Einstein Papers on Film…

A quick note I made over on facebook, concerning the recently released public archive of Einstein papers…

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The Imitation Game – Thoughts

[caption id="attachment_16600" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd. (Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd.)[/caption]

Since this time I don’t think I’ll be getting the call from the folks at Screen Junkies to talk about this one, I’ll do a quick post on my thoughts while they are still fresh. (There are no real spoilers in what follows, but if like me you like to know as little as possible about a film before going to see it, forming your own opinion before having to see the film filtered through those of others, do wait until you’ve seen it before reading beyond the second paragraph.)

I enjoyed the film very much. As a piece of human drama, it was a great story to tell, and frankly it does fill me with dismay that few people seem to know the story, so I am glad it is getting mainstream attention. It was done extremely well, in terms of standard things like all the acting performances (more or less), photography, and the overall tone of judge direction. Given the subject matter – its social and historical importance – this was a beyond the ordinary human drama well told. I enjoyed it.

But. BUT

But it missed an opportunity to not just be “beyond the ordinary” but truly exceptional and ground breaking. All we needed was about 5 or so minutes of extra screen time to achieve this. I’m talking about the ironic fact that Interstellar, which is I remind you a science fiction film (which many scientists […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Science at Screen Junkies!

screen_junkies_interstellarAs promised on Tuesday, below you will find my Screen Junkies interview where I chat with Hal Rudnick about some of the science in Interstellar. We covered a lot of topics and went into a lot of detail, but a lot of that is on the cutting room floor in order to make a svelte (but relatively generous) ten minute cut. I hope you enjoy it. (See my earlier thoughts on why I think scientists need […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Discoveries

I’m a fan of Chris Nolan’s work so I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar. I’ve also been fascinated by the McConaussance – the transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor of considerable stature in a series of excellent films (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, etc…), so I’ve been doubly interested in seeing how he works in a film under Nolan’s direction. Same for the always amazing Casey Affleck. All quite exciting to see.

But then to my surprise it turns out there’s another reason to be interested. Kip Thorne. Some years ago, at a party when I last saw him, Kip told me that he had been working on some film or other with a major studio, but I did not know of the details. Then I ran into a mutual friend a couple of months ago who said something a long the lines of “Kip’s movie is coming out soon…”, and I learned that it was something to do with Interstellar! But I did not know any details.

Then I got sent* this Wired story, and then** this story, and I finally got around to looking. The Wired story has a lot of interesting detail, including a special film (that I ought to look at at) with interviews and behind the scenes material (the still to the right is a screen shot from it). still_from_interstellar_wiredThe film will apparently feature a black hole and a wormhole in some way (I don’t want to know more – I like films to unfold in front of me in the theatre). Kip has been working with the visual effects people to get right exactly how such objects really look, an issue that has not really been fully addressed, it seems. He, like a number of us interested in science and film, is keen to help filmmakers really do a good job of representing some of these fascinating objects as accurately as possible. (Not, in my view, in order to stifle filmmakers’ imagination, as it so often seems when you hear scientists out there pontificating about what’s wrong in one film or another, but because the actual science is so very often far more interesting and full of delights and possibility than a visual effects kluge can be…) So apparently he wrote down […] Click to continue reading this post

Honest Time Travel?

On Tuesday I hung out with some of the Screen Junkies folks who you may know from the hilarious “Honest Movie Trailers” web series (seriously, if you’ve not seen any of them, please go right now and have a look). We had a fun chat about time travel in movies, and presenter Hal Rudnick and I bonded over various movies old and new. The final version of the show is up on YouTube (embed below), and I’m bummed that I did not get to meet the other guest, Christina Heinlein (JPL), who seems fun – and is a descendant of, yes, that Heinlein. I love the idea that she works at JPL, helping make possible the space exploration that Robert Heinlein helped inspire us all about in his writing. Anyway, enjoy the short piece (I wish you could see a bunch of the other material too… we really had a great chat about the ins and outs of time travel, but a lot of it inevitably ended up not making the cut…)

I could not resist talking about my view of this (perhaps growing) trend of using time travel as a means of resetting movie franchises (see Star Trek, X-Men…). It’s a great way of repairing writing and other filmmaking wrong turns. Feel free to imagine your own version of this – Star Wars anyone? Another pass at […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Films Galore!

Sorry that it has taken me so long to get to posting the results of the USC Science Film Competition. It has been super-hectic. In addition to the usual things I have to do, I had to give a talk about science education to the Society of Physics Students – that went well, I heard – read and examine another PhD. thesis (twice in one week), do battle with two fronts of vermin attacks on my house, and prep a whole lot of other things I won’t trouble you with… Also, oddly, the time change seems to have left me in a state of exhaustion each day.

Enough with the excuses. What are the results, you ask? And is it true the winner was controversial?!

usc_science_film_showcase_2014_1Well, first and foremost we had a fantastic time celebrating the work of all the students in the competition. About 75 or so people turned up, making all my frantic buying of things in Trader Joe’s and so forth all worth while, and there were two screening sessions separated by a coffee and snacks break. Since there were twelve films this year (a 50% increase!) there were six per session (I curated things so that the sessions were about the same length), which worked rather well. A lot of the films used quite a bit of their 10 minute allowed duration, and so given that I pause between films to give each team a chance to take a bow, it was in danger of being a long evening, and for that I apologize to everyone, but I do think that the students should get a fair amount of individual recognition for their hard work.

Anyway, to cut a long story to medium, the standard was quite high this year, with several good films at the top that were hard to choose between, but I think the 15 judges (from academia and the film industry, with scientists and filmmakers and scientists-turned-filmmakers on both sides) got it right.

The first prize winning film has resulted in raised eyebrows from some, including the filmmakers themselves who apparently were sure that their film would be overlooked due to its content. I think that the judges got it exactly right. It is a fine example of exactly what I’m looking for in this competition- a […] Click to continue reading this post

On CU@USC Tonight

By the way, I’ll be on the local TV show CU@USC tonight (6:30pm – live), talking about things like communicating science, science and film, and of course the USC Science Film Competition that I run that I’m trying to let students and faculty know about as much as I can. (Perhaps we’ll talk about other topics as well. We shall see.) I’ll also be joined by Simon Wilches-Castro, a student who was in the competition two years ago. He did the lovely animation for the film on fractals, called Yaddda Yadda Yada.

If you watch (live stream here), I hope you enjoy it!

Here’s the film: […] Click to continue reading this post

Science on Screen – Primer

Well, that was a hugely fun evening! The Cinefamily screening of Primer was sold out to a packed and enthusiastic audience. (That alone was worth it…) I met Shane Carruth back stage for a few minutes and immediately was impressed. I like people who take the time to think carefully about what they are going to say before saying it, visibly carefully weighing what was just said in the conversation and then adding to it in an interesting way. He’s one of those people. So I knew that the panel discussion was going to be great.

[caption id="attachment_13780" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_13782" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption]

We started off with an introduction from the executive director of Cinefamily, Hadrian Belove, who introduced us and asked me to say a few words before the film began. I kept it brief, and started by congratulating Cinefamily on doing the Science on Screen series, saying that it is an important thing to do (which it is -it is part of a Sloan funded national program; more here) and then went on to say […] Click to continue reading this post

Primer, and More…

I learned last week that there’s a new regular item in the New York Times’ science section where Jascha Hoffman does a round up of a few notable Science events, books, etc., around the nation. It is noted this week that Cinefamily starts up its new Science on Screen series (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) starting starting Wednesday night with the excellent film “Primer”. (Photo is from the website.) If you don’t know it, and if you’re in the area, go and see it! As a bonus, you’ll have the writer/director of the film, Shane Carruth, present for introductions and Q&A. He’ll be accompanied by some scientist dude called Clifford V. Johnson who, according to the website, will […] Click to continue reading this post

USC Science Film Competition 2013 – Results!

There’s a news article out about the results of the USC Science Film Competition that you might like to read. It is by Susan Bell and it is in USC Dornsife News here. In there, you’ll find interviews with one of the winning teams of students, as well as with me. I talk about my reasons for running this competition each year and what I hope to achieve. (Photo courtesy of USC Dornsife.)

The showcase and awards ceremony, held on January 23rd, was a success, and it was a pleasure to meet with many of the students who participated, and feel the buzz of excitement in the room. Thanks everyone who participated, including the panel of judges for their hard work. Once again, the Anton Burg Foundation supported the competition (funding things like the large prizes I had the pleasure of giving away) and we’re all very grateful for that.

Ok, well of course you want to know the outcome, right? Well, here goes. I’ve included the titles and membership of the interdisciplinary teams below, along with […] Click to continue reading this post

Frankenweenie is a Love Letter to Science!

…Well, it is a lot of other things too, all marvellous, but it was quite a surprise to me that science, the love of it, (and to some extent, the method of it) is so overtly celebrated in the film. I’m a huge Tim Burton fan, and so that was a bonus for me since I was already predisposed to like the film, when I went to see it several weeks ago. I love the depictions of the suspicions and the misunderstandings, the boy hiding away and doing his […] Click to continue reading this post

Premiering…!

You might remember that during the Spring and early Summer I was deeply embroiled in making a film. (See several earlier posts, e.g. here, here, here, and here).) It was a short film to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Aspen Center for Physics, and I was keen (in my role as filmmaker) to give it a treatment that benefits from my being a theoretical physicist, and one who is familiar enough with the Center, all in order to get the right tone of the film. (Jump to the end of the post if you want to see it without more background thoughts.) There’s a spirit of the Center that is quiet, reflective, and inspiring of thoughts that need time to be explored, so I definitely did not want the usual loud, buzzing, overly busy type of film that you often see about science activity. It did not seem appropriate. Working with Dave Gaw (who was an awesome principal cinematographer and editor for the project) and with Bob Melisso (who shared some of the production and direction work with me), I think the result strikes the right note overall. A fun side note: I got to design a number of unique (and definitely handcrafted) elements for the look that I think you’ll like and recognize from other visual work of mine you’ve seen on this blog, and just as with my earlier film projects from 2009 (see here and here) it was a real buzz to help figure out how to make them fly, and then see the elements come together in their final form up on screen.

People really seemed to like the film a lot, from what I’ve heard. (It was shown extensively at many of the Summer events celebrating the 50th at the Center.) So while it did take a lot of my time, it seems like it was time well worth spending since […] Click to continue reading this post

USC Science Film Competition – A New Year!

…And here we are again! I’m launching the second year of the USC Science Film Competition as of, well, a few seconds ago. Please go to the website to learn more. You’ll find a collection of links at the very end of the main page, along with a slide show, talking a bit about last year’s successful inaugural competition. I’m hoping for a competition at least as exciting and interesting (er, in all the good ways!) as last year.

If at USC, spread the word, please! I especially need faculty to help encourage […] Click to continue reading this post

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the…

On Tuesday I headed to Santa Monica. Two dear friends of mine had invited me to a private screening of a film they’d just completed, one as writer+director, the other as producer. The film was a labour of love, and I’d not heard much about its progress since earlier in the year, and so I was delighted to be back in town to go to it. I took a friend along, and we decided to leave early enough to go to the beach for a little while – the traditional antidote to the high heat of the last several days.

To cut a long story medium, at some point I was wading up to my knees in the water. I’d just replied in reassurance that I’d be quite fine still wearing my glasses (with sunglasses attachments on) since I was not going to swim when a larger than average wave surged forward and knocked me off my feet with such stunning force that I thudded to the bottom on my knees, and my face and hands got tangled up in seaweed! Moments later, the undertow pulled everything back I and I was standing back up, fumbling with seaweed, and missing my glasses! This began a period of considerable activity at the sea, with large surges and strong pullback so that it was difficult to stand still to look for anything, and moreover, it was impossible to see anything since the sand was churning around too much.

It all seemed very funny to me. It was clear after a while that there’d be no reappearance of my glasses. No amazing story where the sea threw them back out after a while, twisted, maybe missing the arms, but at least useable for some kind of vision… There were simply no glasses to be had. Luckily, my friend had driven us, so I did not have to worry about that. There was little time to dash back home to get an old pair and return for the screening. I’d have to figure out how to manage without them. Now bear in mind that I am very short sighted indeed. If I was sitting five feet […] Click to continue reading this post

Nostalgia for the Light

Have you heard about the film “Nostalgia for the Light“, by Patricio Guzmán? As you know, one of my main cares in the business of communicating science broadly is having it be mixed up nicely with the rest of the culture (not making it a lecture all the time). This helps reach broader audiences, for a start. In a sense, this looks like a film that is doing that. It seems it was released in 2010, but is appearing on some big screens for the first time this year, in some places. I’ve not seen it, but it is soemthing I intend to see, based on the synopsis alone. I thought I’d mention it to you.

The summary from the Guardian film site says “Drama in which a group of Chilean astronomers’ search for the origins of life is contrasted with local womens’ efforts to find the bodies of loved ones killed by the Pinochet regime.”

There’s a trailer here:[…] Click to continue reading this post

On Screen!

I had a pleasant surprise yesterday. I went along to the public lecture of Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Science, since on the one hand his talk was entitled “Contemporary Climate Change as Seen Through Data”, so it was interesting to me, and on the other hand I was to be part of a group taking him to dinner later on. I went into the auditorium and lo and behold there was Rosie Wyse (Aspen Center for Physics President) up on the screen…! They were showing the film (what film? see e.g. here, here, and here) in the time leading up to the start of the lecture, as people were arriving. It was nice to see it up on a large screen being enjoyed by an audience…

Overall, the reports back are that everyone seems to love it, and that it has been […] Click to continue reading this post

All Work and No Play…

One of my favourite scenes from the vast world of film is the one in the Shining where Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) discovers that all her husband Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) had been writing on the typewriter for so long (when he was supposed to be working on his book) was “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, again and again and again. There’s something utterly chilling about this, as the tension in the film has been building steadily, and the discovery reveals another seemingly solid foundation crumbling away…

The Eye film museum in Amsterdam is fantastic. For a start, it is in a wonderful building (see right -click for larger view) that you get to by taking one of the small ferry boats across from the Central Station, a fun journey. Right now they are having […] Click to continue reading this post

Voice of God

With the Aspen Center for Physics film almost completed (see several earlier posts, e.g. here, here, and here), various things get set in stone once and for all, so that other things can be built on top of them. At some point, I had to be certain of the final form of the voice over, so that Dave (the editor) can lay it in and time various transitions around it. This was done on Friday along with a huge rewrite of the whole film script, and lots of work on picking b-roll footage and other material to illustrate the film and create atmosphere. Once my co-producer/director Bob had glanced at it and made some helpful remarks (always good to have more eyeballs to spot any mistakes that could get frozen in) I was ready for Monday’s exercise – recording the final voice work. No turning back, no second chances, since we need to deliver the film this week.

While I’ve directed a bit before, I’ve not ever had the chance to direct a hugely experienced star actor, so this was going to be a blast! A while back, over food and drink at a party, my friend Harry Lennix (who loves contemporary physics – that’s in fact why we met, years ago) had generously agreed to do the voice narration for this project, and I was very pleased since it was his voice I had in mind since late August […] Click to continue reading this post

H4 Project – Kickstarter

I’d like to draw your attention to an exciting project that my dear friend Harry Lennix is working on. It is called H4, and combines the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV into a film. I have mentioned it in previous posts once or twice, (I did a few vista to some of the locations), and now it is post-production. There’s an effort to raise extra funds to allow the film to be completed and find its way to audiences where I expect it will be both entertaining and educational, given the goals that Harry has for the project. Have a look at the film below to have it all explained to you, and then head over to the kickstarter page if you want to help out!

-cvj

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Science Fiction Special

Just as I left for my shooting trip last week, I had a moment of indecision. I wanted to take something to read during airport and airplane downtime, but wanted to travel light. The books I wanted to take felt a bit big in my bag, somehow, largely because I could not decide what I was in the mood for and so was in danger of bringing more than one. Then I remembered that I was behind on New Yorkers, and was taking my iPad anyway. So I made sure the New Yorker was updated on it, and what did I see waiting for me to delve into on the plane? The special issue on Science Fiction!

It is an excellent issue, with contributions from lots of authors, including several short reflective pieces from legendary authors like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and William Gibson and newer authors like China Miéville and Karen Russell talking about things like how they found their way into fiction and science fiction, and its role as a gateway to the larger literary world. Of course, there are also the usual reflections about the snobbery and separation into high and low culture that existed in the early days (and that still persists today) for literature as well as film and TV when it comes to science fiction (see a related discussion here), many of which are humorously done, and will be familiar to many readers from their childhood…. I strongly recommend getting that issue if you do not already subscribe. It may well still be on magazine stands…

In related news, Ray Bradbury died on Monday, I heard on the radio yesterday. This is […] Click to continue reading this post

Crunch Time

I’m on the bus on the way to campus, it is pouring with rain, the heat is too high on aboard the bus, and I am late. And a bit tired. I was up until 1:00am crunching numbers. The main stage of the judging for the science film competition ended last night and I went into the system to do the data analysis. I’d designed a spreadsheet on which each of the ten judges give a score for each film in eight different categories which I tried to make roughly orthogonal. I set it up so that they could go to an online form (having viewed the films on a private channel on YouTube) and enter the scores, an action which in turn populates the spreadsheet for me. (Google docs rocks!) They could also enter optional comments about each film that could be useful for any discussion that needs to be had. So what I was doing was slicing the database of scores to see if I could get a ranking of the films to take into a face to face meeting with some of my fellow local judges today. Then I wanted to find ways of laying it all out in a way that was easy to read for everyone and in the end this morning I printed out a giant version of the entire spreadsheet on several sheets of 11×17 and glued them together to make a big colour coded foldout for us all to sit around.

The films? I’m delighted with the turnout as it shows the kind of variety of film I’d hoped would be produced. There are eight films, with films that are illustrated explainers on the one hand (with with animation or live action or sometimes both), through drama and narrative, to reflective overviews of a topic on the other, sometimes venturing into art inspired by science ideas.

(Above is a graphic made by Laurie Moore In Dornsife communications from stills of the films.)

This variety makes for a hard task in coming up with the prize winners, since […] Click to continue reading this post

Tense Moments

I’ve tried not to be worrying about it, but nevertheless there was a bit of concern today as I logged into the account and looked to see if any films had arrived. I did this a few times between other things like teaching and working on issues to do with another film project, and each time there was nothing. I was confident that there were some films on their way, since various students from the teams who entered the film competition had emailed me about various clarification issues (duration, what does midnight mean exactly, etc.) and so I know that not all of the 19 teams who submitted their application to enter the competition in October were going to be no-shows… but how many would “not all” end up being? This is the issue you get when you set something up, advertise as much as you can, and then sit back and hope that people come. You never know until they do. The same thing happened with the pre-registration phase. I’d been running around doing as much as I could to build awareness since the end of August, but until the very end I did not know if I would get a single entrant. In the end 19 teams (around 90 students) got involved!

So here I am again. There’s no turning back… the splendid theatre is booked for the showcase, the judges have been selected, the upload space is sitting waiting, the […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXVIII – Improvising

For the second half of today I was involved in film-making again, but this time not the usual science documentary material, but something else. What, exactly, I am not at liberty to tell you since I don’t really know, if the truth be told. It is going to be a rather beautiful-looking piece of work, with an interesting narrative arc, and… well that’s all I know. I was cast in it a while back following an interesting story in and of itself. I’d made friends with a really engagingly interesting bartender at a bar downtown that specializes in rum, a while back…(a year? more?) We had a great time chatting about ideas in science, the arts, and beyond, and did that “let’s stay in touch” thing that people do a lot, which may or may not really happen…

Some months later, the same fellow came to see me in my office to tell me about this film he was making, and that he’d like me to come and be in it. At the end of the conversation, somehow I still knew nothing about the film and what I was to be doing in it. I was just going to be in a splendid house somewhere, talking to people, and… […] Click to continue reading this post

Movie Notes

Going to the movies this weekend? Lots of interesting choices, but perhaps you especially want to see some portrayals of people in academic careers by some of the hot young phenoms. Well, here are two you might not have considered, both films released May 6th.

1. Observe Nathalie Portman as an astrophysicist in Thor. I don’t find this to be too much of a stretch since the actress always seemed to me to radiate an intensity and intelligence that would help make such a role believable, even in films where everything else is rather a disaster as far as believability is concerned. (cough, cough, Star Wars prequels, cough, cough) Well, it turns out that Thor is not the disaster I thought it would be and is rather well put together, all things considered (this is one of several Marvel characters that I was underwhelmed by in the old days). So go for Portman, stay for the hammer, lightning bolts, and other stuff. Turns out the physicist aspect of her performance was not as well studied as her ballet in that other film, but oh well. It was not like it was the central issue of the film. But enjoy all the Einstein-Rosen bridge mentions!

2. Observe Jessica Alba as a mathematics teacher who loves numbers in An Invisible Sign. Now, er, this for me was casting that did not bode well, but to be fair,[…] Click to continue reading this post