Tag Archives: The Science and Entertainment Exchange

Defiance, a transmedia project, goes nano (for one episode anyway)

Defiance sounds more like the name for a warship than the title of transmedia (tv/games) science fiction project. It (both the tv series and the game) debuted with much fanfare in April 2013 on the US SyFy channel. Given the alien invasion aspect of the show I wasn’t expecting any nanotechnology but episode eight broadcast on June 3, 2013 has a character being ‘brought back to life’ by nanomachines according to the Defiance recaplet by Jacob Clifton for Television Without Pity,

In fact, Sukar’s first death was the result of a bit of Ark that contained nanomachines and were piloting his body around to save the Votans in town. She [Irisa] takes his comatose body back to the Badlands tribe, and I guess deals with the fact that what little guidance she had for dealing with her coming godhood is now gone, which has to suck. But then too, she seems to understand that miracles never look like miracles — that just because it was nanomachines doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a miracle — so that’s comforting.

I’m not entirely sure how the nanomachines piloted a dead (?) character’s body around town but I don’t think that was the recapper’s main concern. However, curiosity aroused I found some interviews with the science advisor for Defiance, Kevin Grazier. Here’s an excerpt from Grazier’s April 15, 2013 Q&A with Emilie Lorditch for Inside Science,

Kevin Grazier is a planetary physicist who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Cassini/Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan, and is currently conducting research on long-term, large-scale computational simulations of Solar System dynamics and evolution. Grazier has also been a science advisor for numerous television shows such as “Eureka,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and the new SyFy show “Defiance.” …

IS: What is your typical day like?
My interaction with the writers and producers depends upon the show, and for each episode it frequently depends upon the writer. Some shows (“Eureka,” “Falling Skies”) have brought me in prior to the beginning of a season to recommend technology or elaborate on scientific concepts for the upcoming season. Some writers will have an idea for a story, and will chat with me before they even start writing. Sometimes writers solicit input at the story outline stage, sometimes at the first draft stage. Sometimes, on the less tech-heavy stories, I have no interaction until there is a completed script, and then I weigh in with my notes.
On a few occasions I’ve been called into the writers’ room to do a presentation when we’re planning a particularly big or blockbuster season finale. Sometimes I get called to help with the visual effects. That happened a lot on Eureka.
For two episodes of Eureka, I was even asked to write a several pages of book chapters. In these episodes characters opened books and, since we shot in high-definition, fans could freeze the frame and read the text – so the text had to be original, not copyrighted, and, most importantly, correct.
On Defiance, I’ve had more telecons [telephone conferences]  than I’ve had on previous series, primarily because our game designer, Trion Worlds, is located in San Diego. I’ve also been editing a lot of online content, which I’ve never got to do before. As I said, nothing is “typical.”
IS: What advice do you have for scientists who want to work as a science advisor?
KG: It’s actually a lot easier to break in these days than it was when I started. There is an organization, program of the National Academy of Sciences, called The Science and Entertainment Exchange. They pair up scientists as consultants to the productions that need expertise. If you’re a scientist, and are interested in consulting (usually non-paid, at least at first), they maintain a database of scientists and their areas of expertise. If science consulting is something that interests you, start there.
One of the most important recommendations I could offer is that to do the job well, to be able to relate to the writers with whom you’re working, it really pays to have taken a screenwriting class or three. When it was obvious that I was going to get continued work in the industry, I went to UCLA Extension and earned a certificate in television writing. That’s been supremely helpful.
When you have an inkling of how difficult it is to tell a story in 42 minutes, with a beginning, middle, and end, along with five act breaks, you’re a much better advisor.

That last response from Grazier gives me daymares as I imagine some science type who’s taken a few courses and decides s/he is not just a science advisor but also the head writer. I’ve seen the phenomenon at work. All some people need is a workshop or a course and suddenly, they’ve become experts.

The article about Defiance on ScriptPhD is not credited or dated but I’m assuming it was posted in the last few months,

ScriptPhD.com was very honored to have the opportunity to sit down with both series writer and co-creator and executive producer Michael Taylor, as well as the show’s scientific advisor Kevin Grazier, to get a better idea of the characters, storyline and what we can expect going forward.

Taylor, also a series writer and producer on breakout SyFy hit series Battlestar Galactica, was involved in the early development of the series, which took over one and a half years to re-conceptualize and bring to the small screen from its initial concept. “Keep in mind, the original draft [of the pilot] was very different,” Taylor says. “The Chief Lawkeeper role was prototyped as this older, wry Brian Dennehy-type of character, for example. Irathient warrior Irisa was more of a wide-eyed, naïve girl than she is in the current version. We even had about two to three episodes of the series done. But as we went along, we were finding it hard to keep thinking up episodes from week to week.” Which is when the series went back to the drawing boards.

And reimagine the series they did! Unlike the vast majority of sci-fi shows, which explore the process of warring factions integrating and co-existing, in Defiance, this has already occurred, something that Taylor calls a “cool experiment.” “The 30-year-war has already been fought, all that stuff is long in the past,” Taylor reminds us. “And now we are at the point where the 8 races are trying to co-exist together. …

As for integrating the video game concept, it predated the show by five years, which allowed writers to establish stories and character development that will happen separately from, albeit concurrently with, the action in Defiance onscreen. …

“We’ve seen time and time again small plot points that have become little tidbits, or plot points or even major points driving an episode when you get the science right,” Grazier notes. “Caring about the science [in a series plot] can be as much of a strength as it is a constraint.”

And while it’s true that the science of Defiance does seem a bit less obvious or upfront than in shows like BSG or Eureka, it’s no less important nor is it any less incorporated. “We have a really rich, really well thought-out backstory, and that is very much informed by the science,” Grazier says. “We know that the V-7 [Votan] races came from the Votan System. What happened to their system? Well, we have that [mapped out], we know that.” He also pointed to subtle implications such as in the first few minutes of the pilot. When Irisa looks up at the sleeper pods, she says, “All those hundreds of years in space just to die in your sleep.” Grazier notes: “The subtle implication is that the V-7 aliens don’t go FTL [faster than light]. So we have figured out where they’re from and how far away they’re from and which direction of the sky they’re from and how long it took to get here.”

In addition to its elemental role in the backstory, science has also also had fun ‘little’ moments in the show, like the importance of the terrasphere in defending the Volge attack in the pilot or the hell bugs (a genetic amalgam of several earth critters) in episode 3. Some of these small scientific details were even able to result in cool visual effects. For example, when the table of writers was discussing the ark falls, Grazier, an astrophysicist by training, noted that the conservation of angular momentum meant that these things would not land vertically, but rather horizontally, using the screaming overhead comets in Deep Impact as a touchstone. Sure enough, in the first few minutes, you see Nolan and Irisa tracking what’s about to be an ark fall and you see them screaming overhead. “That will, by the way, come into play in a later episode,” Grazier teases. “We know where the ark belt is. Where the ships were when they blew up, how far away they are.”

Sadly, I couldn’t find any details about Defiance’s nanotechnology aspects but both the articles I’ve excerpted feature intriguing science and insider information.

Science and scientists in the movies and on tv

I find it easy to miss how much science there is in the movies and on television even though I’m looking for it. Here are a few recent examples of science in popular culture.

Inside Science of Iron Man 2, an article by Emilie Lorditch on physorg.com explains some of the background work needed to create a giant particle accelerator with a new way to power the reactor pumping Iron Man’s heart. From the article,

“I went to Marvel Studios to meet with one of the film’s producers (Jeremy Latcham) and even brought a graduate student along,” said Mark Wise, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who served as a technical consultant for the film. “There was a specific set of scenes that I was consulting on; the story had to get from this point to that point.”

Wise was surprised by Latcham’s and the film crew’s interest in the actual science, “I attempted to present the science in a way to the help the movie, but still get a little science in,” said Wise. “They wanted the scenes to look good, but they also wanted elements of truth in what they did, it was nice.”

The producers for the film found their scientist through The Science and Entertainment Exchange (which is a program of the US National Academy of Sciences). From Lorditch’s article,

“Scientists can offer more than just simple fact-checking of scripts,” said Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. “Get them involved early enough in the production process and their input can be invaluable in developing not just the fundamental scientific concepts underlying a scene, but also — since film and TV are a visual mediums — scientists can help filmmakers more fully realize their visions on screen.”

I have blogged before about Hollywood’s relationship with science here although my focus was largely on mathematics and the Canadian scene.

Dave Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog regularly highlights science items on television. Much of his focus is on late night tv and interviews with scientists. (The first time I saw one of his posts I was gobsmacked in the best way possible since I’d taken the science element of these talk show interviews for granted.) There’s another Pasco Phronesis posting today about the latest Colbert Report and a series Colbert calls, Science Cat Fight.

All of this is interesting fodder for thinking about how scientists (and by extension science) are perceived and Matthew C. Nisbet at the Framing Science blog has some interesting things to say about this in his posting ‘Reconsidering the Image of Scientists in Film & Television‘,

Contrary to conventional wisdom that entertainment media portray science and scientists in a negative light, research shows that across time, genre, and medium there is no single prevailing image and that both positive and negative images of scientists and science can be found. More recent research even suggests that in contemporary entertainment media, scientists are portrayed in an almost exclusively positive light and often as heroes.

Nisbet goes on to offer four ‘archetypes’ and ask for feedback, (Note: I have removed some of the text from these descriptions.)

Scientists as Dr. Frankenstein: …  Examples of this image include Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele in Boys from Brazil, Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Jeff Goldblum as the scientist in The Fly.Scientists as powerless pawns: … Examples include Robert Duvall as Dr. Griffin Weir in the 6th Day and several of the scientists in Jurassic Park who work for Richard Attenborough’s character John Hammond, CEO of InGen.

Scientists as eccentric and anti-social geeks: … Examples of this image include Christopher Loyd as Doc in Back to the Future, the nerdy boys in John Hughes 1985 film Weird Science who use science to create the perfect woman, and Val Kilmer and his fellow grad students in the 1985 film Real Genius who serve as graduate students to a professor who is determined to master a Star Wars-like satellite technology. [my addition: The characters in The Big Bang Theory.]

Scientists as Hero: …  Examples include Dr. Alan Grant as the main protagonist in Jurassic Park, Spock in the new version of Star Trek who takes on leading man and action hero qualities to rival Captain Kirk, Jody Foster’s character in Contact, Sigourney Weaver’s character in Avatar, Denis Quaid as the climate scientist hero in The Day After Tomorrow, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the geologist hero in 2012, Morgan Freeman in the Batman films as inventor Lucious Fox and CEO of Wayne Industries, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the Iron Man films.

Serendipitously, I’ve returned to where I started: Iron Man. As for all this science in the media, I think it’s a testament to its ubiquity in our lives.