of tables all around, mostly occupied with various people sitting at them fiddling with Macs. (Macs everywhere, as I’ve come to expect from the people in the Industry.) There’s a serious-looking table with more senior looking people discussing something in earnest, and another serious-looking table with people editing video on more Macs.” – Clifford

    It is weird, but somehow Applemacs got in to the art setup early, and retain control. All publishing is done on Applemacs using Quark’s Xpress, just because that was the first stable system in the 1970s or 80s when newspapers and book publishers gave up on hot metal (linotype, monotype machines) and started typesetting.

    Because Windows is relatively unstable (prone to get permanently frozen and never unfreeze, requiring reboot and data loss), Applemac retained its hold on the art/publishing industry and later the professional video editing industry, despite successes in the home PC market by Microsoft and Linux. I think Applemac should produce a PC version of their operating system. Applemac could never dominate the market if it only sells its own operating system with its own computers. The hardware specs of Applemac computers have always been poorer than PCs, although because the operating system is better it feels better to use for demanding applications.

  5. TheGraduate says:


    One thing to keep in mind is that one of the reasons that Macs are so stable is that the hardware and the software come from the same people so there is more opportunity to detect issues. While operating systems running on PCs are generally expected to run on very, very diverse hardware made by many, many different manufactures.

  6. Clifford says:

    John, not a star, just a Kuiper Belt Object.


  7. nc says:

    The Graduate:

    OK, you need drivers for all the hardware that will run smoothly under the OS. But that’s all! It’s the sheer heaviness of Windows that causes most of the problems, not hardware conflicts; perhaps due to Bill Gates’ poor technical leadership (he stopped programming himself around 1983 and devoted his attention to salesmanship), Windows systems grew just like electrical theory:

    ‘Our electrical theory has grown like a ramshackle farmhouse which has been added to, and improved, by the additions of successive tenants to satisfy their momentary needs, and with little regard for the future.’

    – H.W. Heckstall-Smith, Intermediate Electrical Theory, Dent, London, 1932, p283.

    This is exactly what you see in the progression Win95 -> Win98 -> WinME (progressively more unstable and gimmicky, and all obsolete now). WinXP is built on Win2000 which was based on WinNT, a far more stable platform than the home series 95-ME. I got my first computer in 1981, but the first time I used Windows was in 1988 during GCSE Computer Studies at school in England. There was no hard disc drive, so every time you switched on, you had to put in a floppy disc with Windows and then another disc with the application.

    It took ages, and the application would then run at about quarter of normal speed (or crash) on top of the Windows platform! The whole thing was such total rubbish (the mouse slipped, useless gimmick) that I knew it would never become popular, except for secretaries to type letters! (I was only wrong because of the exponential increases in hardware like processor, memory and HDD capabilities, plus the internet, and the falling cost of all technology.)

  8. Clifford says:

    Isn’t it more to do with the fact that editing and manipulating images and video is just so much more simple and working-out-of-the-box than on other platforms? So people who want to make movies, edit movies, etc, with little or no technical know-how can get up to speed and get the job done, without worrying about the computer stuff. Therefore the mac seems ideal for people working in that Industry, given that the want to edit movies, images, etc, more than most people. The stability, rather pleasing design, etc, all seems a bonus after that.


  9. nc says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Yes, true for most people! (But I had to do a course to edit with Quark on Applemacs, probably because I’m more stupid than most people, and was used to PC’s. Can’t switch to new things without a gentle introduction.)


  10. lisa says:

    Can I have your autograph???

  11. spyder says:

    Part of the Mac success in this regard might be that Apple makes it all so damn easy. I sit here with a set of nine discs (two are the DVD tutorial program) that comprise the Final Cut Studio suite (for MacOSX+) of audio/video production software. You can run the tutorial alongside the application, engaging the processes and techniques with various samples of development work and then practice making stuff. While it is currently rather expensive, those costs always drop when new updates and other apps come online. I am assuming the HD version will be in the pipe very soon with full Dolby 5.1 and/or 6.0 sound production as well. How cool is that??

  12. nc says:

    Hi Lisa,

    No, sorry but I don’t give autographs in case people practice the signature and use it fraudulently.


  13. John says:


    “John, not a star, just a Kuiper Belt Object.”

    It seems to be a very interesting project.

    This may not make you a star, but it could be a good start. If I remember correctly, former Senator Fred Thompson started by playing himself in some movie, while serving in the Senate. He is now playing the district attorney in “Law and Order”, after getting tired of the partisan politics. I think he is doing a quite good job there. Maybe one day you also want to try something new in show business.

  14. Clifford says:

    There are some things I can’t talk about taking shape, actually. More science on TV. Might not come to fruition, probably a long shot in fact, so let’s wait and see what I can tell you. Rest assured that I am not idle. Any way to get more science out there and I’m there! (Time permitting!)



  15. Jude says:

    I noticed that Jay Leno had a physicist on The Tonight Show last month. From the glimpses I’ve seen on the blog, I’d say you were far more photogenic than that guy.

  16. Clifford says:

    Well thanks. But I hope it is not about being photogenic so much as getting the message across effectively and in an accessible (and inclusive) manner.



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  22. Matcha says:

    Did this ever get placed on YouTube?