Designing Effective Giant Screen Films – Written 1999

Designing Effective Giant Screen Films Presented at the GSTA ’99 Pre-Conference Symposium on Giant Screen Films and Lifelong Learning

by Ben Shedd, Shedd Productions, Inc. and Princeton University, USA ©1999  Updated: 02/06/08 & 10/27/08


The need for excellent educational materials, particularly material that clearly conveys ideas about science and technology, is well-known and described in a broad spectrum of literature. The new mission statement of the Giant Screen Theater Association (GSTA) mirrors this need, with its interest in developing and presenting giant screen film experiences for lifelong learning.1 I define lifelong learning as that which helps each of us expand our self-sufficiency in an increasingly complex world. This exceptional film format engages audiences at a deep sensory level and has a significant impact on the minds of viewers. It is my view that giant screen films can provide useful, life-enhancing, life-prolonging information, that they can provide models of a livable future, and that they can help us create intelligent options and emotional well-being in our global community.

Imagine a space-time machine that can take us anywhere on this planet at anytime in the past or imagined futures, to the furthest reaches of the universe, and into the realm of molecules and atoms and quarks. It is the giant screen format.

A giant screen film will be seen, on average, by 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 people in 50-70 theaters around the planet over a 5 to 10 year period after its release. It will also be seen by another 1,000,000 people in other forms such as video, CDROM, DVD, or browsing an Internet site. Imagine, over 10,000,000 global thinking hours devoted to a film’s imagery and observations. This paper explores several design tools for increasing the effectiveness of giant screen films in expanding scientific literacy in the general public.


In giant screen cinema, we are dealing with moving images so large that we do not see the edges of the screen. By taking away all the grounding reference points of the screen frame, everything changes in our perception of these films.

Everyone agrees that when we are in a giant screen theater and see a forward moving shot – an aerial or fast forward traveling shot – it feels like the theater is moving, pitching, tilting. Audiences gasp, laugh, feel a hit of adrenaline rush through our bodies, and we talk about these sensations long after the film is over. We observe these movie events as direct first-person experience rather than second-hand events. We as audience members do not just sit back and watch others go somewhere; we fly there ourselves, or dive underwater, or grow and shrink into other scales of matter and time.


The whole of cinema history has depended on using a frame around the image as the key compositional device, until the giant screen film. Never before has there been projection systems which can show an image so huge that it appears we are there.

A way to get a handle on this difference is to consider the opposite of the giant screen. In your mind, think about watching an aerial or fast forward moving shot on a small TV screen. The images move and swoop yet there is no sensation of movement, no sense of a room or theater moving. The event is happening inside the TV frame – and inside the TV – no matter how much the scene twists and turns and dives. The screen frame is our frame of reference and the key to the way all small screen cinema works.

Now, see that same flying shot on a giant screen – and particularly on a giant curved dome screen that wraps way around our visual field. It feels like the entire theater is flying, moving, tipping, sliding. The image is now our frame of reference. This imagined movement is a result of the fact that the screen is so large it extends beyond our peripheral vision, giving us images which are neither contained nor contextualized nor scaled by a frame.

I believe that this sensation – this audience sense of movement – is at the core of developing a new cinematic language for frameless filmmaking. I have concluded that, for the sake of consistency, the sense of audience movement needs to be applied to everything seen and experienced in any gigantic screen film – not just flying shots. The movement sensation of the theater must be accounted for throughout a frameless film, within shots and from shot to shot. Either the audience is having a first-person experience or it is not. This idea represents a complete shift of approach in filmmaking because it means that all of the action in a giant screen occurs on the audience’s side of the screen.

Any moving shot means the audience is moving, not the image on the screen. A magnified image of a tiny object or small animal means the audience has shrunk to that size. We create a cinematic world in which the audience can exist, and not just a screen on which they see images. And no less important is the six-channel stereo surround sound that offers dynamic acoustical possibilities to be explored creatively.

At the 1993 GSTA Annual meeting, the keynote address was by Bran Ferren, Executive Vice President for Creative Technology and RD, Walt Disney Imagineering. One of his central points about the uniqueness of the giant screen format is that it is a group experience. We are all in the imaginary places together. This fact is 180 degrees the opposite of all other cinema experience where we are invisible individuals watching from outside the events portrayed on the screen.

The idea that all the film events are happening on the audience’s side of the screen is a reversal in design and composition from standard cinema rules of production. Understanding these different cinematic rules means we must think about and write giant screen film scripts differently. We are not watching a film up on a screen – we are participating in the film – and so we need to design and write what might best be called screenless plays rather than screen plays. We need to create stories where the audience as a group is the film’s main character all the way through the film.

A key technical issue to consider for everyone involved in giant screen production, distribution, and presentation is that all of the filmmaking tools which we use to create these giant screen films – storyboards, cameras, viewfinders, editing machines, workprint projectors, even the brochures and posters and marketing videos – look and work just like the tools we have become experts at using to make framed, small screen films. All of the filmmaking equipment we use during production gives us a view where we see small framed images.

From the moment anyone of us gets an idea for a gigantic screen film until it is showing in such a theater, every production tool we use along the way has a frame around its image. These tools are all practical and cost-effective for filmmaking, but present a deceptive sense of a giant screen movie. The audience and the film production team have completely different and opposite experiences of the same film. Throughout production, the entire film team must dive through those working frames and be on the other side where the viewing audience’s frameless experience will occur.2

These observations have a major impact on how science is and can be presented in this unique format.


It is common in scientific data-gathering to include a common frame of reference to establish the scale of documented objects (such as including a ruler in a photo of a fossil). The frame on our TV offers us a similar frame of reference within which we observe much of media. On the giant screen, the scale of images on the giant screen appears as a direct experience for the audience. It becomes part of the design responsibility of the filmmaker to give a coherent sense of scale to the audience throughout a film.

How these giant screen films go about expressing scale is an educational outcome. Learning about scale is a key “Habit of Mind” noted in Science for All Americans3 and Benchmarks for Science Literacy4, and in the National Science Education Standards.5

An example: a close-in shot of people and a medium to wide shot of large animals, edited in sequence next to each other and shown on TV or within a frame look OK. On the giant screen, the same cut will produce a sequence showing giant people and small animals (or giant people and small mountains or giant people and small boats), when just the opposite is the fact.

Recent research in education and psychology indicates that learning happens at many levels of perception.6 For giant screen films to be effective as science literacy vehicles, all of these levels, from the cognitive experience to the limbic experience, must be considered and controlled in the creation and production of science media.7


We as a general public have numerous ethical decisions to make as the future arrives and we need solid knowledge on which to base our decisions. Choosing scientific literacy as the focus to explore the GSTA’s new mission of lifelong learning is very useful. There is an abundance of research showing how important it is for adults to acquire a solid degree of science literacy to be effective members of modern society.

From the National Science Foundation 1998 Report on Science and Engineering Indicators, Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding:

“Over the last several decades, the influence of science and technology on our public and private lives has increased sharply, and it will continue to increase at an accelerating rate in the 21st century. Citizens in the next century will need to be significantly better informed about science and technological concepts than they are today if we are to continue democratic government.” 8

From the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy Statement of Purpose:

“To prepare for the future, all citizens must attain some level of scientific literacy. In a series of studies dating back into the 1970s Professor Jon Miller defined and measured scientific literacy in the United States. His finding: Not more than 15 percent of Americans qualify as scientifically literate by relatively lenient standards.” 9 (Note: emphasis in original quote)

With so many giant screen theaters located in science centers and museums, it becomes a natural fit (and good business opportunity) to use these facilities to help improve the understanding of science for adults.

The discoveries of science have changed our world many times over in the last few hundred years and especially in the last few decades. It is not surprising that there is so much new to learn, as many current areas of knowledge were not in textbooks as recently as 25 years ago, because they had only been recently discovered. Topics like bioengineering and information technology and deep space and DNA are new subjects, which many adults did not have the opportunity to study in school. As more knowledge is gathered, it appears there will be a growing adult market for providers of reliable, real world content.


It is important that, whether or not giant screen films provide new ideas or are good educational tools, they “don’t gum up the works” along the way. With such huge impact, a core value is to not put ideas into play which make it harder to learn how the world works.

Jon Miller, writing about improving scientific literacy10, makes a key point about interpreters of science, people like us who make and distribute and present giant screen films. He writes:

“Many…individuals [in the public] have had a high level of interest in one or more science-related issues and…would appear to be dependent upon science journalism to ‘interpret’ the scientific debate on most issues. …Given the large numbers in this group [the attentive public for science policy issues] who are dependent on “translators”, the personality or philosophical perspective of the translator may become as important – if not more so – than the substance of the scientific arguments.”

I see a need for science museum staff and giant screen filmmakers as community leaders – and as the “translators” – to be sensitive to the fact that films make millions of impressions and impacts at many levels of modeling, from social to psychological to factual. What are the ethical conditions and social responsibilities of organizations that create and operate a media exhibit whose film content and impressions reach 10,000,000 to 30,000,000 people worldwide? What are the social responsibilities of science center presidents and filmmakers and funders and reviewers and marketing departments and education departments in the production and distribution and presentation of giant screen films in science museums? How can everyone in the production and distribution and presentation manufacturing line become so immersed in the world of science thinking that the filmic stories come out with ease and style and accuracy?11 These are questions to be addressed in the design, production, distribution, and presentation of every film.

One particular place where we need to sharpen focus is in the narration in giant screen films. Less is more, for a start. The narration is not the whole scientific content of a film, especially in the visceral giant screen theater where feelings count as much or more than words. And whose voice is speaking? If the audience is in the action of the film, who is it that is talking? The character and style of the narrator should be carefully defined. Poetic license is bounded when making science stories. We, as makers and presenters of these films, must make sure we are representing the attitudes and approaches of the scientific process as well as the facts of the story. We need to educate ourselves so these films present accurate content and the overall point of view of scientific thinking rather than personal philosophies. And little bits of imprecise narration can undermine strong film ideas. These bits can come from the simplest of inadvertent comments like a piece of narration saying “Scientists, they will tell us what we need to do about …”, a comment which inadvertently puts all of us in the audience outside the world of doing science, or narration saying something is “defying gravity”, which is an impossibility to begin with (at least on earth or near any other mass in the universe), inaccurate, and certainly the wrong metaphor for a science film. These comments, while well meant, are confusing and mess with our minds.

The question is how to have some quality management in a product, in this case an effective science storytelling experience. Perhaps the criteria to set in place are clear definitions of educational style, of outcomes expected. Right now the only criteria is box office success, which when reversed out, means customers not asking for their money back. All the while, there are all sorts of accumulated bits which gather from the unfiltered flow of cinematic experience. The aggregate of details makes a movie. Perhaps the words of the Hippocratic Oath in the medical profession may be taken as a beginning for an ethics statement about giant screen film educational content and design: Primum non nocere – Above all, do no harm.


The design, production, distribution, and presentation of giant screen films is a complex undertaking, involving numerous individuals and relative large sums of capital. Within this task is a fundamental issue of blending form and content: creating content that is useful for our modern world and which is appropriate for the giant screen form. Every choice we make in production and distribution and presentation of our films is amplified 10,000,000 times and we need to design and use precision in constructing all elements of our giant screen projects. It is not brain surgery, but then again, maybe it is. Maybe we are affecting people – and the way we think about the world and the future – in a big way and we need to take this responsibility to heart and act thoughtfully on it.


I think it would be very useful for the GSTA to do the following:

* Create a step-by-step play book for production, from idea to scripting and budgeting to filming to editing, from rough cut to narration recording to fine cut and mix and release. This playbook would list all the decision branch points where content becomes locked in place. This analysis would include an in-depth look at many aspects of cinema and communication theory and practice, and would explore the following:

-How can the process of production be designed to facilitate more effective education outcomes?

-Examine the ‘gender of the cinematic gaze’ an area of cinema theory that considers the inadvertent point of view in films which is created by the gender of the filmmakers.

-Examine how to retrain production staff coming from framed small-screen cinema, those who are experts in using a frame as the key to filmic composition.

-Examine how to determine markers of success at each stage of production and are they indicators of educational values?

* Pick five giant screen films for analysis of their implicit and explicit levels of science meaning. This process would give insights into the naïve notions about science embedded in the filmmaker’s world views and how they affect the design and contents of the films.

* Do an economic analysis of the value of creating and distributing giant screen science and educational films. Examine the quality control points in the giant screen institutional business, and what are success markers and where is the investment incentive?

* Do an extensive academic literature search to find information about existing methods and theories to assist this discussion about improving giant screen film educational outcomes.


Portions of this research were supported by a grant from the Liberty Science Center and a Residential Fellowship from the Alden B. Dow Creativity Center.

Endnotes: Note: All of the books in the Endnotes are listed at Shedd Productions, Inc. Bibliography Web page.

1 Background References: National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Indicators 1998. Available at: F. James Rutherford. Editor, Science For All Americans.Oxford University Press, New York, 1987. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark. Random House, New York, 1995. Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a BraveNew World. Avon Books, New York NY. 1997.

2 For an extended discussion of a new filmic language for the giant screen, please see my paper Exploding the Frame, posted at: Exploding The Frame Article

3 F. James Rutherford, Editor, Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.

4 F. James Rutherford, Editor, Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.

5 National Research Council, National Science Education Standards. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1996.

6 See Daniel Goleman’s books Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence for discussions on the need and possibility of having and learning emotional well being. In Appendix C ofEmotional Intelligence, Goleman discusses the neural circuitry of fear, and the biological basis of our emotional reactions. As one of the major events in giant screen films is provoking some anxiety through tipping and tilting, it makes me wonder how to be educative in the midst of fear response. Maybe finding ways to shift that response to feelings of awe might be more productive. Perhaps this is one of most difficult challenge in making giant screen films with effective educational content. Howard Gardner’s books Frames of Mind and The Unschooled Mind provide substantial information on the many different ways that we learn.

7 Observing the technology as part of the film viewing experience:

If the giant screen can create a first-person observation platform for the audience, it is useful to see what artifacts of production and projection can inadvertently intrude into the learning process. As the vast screen space can become a fertile ground for training the key scientific skill of observation, seeing any of the effects of the filmmaking process can create a negative effect. Let me provide one example of how the audience can inadvertently see the film making rather than the content.

In the 1930’s Gestalt theorist and Professor of the Psychology of Art Rudolf Arnheim wrote about this matter in reference to watching much smaller filmic images. The following excerpt, which begins Arnheim’s essay on Motion in Cinema, is from his classic book Film As Art, a major text in film theory that has been continuously in publication for over sixty years.

“The motion picture specializes in presenting events. It shows changes in time. This preference is explained by the very nature of the medium. A motion picture in itself is an event: it looks different every moment, whereas there is no such temporal progress in a painting or sculpture. Motion being one of its outstanding properties, the film is required by aesthetic law to use and interpret motion.

The technically most characteristic motion of the cinematographic process, however must not be counted among the means of expression of which the motion picture profits: the displacement of the filmstrip in the camera and in the projector is not experienced directly by the audience. It is simply the mechanical means of creating the illusion of motion on the screen; also, the speed of the filmstrip in the camera as compared with the speed of projection indirectly determines the speed of the movements seen by the spectator. But the beat of the intermittent motion in the camera and the projector has no bearing upon the aesthetic rhythm of the picture.” Rudolf Arnheim, Motion – 1934, Film As Art

This “intermittent motion” is usually transparent in films because of the “persistence of vision” of the eye. Our eyes hold an image for over a 50th of a second and when films replace images 24 times a second, they blend still pictures together into the appearance of motion. However, with the giant screen there is an added variable, which is how far any object on the screen appears to move between frames. With smaller screens, such as TV, this is not a problem because the displacement distance is perhaps at most a few inches of side to side displacement. On the giant screen, rapidly moving objects can jump 5 to 10 feet between each projected frame, and so they don’t maintain their appearance of a moving solid object but blur or strobe across the screen. This breaks the audience’s experience of “really being there” and adds a whole level of unintended observations to the looking process. The closer one sits to a giant screen (like in the lower seats of a dome theater), the more this displacement jitter can be noticed.

I have seen this artifact often in two kinds of giant screen shots: when people are seen moving with any kind of speed, and in forward moving shots (which appears particularly apparent in the lower half of the screen). The jittery movement is an unintended outcome of the shutter speed and the hugeness of the screen surface. Seeing this jitter is observing the projection system, not observing the filmic imagery. It is impossible to look at for any length of time.

By understanding and anticipating this technical matter and others such as depth of field and scale shifts between cuts, it is possible to design effective film sequences with these constraints in mind, and to eliminate or greatly minimize these artifacts of filmmaking.

8 National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Indicators 1998. Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding. Available on line:

9 The International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy houses the worlds largest and most extensive collection of data on scientific literacy. Led by Dr. Jon Miller, ICASL is the leading research organization in the world studying public understanding of science and attitudes about the scientific enterprise.

10 Scientific Literacy: A Review by Jon Miller. Daedalus Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 112, Number 2 Spring 1983

11 Developing Habits of Mind: As background for creating modern science stories, some books are useful such as Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern(especially the essays Number Numbness and On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures), Science For All Americans, edited by James S. Rutherford, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan.

Additional key books with useful background materials for science film content are: Benchmarks for Science Literacy edited by F. James Rutherford, Project 2061 Director and the National Science Education Standards published by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Both of these texts are filled with solid content materials and excellent commentary on age-appropriate approaches to complex information. The chapter Habits of Mind in Benchmarks for Science Literacy gives numerous guidelines for developing the underlying point of view of educational material.

The world view offered through science is a wonderful way to see ourselves and our universe, and I’ve created an on-line bibliography with an extensive list of books I’ve used to saturate myself in this world of science. All of the books in the Endnotes are listed and linked to at the Shedd Productions, Inc. Bibliography Web page.

Originally Posted 10/27/08