Molecules to the Max

A team of scientists takes IMAX viewers into the nanosphere with atomic particles in search of life's secrets

Mar 12, 2009
Tia Ghose
A doe-eyed oxygen atom teams up with two baby-faced hydrogen atoms to uncover the mystery of life. They zoom from outer-space to earth, uncovering the molecular makeup of melting ice, chewing gum, and a living cell along the way. It may sound geekier than the average Pixar flick, but the movie's creators are hoping it can capture the attention of kids and parents, and make them excited about science in the process.The movie, called Molecules to the Max, was the brainchild of a chemical engineer and two materials scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY. Shekhar Garde, Linda Schadler, and Dick Siegel first came up with the idea more than six years ago. Garde was using computer simulations to visualize molecular structure, when it occurred to him that the brightly colored ribbons and balls that the programs produce using force calculations might make for good cinema. "From a visual point of view they are just beautiful. So I thought: can we use this beauty and use it to teach something to the general public and kids?" says Garde.Garde, Schadler, and Siegel began a short film on a shoestring budget, using simple green line drawings on a black background. Next, they applied for a National Science Foundation grant worth about $700,000 to make a bigger film, the digital dome movie called Riding Snowflakes, which showed in planetariums around the country in 2004. Additional funding was provided from RPI and from an NSF grant to RPI's nanotechnology center.
In 2006 the team began work on Molecules to the Max, a full-length IMAX film in which the "unified field of atoms" sends the main characters--molecules Oxy, Hydra, and Hydro--to figure out the secret to life, says Kurt Przybilla, the writer and producer of the movie. To complete the mammoth project, Garde and his colleaugues got funding from private donors, RPI, and NSF, collaborated with a company called Nanotoon, and employed dozens of artists, actors, animators, and designers. One of the biggest challenges, says Garde, was crafting a compelling story while not throwing the laws of physics out the window. For instance, "atoms don't talk," Garde says. To get around this snag, the team created a ship, called the Molecularium, in which physical laws don't apply. The ship can move from the nano to the macro scale and travel faster than the speed of light. Inside the Molecularium, Oxy can also chat with her pals Hydra and Hydro to understand the difference between a solid, a liquid, and a gas. "But outside of the ship is the real world environment and we tried to depict that as realistically as possible," says Garde. Cartoon molecules in "the real world" follow computer generated trajectories generated by the same molecular dynamics simulations that originally sparked Garde's creative urge.The artists had to give impressions of the physical object while obeying the internal logic of the "cartooniverse," says Chris Harvey, the artistic director of the film. For instance, to create water molecules, the team used a "frosty sheen with a little bit of blue depth," but because atoms have a canonical color scheme in science, hydrogen atoms have a whitish tint, while oxygen atoms are slightly more red, he says.The team hopes that the movie will inform both kids and adults. When the audience is immersed "in the snowflake they're in a solid, when it melts they go to a liquid, and you can see the difference," Przybilla says. If you ask most adults to explain the difference between states of matter, "they don't have a coherent response, particularly at an atomic level." Hopefully, that will change after people see the movie, he adds.Molecules to the Max will be screened for IMAX theater owners in late March, and should be in theaters in 6 months, Garde says.