Science in the Make-up Chair

Volume 16 | Issue 13 | 20 | Jun. 24, 2002 Previous | Next Science in the Make-up Chair Scientists, seeking more active roles as film consultants, try not to get 'sandwiched by the script' | By Hal Cohen Image: Erica P. Johnson Ever try to get bitten by a radioactive spider to acquire web-slinging powers in your wrists? Baffled as to the lack of matter transporters for sale on the market? Think

By | June 24, 2002

Volume 16 | Issue 13 | 20 | Jun. 24, 2002

Science in the Make-up Chair

Scientists, seeking more active roles as film consultants, try not to get 'sandwiched by the script' | By Hal Cohen

Image: Erica P. Johnson

Ever try to get bitten by a radioactive spider to acquire web-slinging powers in your wrists? Baffled as to the lack of matter transporters for sale on the market? Think that organ transplants can be conducted strictly in dank, underground laboratories performed with the ease of fixing a sandwich?

Preposterous as all of the above seems, a sensationally scary number of people receive their scientific education from the movies. Lamentably, the silver screen is not the most accredited of institutions. So when science is on the set in Hollywood, it usually spends a lot of time in the make-up chair. It has to. Looking unadulterated science in the face for a few hours can be tough to swallow.

The usual result: the requisite years of tedious work garnering progress in the lab get whittled into sound-bite-sized nuggets chock full of misinformation on the screen. Blockbusters such as Spiderman and the latest installment of Star Wars are providing the most recent exercises in sketchy science.

With an ever-growing influence and a more discerning and critical audience, filmmakers have increasingly hired scientific consultants to ensure a higher level of accuracy. Science fiction movies such as The X-Files, Gattaca, and Outbreak have gone near and far from the studio to recruit scientists willing to lend their expertise, advice, and vision.

DESPARATELY SEEKING SCIENTISTS "We have gone to great lengths in many instances to seek out scientific advice," says Frank Spotnitz, executive producer of The X-Files. "Our show depends on believability; the more credible we can seem on a scientific level, the more entertaining we end up being."

It's who Anne Simon knows that got her involved with that popular science fiction TV show and movie, but what she knows has kept her on staff. During the show's first season, Simon, professor of cell and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland, College Park, received a call from the series creator and family friend Chris Carter.

"He had a question about science, and I'm probably the only scientist he knows," recalls Simon. Shortly following the conversation, she was made the show's science adviser. "They'll show me part of the script where a scientist wants to perform an experiment, and they ask me how I would do it," she explains.

At the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, W. French Anderson, professor of biochemistry and pediatrics, is only a director's yell from Hollywood. Courted by studios on previous occasions, this father of gene therapy chose to lend his scientific counsel to the film Gattaca, a cautionary tale of a future society where DNA determines social standing.

Anderson wanted not only to buck the trend of inaccurate science being portrayed in movies but also to more effectively incorporate ideas he felt were significant. "The film wanted to demonstrate what will become of society if we allow it to become prejudiced on a genetic basis, ... the same message I have been pushing for over 30 years," Anderson says.

Despite these efforts, some members of the scientific committee still take umbrage with Hollywood for sacrificing scientific accuracy in the name of bigger box office bucks. "One of the biggest ways scientific literacy is being thwarted is by movies," says Teresa Larsen, director of the Foundation for Scientific Literacy (FSL). "People become grossly misinformed when movies turn science fiction into science false."

Donald Francis, renowned virologist and president of VaxGen, relates from his experience that getting a film in theaters can take precedence, leaving precision on the editing room floor. While consulting for the film Outbreak, where an Ebola-like virus runs rampant on a town, Francis and actor Dustin Hoffman wanted to make a virologically scary movie that would pass muster with virology experts.

But with the shooting of a competitive movie about to commence, Outbreak went into filming before they perfected the script. "We ended up getting sandwiched by the script," says Francis. He says that a little explaining and possibly an extra scene could have incorporated a feasible recombinant antibody technique into the plot. "But we never succeeded," chuckles Francis. "It ultimately became an action movie like the studio wanted."

SCIENCE, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE Larsen stresses that many of the grievous nontruisms propagated by the silver screen result in only thwarting the science curriculum reform, especially in impressionable, younger children. "They're like sponges," she says. "They like to tenuously hold on to these simplifications they've learned ... most of which are quite wrong."

Larsen chides one episode of the original Star Trek Voyager series ironically titled "The Scientific Method," in which atoms feature surfaces on which barcodes can be stamped. "I'll let them slide with transporters, but when we're talking about something where we possess the technology, such inaccuracies aren't acceptable," says Larsen.

Among the primary reasons she started the FSL in 1999 was to assist the entertainment industry in relating accurate and easily digestible scientific concepts to the public. With experience as a fact checker and molecular graphics designer for movies such as Deep Cover and a vast network of knowledgeable scientists at her disposal, Larsen wholeheartedly offers her scientific advice to moviemakers.

But like many a starlet aspiring to get into film, Larsen finds herself by the phone waiting for the call that doesn't come. With few studios looking to take advantage of her free offer, Larsen hopes to raise the necessary funds to place ads in Variety, which would greatly increase the visibility of her services.

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES Of course, with fiction being a necessary element of sci-fi, some insist on taking certain inaccuracies with a grain of salt. "What is accuracy but a loaded word anyway," Simon says. "In one episode [of the X-Files] we had a half-fluke half-man ... how accurate is that?"

Movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Contact successfully tell stories about the scientific process, despite skimping on extensive details. Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Laboratory, cites Contact as an example. "I liked Jodie Foster's character because she was uncertain and confused, such as how it is on the frontier of discovery. The messiness gives it a sign of reality."

Simon also contends that correcting misrepresentations of scientists is tantamount to the science itself; he is hoping to expel Dr. Frankensteinesque images from the psyche of the collective moviegoer.

"Scientists are typically portrayed by the media as evil geeks," Simon jocularly concedes. "Most laypeople don't really know what we're doing, and when scientists try to explain their work, they generally come off as condescending or have trouble communicating on the right level."

She believes that The X-Files exposes scientists in a favorable light: "Scientists are shown as hardworking, dedicated, and normal. On the show, [the character] Dana Scully doesn't know everything like the professor from Gilligan's Island. She has to go to experts for help."

Anderson stresses that scientists should be portrayed in an accurate framework, using Jaws as precedent. "The marine biologist [in Jaws] was portrayed as a normal human being with an accurate representation of how they work. Not someone doing horrible things off on a deserted island."

Overall, Spotnitz believes the occasionally ignored minutiae come off as inoffensive. "If you can take a viewer by the hand in a friendly manner and show science as interesting, even if you're taking license, you're still doing a service to science."

Hal Cohen can be contacted at

©2002, The Scientist Inc.
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