Posts Tagged ‘movie’

The secret science behind movie stunts and special effects

// March 20th, 2011 // Comments Off on The secret science behind movie stunts and special effects // Science at Home, Science Communication, Science in the Movies

Movie stuntsSteve Wolf sent me his book on the science of movie stunts and special effects for review last month, by Saddleback Educational Publishing.

Full of glossy pictures, this book is written for aspiring young scientists (not for adults or film makers.) Particularly kids who are a little off the rails, wild experimenters who need guidance without curbing enthusiasm. I think the author himself fell into that category.

One of the best things about the book was a message that science isn’t just about reports and measuring things. It’s about creating, trying, testing and doing cool stuff. That’s a good message.

When he’s not writing, Steve Wolf does science shows in schools. I bet they’re a blast. He’s worked in the film industry for years creating special effects and in the first page of the book admits “he has the best job in the world.” I got the feeling that he gets a real kick out of exploding stuff.

That brings me to the other good message – safety. From smoke detectors to seatbelts, he covers not only safety in special effects, but also just every day. It even talked about life lessons like doing what you love and eating healthy food. Although these are good things for kids to learn, I did wonder if this book was the right avenue for that. Safety messages are important, but talking about politeness, teamwork and professionalism seemed like a little much for a kid excited by science.

burnt toast

People are like toast. You can't unburn them.

But back to blowing stuff up, that was cool. Did you know that complete combustion of propane creates a blue flame, but incomplete combustion makes an orange flame because the heat excites carbon atoms? I didn’t.

Oh, and it showed someone covered with Zel Jel, fire insulating goo used by stunts performers which looks like marmalade. To quote the book “remember, people are like toast. You can’t unburn them.”

Diagrams also splatter the pages, which is awesome. I love a good diagram. They showed atomic states of matter, electrical circuitry (both series and parallel) and even chemical reactions. Clear explanations were delivered with a dose of movie stunt applications, like making mist, or arming explosives.

Teachers could build science classes around the book, as it covers important concepts and putting them in a cool context. It would be suitable for Years Five to Eight as a short introduction to complicated topics including atomic theory, chemical reactions and electric circuits, though none were discussed in huge depth. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which audience the book was talking to – young children or teenagers? But it could be used to spark classroom discussions.

At the end of the book Steve describes how it all comes together on set, from rolling cameras to checking all the explosions have detonated correctly after the stunt. It was a good insight into the film industry, but this is a book aimed at the science, not at movie making. Aspiring film producers won’t get a lot out of the book, certainly not how to make their own stunts. That’s not the purpose of the book. It’s about inspiring kids to do science using movie stunts as a draw card.

The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effectsis a nice book, and would make a good addition to a school library. It has potential as an alternative or addition to science textbooks. And if you know a kid (8-12) who does science experiments at home and loves movies, it would make a good present. Not for adults or film makers.

Filming the invisible world – 3D documentaries

// February 28th, 2011 // Comments Off on Filming the invisible world – 3D documentaries // Science Art, Science Communication, Science in the Movies

We are at a very disturbing point in film production, where we assume the audience has no imagination and no intelligence. Stories are spoon fed and wrapped up with explosions and effects to sell the same tired old plot.

Such is the opinion of Douglas Trumball, who has spent his career in science fiction animation and visual effects. He spoke on Sunday afternoon at the RiAus about the problems with the film industry and how science can save it.

What’s really lacking is immersion, a story that draws people in and the technology to make it hyperreal.

The technology is certainly improving, there’s no doubt about that. Take the infamous Avatar, which I was completely entranced by. The 3D was so subtle and authentic I honestly felt like I was there, and clapped like an idiot when it finished (much to the chagrin of my friends.)

But apparently, that’s nothing compared to what’s coming. Douglas is experimenting with cameras that capture at 120 frames per second (rather than the 30 they do now), and a projector that displays it at the same rate. For the audience he says it’s like opening a window to a different world. It’s a whole different feeling.

He envisions a cinema with a screen that curves around beyond 120 degrees, so it extends past the corners of your eyes.

And what does he want to do with this set up? Explore space. Vast, infinite and complex, space lends itself to immersive film like nothing else. It quite simply matches big content with big delivery. It needs a story to go with it too, something that captures the imagination of the audience, where they can fill in the blanks and have their own “ah ha” moment of discovery.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and science has some pretty cool stories of its own. Tim Baier is a stereographer who worked on feature films like King Kong and Lord of the Rings, and spoke on the panel about his recent work making science documentaries. I watched a preview of his work “Standing in Amazement” on Sunday, and it was breathtaking.

Image by Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary

In 3D, he captured still pictures and stop-motion of Arkaroola and the Flinders Ranges.

The sun rose on mountain tops encrusted with quartzite. Macroscopic photographs showed the indentations on a snakes head which sense heat, and the pads on gecko feet which let them hang upside down on glass.

It wasn’t just a film, it was a presentation. During the movie, Tim talked about the geology of the Ranges and how the mountains had formed.

He described the van der Waals forces that work on gecko feet. It was visually breathtaking AND intellectually stimulating. The full film lasts for 90 minutes, and is playing at the RiAus this week, Tuesday to Saturday. Session times here.

He thinks there is a lot of untapped potential in 3D science documentaries. I’d agree, particularly in talking about geology. I’m thinking right now about David Attenborough’s Cave episode on Planet Earth, and combining it with Sanctum 3D.

Sunday night I watched a doco with Sir Attenborough (he is EVERYWHERE!) and they showed a stadium-sized machine that could see inside fossilized embryos in 3D. Now that’s my kinda movie!

Science of electronic cigarettes, as seen on the Tourist

// January 2nd, 2011 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Science in the Movies

Happy New Year! On the first of January, I went to see The Tourist. It promised to be an excessively attractive movie starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the two best heartthrobs on screen. I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say that one cool gadget graces the scene. The electronic cigarette.

As described in the movie, the electronic cigarette does not emit smoke, just vapour. The one in the move was shaped like a cigarette, complete with a red LED light on the end for a burning ember. He tapped the end to put it out, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The automatic versions just turn on when you breathe in, a sensor recognizes the airflow, and I’d say it turns off afterward.

Electronic cigarettes, designed by Chinese company Ruyan “to resemble smoking”, come in a variety of designs. From classic cigarettes to cigars to pipes. Even a ballpoint pen, so you can look like you’re intelligently thinking witty thoughts while taking a sneaky huff.

All the designs have the same basic features. A cylindrical battery, a heating element, and a mouthpiece. When the sensor picks up air flow, it switches on the battery which heats up the element, vapourising the nicotine mixture absorbed on material in the mouthpiece. Manual versions lack a sensor, and you have to press a button to get them started. The nicotine can be replenished by dripping fluid refills onto the absorbant material, or buying a new prefilled mouthpiece.

An electonic cigarette

An electonic cigarette

But it’s the mixture itself that’s really cool. It comes in a variety of nicotine levels and a variety of FLAVOURS. Some are designed to taste like certain brands (such as Malboro), some taste like regular ciggies, some are menthol, and others come in tastes of caramel, coffee or vanilla. One recipe listed on Wikipedia contains hardly any nicotine, but 8% alcohol. That’s a 16 proof cigarette delivered straight to your lungs! Wow. Seems dangerous.

What I wanted to know was how do electronic ciggies compare to the real thing when it comes to health. It seems like we’re still unsure. Electronic cigarettes only hit the market in 2004, so they’re pretty new still. Most countries are taking a conservative stance. In England they can be bought in pubs and smoked indoors. In New Zealand they are only available in pharmacies. In Australia it is illegal to sell them, but they can be purchased over the internet for personal use, and I believe there are no laws against it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The debate seems to center around the fact that these electronic cigarettes are KIND OF tobacco products and KIND OF smoking cessation aids… but kind of not. No studies have been done to show that they could help people quit smoking and become nicotine free. To me it seems more like you would quit smoking cigarettes, and start smoking the electronic version instead.

And what’s the harm in that? Most of the damage caused by smoking is not due to nicotine itself. It’s all the other crazy chemicals that come with it which cause the cancer and lung damage and so forth. Nicotine is just the stuff that keeps people coming back. It’s highly addictive, working on the reward system of the brain and our favourite neurotransmitter, dopamine. Smokeless cigarettes are a way to enjoy nicotine without getting a hefty dose of dangerous chemical cocktails. Plus the secondhand smoke is safer. So it’s an example of harm reduction. Plus your teeth would get whiter.

Of course, nicotine is not exactly a friendly chemical. It might not cause cancer, but it IS highly toxic. 60 mg can be toxic to an adult. Nicotine is made by the tobacco plant as an insecticide, need I say more? In fact, it’s also made by other members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, such as tomatoes. That explains why my basil plant is getting torn to pieces by insects while the tomato plant right next to it is still intact. So maybe we don’t want to encourage people to smoke anything.

But gun to my head, I think the electronic cigarette is a good thing. I don’t think young kids are going to be swayed by sexy marketing into becoming the next generation of smokers. I don’t think we’d allow such sexy marketing in the first place. I don’t even know why the government allows cigarettes to be sold at all; the health problems must cost the economy millions every year. But what do you think? Do you think electronic cigarettes would be the lesser of two evils, or a new evil all on its own, ready to pounce on hapless youths and struggling smokers and catch them forever with nicotine claws.

Avatar sequel to film deep sea in 3D

// September 27th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Science in the Movies

Say wha-?

There’s gonna be a sequel to Avatar?

Why?

I mean, I think the movie was awesome and all, but when it finished it finished. Finito. No more. No dramatic suspense music to imply the indignity of a sequel. No sudden return of a villain. Nada.

The story was just Pocahontas, after all. And Pocahontas didn’t have a dumb sequel (did it?)

This whole “every successful movie must have a sequel” really pisses me off. It just DETRACTS from the awesomeness of the original. The one exception is Ace Venture.

The good part about this (silver lining Captain, focus on the sliver of silver) is that part of the movie is set in the deep sea. And to make that part of the movie, James Cameron is going to film the deep sea in the Mariana Trench (south of Japan.) 11,000 metres down. Humans have only been down there once, in a hardcore sub that can withstand the excessive water pressure which is 1000 times stronger than atmospheric pressure.

If he can do it, the footage could be supercool scientific data for the abyss that is the deep sea. We know more about the moon than we know about the deep sea, and there’s probably stacks more sweet stuff down there. And James Cameron can do ANYTHING. Where science has so far faltered, James Cameron and his trusty checkbook will succeed. Aw yeah.

Hat tip to Dr M at Deep Sea News, who amazingly did not like the first movie. *blink*

Science of Inception – sedatives, dissociatives and dreaming

// August 1st, 2010 // 11 Comments » // Drugs, Science in the Movies

inception movieInception is a movie which grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go. Having seen it, I can’t stop thinking about it and I just have to write something down. For those who haven’t seen it, I will keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers.

Dreaming is, well, weird. We don’t really know why or how it happens, though we have plenty of theories. I’ve had dreams so real that afterward I think they happened in life. It makes you think, if we can dream or imagine something that looks real, how real is reality? Could it all be a chemical hallucination, reality merely a response to stimuli that triggers a release of endogenous drugs? What makes reality more real than a dream?

If you really start thinking about it, nothing seems real. So let’s not think about it right now.

Instead let’s talk about sedatives – drugs which relax the body and the mind. Examples include alcohol, kava, valium, and barbiturates which are sometimes used as general anaesthetic (we made one at Uni once – sleepiest class ever!) Sedatives can be used to treat insomnia, and come with the danger of addiction.

So sedatives can put you to sleep, but what about dreams? The few times I’ve had general anaesthetic I haven’t had any dreams at all, and I’ve never noticed different dreams after a big night of drinking rum or sharing kava on the islands.

houseI’ve been racking my brains trying to think of a drug that enhances dreams, and I think I’ve found one. Ketamine, the horse tranquiliser known on the streets as Special K. They had it once in House – the episode “No Reason” starts with House getting shot and given ketamine as anaesthetic. The rest of the episode he hallucinates wildly and finally decides everything is a dream and kills a patient to prove it – then it flashes back to the start as House is rushed to the emergency room and says “Tell Cuddy I want ketamine.” And the whole thing was a dream. Best episode EVER.

Based on that and descriptions on Erowid I think ketamine is a good contender for inducing dreams.

It can act like a sedative (you know, seeing as it’s a tranquiliser and all) but it’s actually classed as a dissociative. Being awake under a sedative means being able to react to stimulus, but with ketamine someone is in a trancelike state with analgesic (not anal gesic, sir, the pills go in your mouth) and amnesic properties.

If I know a dream is about to become a nightmare, I can usually just wake up out of it. Sweet, right? Yes, except sometimes when I wake up I try to turn on the light and the power is out. Then I know I’m still dreaming, and the nightmare starts again. I’ve woken up into other dreams ten times in a row before actually waking up. Does that happen to anyone else, or am I as mad as Ahab?

So, even after all that research and writing, I still can’t get Inception out of my head. I think I’ll have to see it again next time I’m on shore. Come with me?






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