Potentials for Expanding Scientific Literacy through Giant Screen Films – Written 1999

Background: This White Paper was developed for Emlyn Koster PhD. President and CEO of the Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, New Jersey and supported by a grant from the Office of the President, Liberty Science Center. Portions of my presentation at the 1999 GSTA Symposium Giant Screen Films and Lifelong Learning were drawn from this material. The footnotes of this paper contains a lengthy excerpt from a panel discussion I created and chaired at the 1995 GSTA meeting on “Special Venue Films for Science Centers and Museums: What makes them unique?” The transcript section features comments by Hyman Field PhD, who at that time was Section Head of Informal Science Education at the National Science Foundation. The paper also features ideas presented by Christopher Palmer, then President and CEO of the National Wildlife Productions, Inc.of the National Wildlife Federation, excerpted from the GSTA 1998 Education/Research Committee Seminar.

Potentials for Expanding Scientific Literacy through Giant Screen Films – A White Paper developed for Emlyn Koster, PhD. CEO, Liberty Science Center

Written by Ben Shedd, Shedd Productions, Inc. ©1998 The time to write this paper was made possible by a grant from the office of Emlyn Koster PhD, President and CEO of the Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, New Jersey

Introduction:  A giant screen film will be seen, on average, by 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 at least another 1,000,000 people in other forms such as video, CDROM, DVD, or browsing an Internet site. This is a substantial number of people whose minds will come in contact with the ideas presented in any giant screen film. Imagine, over 10,000,000 global human hours devoted to a film’s imagery and observations. This paper discusses the opportunities for educational uses of giant screen films, and the social implications and responsibilities that such a wonderful opportunity provides.

“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works. Science, I maintain, is an absolutely essential tool for any society with a hope of surviving well into the next century with its fundamental values intact-not just science as engaged by its practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire human community. And if scientists will not bring this about, who will?” Carl Sagan, THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD: SCIENCE AS A CANDLE IN THE DARK

“We must begin the process of developing scientific wisdom suitable for our time. It can be argued, with good justification, that as the programs of science education decay, so will the potential to shape the future to our own benefit, to maintain some control of our own destiny.” Mary Budd Rowe, A FRAMEWORK FOR DECISION MAKERS

“All of us have a stake, as individuals and as a society, in scientific literacy. An understanding of science makes it possible for everyone to share in the richness and excitement of comprehending the natural world. Scientific literacy enables people to use scientific principles and processes in making personal decisions and to participate in discussions of scientific issues that affect society. A sound grounding in science strengthens many of the skills that people use every day, like solving problems creatively, thinking critically, working cooperatively in teams, using technology effectively, and valuing life-long learning. And the economic productivity of our society is tightly linked to the scientific and technological skills of our work force.” From Call to Action, NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS, National Research Council

“The terms and circumstances of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human life span. Science, mathematics and technology will be at the center of that change-causing it, shaping it, responding to it. They will therefore be essential to the education of today’s children for tomorrow’s world. What should be the substance and character of that education be?” From SCIENCE FOR ALL AMERICANS, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

VISION STATEMENT: What can these films be?

The need for excellent educational materials, particularly material that clearly conveys science and technology ideas, is well known and described in a broad spectrum of literature. The new mission statement of the Giant Screen Theater Association mirrors this need, with its interest in developing and presenting giant screen film experiences for life-long learning. I define life-long 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 accurate, engaging films have 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 role models of a livable future, and that they can help us create intelligent options and emotional well being in our global community.

The main goal of this paper is to explore and spell out several mechanisms for increasing the effectiveness of giant screen films towards the goal of expanding scientific literacy in the general public. I have chosen increased scientific literacy as the educational outcome to give a focus to this paper. The current dialogue about how to accomplish this opportunity is mired in unproductive discussions about combining entertainment and education rather than exploring how to match and merge form and content, as is often considered in film studies. What is required is no less than a paradigm shift for utilizing this media.

What’s Unique about the Giant Screen Format and what are the implications for creating a learning environment?

Giant cinema screens are unique to film formats. They are as distant from small screen film making as still photography is from the movies. In giant screen cinema, we are dealing with moving images so large that we do not see the edges of the screen. Taking away all the grounding reference points of the frame changes everything in our perception of these films.

We all agree that when we see a moving, flying shot in a giant screen film, it feels like the theater is moving.

For me, this means that perceptually the action of the giant screen film has moved from the screen to the audience. 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 not contained or contextualized or scaled by a frame. I note that once it appears that action is happening on the audience’s side of the screen in a moving shot, for the sake of consistency, all events should be on the audience’s side of the screen. This gives a wonderful opportunity for making educational events, as giant screen movies can create virtual first person experiences rather than second hand events. We as audience members don’t just watch others go somewhere; we fly there ourselves, or dive underwater or grow and shrink into other scales of matter. It is here that film design and styles of filmmaking can intrude into this wonderful opportunity. All movies or TV except giant screen films are seen within the context of frames, and that frames allows all sorts of different size images to appear, scaled to the frame of the screen. Let me give a specific example of this key difference that I used to begin this point. Imagine watching a flying shot on TV. [It might be a video version of a giant screen film.] The images move and swoop, yet there is no sensation of movement outside of the frame, no sense of a theater moving. The event is happening inside the frame. The frame is contained in a TV set, the TV set is on a table sitting firmly on the floor, which is the same floor we are sitting on while watching the TV. The frame is our frame of reference.

Now, imagine seeing that same flying shot on a giant screen – and particularly on a giant curved Omni screen that wraps way around our visual field. It feels like the entire 300 seat theater is flying, moving, tipping, sliding. The image is now our frame of view. Our horizon line, the visual horizon that completely fills our view, is now the horizon line inside the image, and when it tilts, we feel as though the whole theater is tipping and tilting – like the theater is moving.

This set of sensations is – must be – a working tool in the giant screen filmmaker’s storytelling, and extends way beyond the mere sensation of movement. This fact creates an observational point for us, and brings us to a key point for increasing science learning, which is expanding skills of personal observation.

A moving shot means the audience is moving, not the image on the screen. It is 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. Understanding these effects means we must think about and write giant screen film scripts differently. We need to design 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. These observations and others have a significant impact on how science is and can be presented in this unique format.

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, in each shot and from shot to shot. Either the audience is having a first person experience or it isn’t. This idea represents a complete shift of approach in filmmaking, where the audience experience is the first order of focus, where all of the action occurs on the audience’s side of the screen.

In accounting for the sensation of movement, the filmic experience has moved from passive, from being held in a frame, to active, to becoming the engulfing reality with the audience present within the filmic events. In frameless film the audience becomes the main character in the film.

The idea that all the film events are happening on the audience’s side of the screen is a complete reversal in design and composition from standard production. And it is from this new filmic outcome that the creative work of filmmaking takes a radical turn. A key technical issue for everyone involved in giant screen production and distribution to consider is that all of the filmmaking tools which we use to create these giant screen films – the storyboards, cameras, viewfinders, editing machines, workprint projectors, brochures, posters – look and work just like the tools we have become experts at using to make framed movies, to make small screen films.

From the moment I – or anyone of us – get 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. The sketches, the storyboards, the cameras, the editing machines, all present images seen within frames. These tools are all practical and cost-effective for filmmaking, but throughout production the entire film crew must dive through those constantly present frames and be on the other side where the viewing audience’s frameless experience will occur.

All of the filmmaking equipment we use during production gives a view where we see small framed images. Not only are the images framed, but also I would be seeing an image that is greatly reduced in size, compared to its projected size on the giant frameless screen. Working rule #1 for me throughout frameless film production is that the massive size of the projected image must be considered first and foremost, and that every aspect of the production must be reverse-designed, reverse-engineered from how the image will appear and be perceived when it is projected on the gigantic screen.

It is common in scientific data gathering to include a common frame of reference to establish the scale (such as including a Swiss Army Knife in a picture of a large 10-inch long insect.) The frame on our TV offers us a similar frame of reference within which we observe much of media. Imagery is held within and scaled to a frame. As we have discussed here, the scale of images on the giant screen appears as a first person experience for an audience. It becomes part of the design responsibility of the filmmaker to give a coherent sense of scale to the audience.

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

Working in giant screen presentation suddenly calls the question of media presentations of science accuracy, as it digs into the issues of perceptual sensing of experience and our clear self sense of being able to experience the world at a core level of self acquiring knowledge. Badly made giant screen films create fragmented experiences, which do not resonate with our real-life experience.

“Enthusiasts, Partisans, and liars have long tinkered with graphical evidence by dequantifying images, selecting and hyping advantageous visual effects, distorting data. Recently, inexpensive computing and ingenious techniques for image processing have provided endless new opportunities for mischief. Arbitrary, transient, one-sided, fractured, undocumented materials have become the great predicament of image making and processing. How are we to assess the integrity of visual evidence? What ethical standards are to be observed in the production of such images? One way to enforce some standard of truth-telling is to insist that the innocent, unprocessed, natural image be shown along with the manipulated image, and, further, that the manipulators and their methods be identified. And, if an image is to serve as serious evidence, a more rigorous accounting should reveal the overall pool of images from which the displayed image was selected.” Edward R. Tufte, VISUAL EXPLANATIONS

Giant screen theaters present big images. A better description would be vast images, and this is especially true in dome screen theaters where the image wraps around beyond our peripheral vision. This vast image space is ideal for showing big places, and taking the audience to far off places. The list of films to date has taken us from A to Z – literally, from Africa, Amazon, Antarctica to Yellowstone and Zion, and traveling to the depths of the ocean and the outer reaches of the universe. This observation is not surprising, as travelogues have been a staple of movies since their very beginning, and it serves a key function in satisfying some of our curiosity of what our planet, our home looks like.

Recent research in education and psychology indicates that learning happens at many levels of perception1. 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.

A Technical Observation:

If the giant screen can create a first-person observation platform for the audience, it is useful to look at 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.

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 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, from 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 solidness. This kind of jittered image can add 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, it is possible to design with this constraint in mind, and to eliminate or greatly minimize this artifact of filmmaking.

Considering Giant Screen Films as Traveling Exhibits:

The two major research texts in learning in science centers – WHAT RESEARCH SAYS ABOUT LEARNING IN SCIENCE MUSEUMS VOL. I & II and INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNING – skip right by giant screen theaters as if they were invisible. It is more than curious why these gigantic, highly public, highly popular, dominant center pieces located in science museums around the world are only inadvertently mentioned, if at all, in all of the literature on science learning. It is time to break past this blindspot and examine the potentials and limitations of these giant screen/moving image exhibit spaces.

There is an already viable model within science museums that appears to be useful to consider: the traveling exhibit. There are enormous similarities between the presentations in the giant screen theater and science museum traveling exhibit presentations. The films are booked by and leased to science museums in a fashion similar to traveling exhibits. Often, the films shown in the giant screen theaters are produced by one science museum or a consortium of science museums, in a fashion similar to collaborative traveling exhibits. In many ways, the events in the giant screen theater could be viewed as an ever changing, forced-flow traveling exhibit. This model provides a well-developed method to evaluate films for booking in the context of a science center’s mission.

“New knowledge should ennoble not merely those who seek and find it, nor their immediate colleagues, but it should add to the civility and wonder and the nobility of the common life.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, THE NEED FOR KNOWLEDGE

“…aversion to science is [surely] an unnatural state of mind. Science is the natural searching within ourselves and in our surrounds for explanations. It is the process of making comprehensible, by discovering and explaining with simple laws, that which had been dark—and often frightening-mystery. Science is curiosity in harness, and curiosity is surely one of the most elemental human motivating forces.” Mahlon B. Hoagland, THE ROOTS OF LIFE

“There is a vast untapped popular interest in the deepest scientific questions. For many people, the shoddily thought out doctrines of borderline science [parapsychology, astrology, ancient astronauts] are the closest approximation to comprehensible science readily available. The popularity of borderline science is a rebuke to the schools, the press, and commercial television for their sparse, unimaginative and ineffective efforts at science education, and to us scientists, for doing so little to popularize the subject.” Carl Sagan, BROCA’S BRAIN

A Design Tool for Improving Film Content:

I will now consider some possible approaches to film production and leasing:

During the 1998 GSTA meeting’s Educational Seminar, Christopher Palmer, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Productions, Inc.of the National Wildlife Federation, presented a concise list of imperatives for a successful educational giant screen film. They are as follows:

1.The film must be entertaining and compelling and engaging.

2.The film must make viewers want to learn about the subject.

3.The film must convey useful information.

4.The film must add information to the knowledge base and lead to some closure or conclusions.

5.The film must be factual and scientifically accurate.

6.The film must show the scientific method and scientists at work. Knowledge does not just come from guesswork. Show many instances to provide natural opportunities to investigate.

7.The film must provide viewers an opportunity to observe nature and science they may not have otherwise.

8.The film must be designed for children who learn in different ways, visual and audio.

9.The film must dispel pseudo science, misrepresentations and myth, and encourage critical thinking.

10.The film must reach out to different groups in different languages.2

I find this list admirable and ambitious3.

As stated above, these items set in motion many possible pathways to follow. I want to reframe these ten points to make it a useful list of production tools and as a set of criteria for examining a completed film. My approach to this list is to imagine all these items have been accomplished for a given subject and then ask a set of imaginary questions about how they were accomplished. I am intentionally setting these questions in a past tense so they address the results, imagined or real, which a film might achieve. Writing the questions in this past tense frames them with the audience in mind at every step. It also generates a narrowing of options, so that a project can be planned or a completed film can be assessed. Here is the same list, rewritten as tools for a thought experiment which will elicit these goals from any topic:

1.How did we accomplish making the film entertaining and compelling and engaging?

2.How did we accomplish making the film make viewers want to learn about the subject?

3.How did we accomplish making the film convey useful information?

4.How did we accomplish making the film add information to the knowledge base and lead to some closure or conclusions?

5.How did we accomplish making the film be factual and scientifically accurate?

6.How did we accomplish making the film show the scientific method and scientists at work? Knowledge does not just come from guesswork. How did we accomplish showing many instances to provide natural opportunities to investigate?

7.How did we accomplish making the film provide viewers an opportunity to observe nature and science they may not have otherwise?

8.How did we accomplish making the film designed for children who learn in different ways, visual and audio?

9.How did we accomplish making the film dispel pseudo science, misrepresentations and myth, and encourage critical thinking?

10.How did we accomplish making the film reach out to different groups in different languages?

This process transforms the criteria into action items. These questioning statements create a reverse-engineering view of the problem and can quickly generate a working list of to-do details for film research.

I think these questions can also be used to assess a film for lease, by shifting the word “we” to “they” referring to the filmmakers. Of course, once a film begins playing in a science center’s giant screen theater, its point of view is taken as the science center’s point of view.

I have used another creative tool to provoke filmic ideas through reverse engineering thinking, in the form of a “before and after manifesto” for a film. In the manifesto, I ask what the audience knows before seeing a film and then set a list of desired differences in knowledge that will result from seeing the film. Again, this future-past verbal structure provides a check list against which to judge success. Such a manifesto is meant to be simple and direct in its statement, and to be a published document for use during film research, scripting, and design. Here, by example, is the Manifesto that I with created for the giant screen film TROPICAL RAINFOREST working with Executive Producer Mike Day. The manifesto was written in 1988, during the research/design/scripting/budgeting phase of the film production.

Science Museum of Minnesota Tropical Rainforest IMAX/OMNIMAX film MANIFESTO

The audience will enter the IMAX/OMNIMAX theater knowing:

•The jungle is dark and scary.

•The rainforests are being cut down and it should stop.

•People live in the tropical forest.

•There are animals in the rainforests like we see in the zoo.

The audience will leave the IMAX/OMNIMAX theater knowing:

•The tropical forest is a place of beauty and wonder

•The rich diversity of life on earth is startling.

•The process of evolving life is amazing and to be treasured.

•There is a race between scientists cataloging the tropical forest and our losing its biodiversity through human use.

•We are the managers of the world and must manage wisely.

•This kind of front end design planning could also be done to create criteria around a topic for determining whether to lease a film.

In the above examples, my key central concern is how a film might affect the audience. Thinking backwards may be the key to creating a desired future vision. Iterating ideas in reverse order from the desired results provides a way to develop the desired intent.

The Human Factor:

In the history of cinema, there are well-documented studies of films being used to present propaganda, or what we might call heavily biased and controlled points of view. These kinds of films have a specific world-view to present and every detail is controlled and focused. It is often interesting to see how deeply detailed such presentations are. These techniques are seen over and over in advertising and TV commercials.

I see a need for science museum staff and giant screen filmmakers, joining together as community leaders, to be sensitive to the fact that a film will 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 an organization that operates a media exhibit whose film content and impressions reach 10,000,000 to 30,000,000 people worldwide? What are the social responsibilities of the science center presidents and the filmmakers and the funders and the reviewers and the marketing departments and the education departments in the production and distribution of giant screen films in science museums? These are questions to be addressed in the design, production, and distribution of every film.

In part, the challenge is a Human Resources issue, about how to chose people who understand the core goals and the values of these goals. One approach might be to develop a Human Resources questionnaire that gives insights into deeply held beliefs about science and its uses?

In her article A Framework for Decision-Makers, Mary Budd Rowe discussed two points of view which bring this discussion to a particular focus4:

“As an enterprise, science transcends national borders. Education about science, however, takes place within ideological milieus. Some are hospitable to the culturing of scientific and technological sophistication. Others stifle its development. The vigor of science and technology in a country depends of which of the two forms of fate-control orientation predominate in the culture. Fate control refers to a pattern of beliefs about the nature of the world we live in, one’s place in it, and the influence one can have on it. …

People with a low sense of fate control act as if the world were a collage of happenings with few connections between them, as though each event had sprung uninvited into their lives. The world for them is unpredictable, like a game of chance. As a rule, their knowledge and understanding of science tend to be rather primitive, if not totally absent. This lack of knowledge gives license to their belief that nothing is worth any sustained planning, since the world is in the grip of powerful forces beyond influence.

People with high fate-control outlook function as if they believed that events have roots that evolve by processes they can discover and thereby possibly influence. People of high fate-control orientation are more keenly attuned to cause-and-effect and to the structure and relationships between events and ideas. Because they believe that the future grows out of what one does in the present, they are more disposed to participate in long-term plans and projects. Table 1 contrasts high and low fate-control perspectives on the world; there may, of course, be many graduations between them. …

Table 1. Characteristics of Low-Fate and High-Fate Control Views


Chance-can’t influence odds/Can influence odds

No use to try-you can’t make a difference/Try things-learn from experience

Little prior evaluation of possible consequences of action/Evaluate outcomes and use information

Now-oriented/Future-oriented-delayed risks OK

Low task persistence/High task persistence

School achievement lower/School achievement higher


Weak problem-solving strategies/Aggressive problem-solving strategies

Susceptible to influence/Relatively resistant to influence

“How I do things makes no difference in how things turn out”/”How I do things makes a difference in what results I get”

Goal-setting is irrelevant/Goal-setting is relevant

Displaces responsibility outward/May be excessively self-blaming

(Excerpted from A Framework for Decision-Makers, by Mary Budd Rowe. Daedalus Scientific Literacy. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 112, Number 2, Spring 1983)

As I review Mary Budd Rowe’s comparative table, my immediate question is what might be the differing results in a film made by a Low-Fate perspective filmmaker and a High-Fate perspective filmmaker? A look at the tone of past films in this light might be productive. I posit that these differing world-views create very different tones in presentation, and in the effectiveness of educational outcomes of giant screen films. I also wonder what difference these views might make at every level of film production and distribution.

Do no harm:

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. And these gumming bits can come from the simplest of inadvertent comments like a piece of narration saying “Scientists will tell us what we need to do about …”, a comment which puts all of us in the audience outside the world of doing science. And because it is presented within the framework of a science center visit, such commentary becomes the point of view being expressed by the science center institution.

The question is how to have some quality management. 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. My film watching notebooks from the last decade are laced with comments about sloppy science details in giant screen films. Perhaps the first rule should be: Don’t make things worse. Do no harm.

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.5

Additional research 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.6

Where next?

These are the ideas I have developed in the time we’ve allotted for this project. There are several areas to consider and expand in the future. I think it will be very useful to do the following:

1) Create a step by step playbook of film production, listing all the decision tree points. This analysis would create an in-depth look at many aspects of cinema theory and practice, including considering:

•The naive notions embedded in the makers of the films.

•The markers of success at each stage of production: are they indicators of educational values?

•The plan and design for production: how will the objectives be accomplished as described on paper?

•The production: Production is like a construction project. It is a knowable process.

•The gender of the cinematic gaze.

•Working with framed tools. Using experts from framed cinema.

•How does a well-written verbal presentation translate into a highly visual medium?

•2) Pick five giant screen films for analysis of their implicit and explicit levels of science meaning.

3) Do an economic analysis of the value of creating and distributing giant screen science and educational films.

Compare the giant screen institutional business to an industrial manufacturing process, concerned with adding quality control and assuring sales of output. What are success markers and where is the investment incentive?

4) Expand this discussion within the Education/Research Committee of the GSTA. [Now GSCA 2008]

5) Prepare a conference to expand and embed this discussion throughout the industry.


Footnote 1) 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 of Emotional 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 challenges 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 we learn.

Footnote 2) I would like to add two comments about Chris Palmer’s list. The first is that several of his points require a deeply rigorous knowledge of a topic, which is to be commended.

For instance in item #6, the idea of “show[ing] the scientific method and scientists at work” requires detailed thought and planning, first to understand the scientific method, second to understand how it is shown within the particular topic, third to figure out how it can be represented in the flow of the film.

Or in item #8, the idea of making films “designed for children who learn in different ways” notes having an understanding of cognitive research on learning styles, in particular Harvard Professor Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences spelled out in his books, including Frames of Mind. This item directly points to specific film design that assumes learning about ways we learn and then implementing such styles in filmic presentations.

Or take the idea in item #9 of “dispelling pseudo-science, misrepresentations and myths on a subject” which means researching that subset of the film topic and specifically putting in antidotes to the pseudo thinking. I dealt with this matter during my research on the TROPICAL RAINFOREST film, with our plan to have the film model biological evolution as its core theme. The history of evolution is littered with convoluted and sometimes intentionally misrepresented views. Such information must then be worked into the layering of the filmic story, so that a changed view might occur in the audience.

My main point here is this kind of in-depth research requires additional financial support when items like these are on the list. Such research can be as time consuming and exhaustive as researching a film’s subject. For a brief period in the Rainforest research, I found myself surrounded by idiotic ideas about evolution that made no sense, yet were beliefs deeply held by numerous people. I needed to carefully think out how to present the content of the film so that it dispelled the myths. Since finishing that film, I have dug deeper into this area of pseudo science and find the issue is a major area of divergent thought that needs great attention in all science educational materials.

A second general comment is that this 10 point list represents some highly sophisticated criteria, yet at one point it refers to the intended audience, “the viewers”, as children. I hope that Chris Palmer means “including children” here, as cognitive learning research indicates that many of these criteria would be way outside the learning abilities of younger children. The new GSTA intent to be providers of “life-long learning” means having audiences of all ages from 0 to 100, and films that are designed to include this wide range of viewers.

Footnote 3) At the 1995 ISTC (now GSTA) meeting, I organized a panel discussion on the subject of “Special Venue Films for Science Centers and Museums: What makes them unique?” National Science Foundation Informal Science Education Program Officer Hyman Field was one of the panelists. During his presentation, he created a list of film objectives, which parallels many of the ideas listed in Chris Palmer’s 1998 presentation. I find it interesting to explore these ideas in many different terms and below is an excerpt from Hyman Field’s talk with his list. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to reframe this list from a past tense/accomplished point-of-view.

Excerpt from Transcript of ISTC 1995 Panel on Special Venue Films for Science Centers and Museums: What makes them unique?

Hyman Field, National Science Foundation Informal Science Education Program Officer:

“… I became interested in IMAX in terms of this program for a couple of reasons. First I thought, here’s a medium that a lot of people will go in and look at this film, regardless of what it is. It is a medium that attracts people, they go in for the sake of just the experience, for the medium itself. And I said gee, if they’re going in there, and we can put some science in these films, and there’s some substance there, a lot people will see some science, maybe for the only time, and pay some attention to it. These are the people who may not look at science on television, they won’t read it in the newspapers, they turn off when they see it and hear it in school, so it really is a chance to get to a new audience. But the more I looked at the medium, I think it’s an ideal medium for presenting science in a way that really gets the public involved. You can show things, you can see things in IMAX that you couldn’t see in any other way, and you can get the audience emotionally involved into, in a project, and increasingly, as science is being developed into a film, you can get them intellectually involved. And I see that beginning to happen more and more in films and I hope that our support has helped some producers think more in that direction. There are about seven things, seven or eight things, that I think we would see as important in terms of the science content.

1] First thing you have to do is obviously get their attention, get the attention of the audience, and an IMAX film does that, there’s no problem with that. So I don’t really count that as one of the things we’re looking for, that’s a given. The first thing we’re looking for really is that it gets the audience to ask some questions. Once they see something, once they see some phenomena, they say why does that happen, how does that happen, why do they know that, that fact or that that brutal information that we just put in there.

2] Second, once they’ve asked that question I think IMAX is an ideal medium for them to begin making observations related to that question. Now they begin to see how certain phenomena work, there’s time to look at something, they see it in a context that really gets them intellectually involved.

3] Third, I would hope that, well some questions still remain when people walk out, hope they remain when they walk out of the theater, that in some cases, or at least for part of it, they will come to closure, partial closure, either on their own, or prompted by the film itself. And I don’t mean that as a didactic narration track, that says this is the fact, and now we’ve seen this, and this is what happens, but somehow the film itself, just from the way the visuals are put together, can help them come to closure. Aha, I now see that, I see that phenomenon and I understand it.

4] (The) Fourth thing we are looking for is that we hope the audience begins to understand something about the process of science, how science is done. There are questions that are asked, there are observations, there are hypotheses that are formed, they are tested, they are thrown out, they find something else, there’s some glamour, and there’s some tedium to it.

[Hyman Field skipped denoting an item #5, but covers several more points beyond his list at the end of this excerpt.]

6] Related to that, the sixth thing we’re hoping for is that they come away from different films with some idea of the different kinds of work scientist’s do. Not just the process that works for any kind of science, but very specific activities that scientists engage in different disciplines; the context of what they do and how they do it. We would hope that the films would relate this to their lives, so that they understand this is not an abstract something that’s happening off somewhere else, but is really something that has some meaning for me and some importance for me as an audience.

7] And then finally, and these are sort of in priority order really, finally I hope to come away with a little bit of knowledge of specific facts, but that’s not the most important thing at all. If you try to do a film, I think, that is very didactic and it has all these facts, and you know it’s just going to be another big screen science lecture. Not at all what we’re looking for. And if you stopped to think about that, that’s what we see as a definition of science literacy. People understand the relevance of science to their lives, they know the process of science, they know how to ask the questions, and they begin to know some facts in different disciplines, in a lot of different disciplines so you can’t do it all in one film. There are people who have come out with some very fine books that talk about science literacy, and they say this is what you should know, and they’re facts in chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology, and that’s fine, but that’s what they think everybody ought to and I don’t agree, I don’t think everybody has to know the same thing, but I do think everybody has to understand the process and the relevance of science.

We would hope that when the audience walks out of that theater, they’re excited about it, they say wow I would really like to know something in addition, I’d like to know more about this. And to pick up on what Jim [Peterson, President of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and another panelist] was saying, the projects that we supported, we have urged the producers to think about and … it’s in most of the grants that there will be ancillary material and ancillary excerpts of activities that follow up on these projects, so that when somebody walks out of a film, there’s an exhibit, and they can begin doing some hands-on stuff related to what they just saw. At least the sheet that’s put in their hand, and they take it home, and there’s activities for kids to do and for families to do, and they can continue this experience, and it really brings it home to them.

Just a couple of words about how we think you can get there. And I say this with a little hesitancy because it sound very dry and dull and boring and like it’s going end up with a film that’s going to be a lecture but it’s not at all. We think in the projects that we supported, that it’s very, very important there be a strong advisory committee that includes scientists, science educators, people knowledgeable of informal science education, whatever expertise that the producers think will help them come up with a stronger educational experience, entertainment educational, engaging experience at the end. Most projects have had this. It’s not something new, it’s not unique.

I think what may be a little shift in the thinking is how you use these advisors. Traditionally television projects, and a few of the IMAX projects that I have seen have advisors, and I say what are the advisors going to do. And they say well, they’re going to check our scripts and make sure they’re accurate, that we’re not going off in left field. I think that’s only half of what they should do. I think you should involve them early on and say what science should we put into the project in the first place and what’s appropriate for this audience and how can we say it in a way that’s going to make it relevant and understandable to a lay public. So they’re in the development part rather than just sort of a checking, making sure part. I also think it’s important that there be a scientist who is either on the staff or a major consultant, not just part of the advisory committee, who is involved all the way through the project, in scripting and production and post production and in promotion to help make sure that the science that’s happening, that’s there is accurate balanced. When you are out on a shoot, there’s a lot of ways to frame a shot, to shoot a shot, and certainly in the IMAX medium it’s important that you understand the medium but a scientist can say yes, but what we really need to see is that over there. And, you know, the cinematographer, the director will say, oh I didn’t know that, it wasn’t as pretty, but we’ll shoot it 3a. And same in the editing, you can pick out shots that really make the science come through, without losing the entertainment and excitement of the film.

I think it’s important that at several points in the production the producers step back and say, let’s look at the science, where we are with the science at this point in the production. Write down on a piece of paper: these are the scientific points that we’re trying to get across and this is how we’re doing it in the film. I would do it at the early scripting part, sort of halfway in production, and probably once right at the end just before you go into picture lock and final narration. But you look at it one more time and you take a very overt inventory of the science that’s in there. Now that sounds like I’m trying to get back to the didactic lecture kind of film, and that’s not what I mean at all. Some of the points might be that you want them to understand the process and where it is in the film is from the beginning of the film, all the way through the end, to the end of the film.

… I think evaluation is extremely important formative evaluation, that you try scripts, that you try some formative evaluation, you can’t really do a rough cut in the whole IMAX format, but you try it out with the target audience and seeing if you are achieving your goals. If it isn’t attracting their attention, if it’s raising the right kind of questions.

To wrap up, I think IMAX films can have more and more substance in them without losing the entertainment and attractive value that have been there since the very beginning. It’s the same, it goes back to Jim [Peterson]’s chart here, I think an ideal IMAX film would be right up on the top of that curve that he drew that had a good balance of substance and education.

Just in closing I think that in terms of the venue, the kind of films that science centers, these are the kind of films that science centers ought to have, and I think they ought to think carefully about bringing in other films that get outside of this kind of a science endeavor. I don’t think they are, I would be thrilled if they were in other venues as well. Our interest is in reaching the public, wherever. (laughter) So if they’re in, if they put them on Broadway in the Sony theater that’s great, but I do think they belong in the science centers and science centers should think very carefully about the kind of films they’re bringing in.”

Footnote 3a) A footnote on this footnote, speaking in my role as a film director and producer: I don’t agree with one detail of Hyman Field’s presentation of the filmmaking process about filmmakers and science advisors having differing interests. I don’t know why making a good science shot would have some inverse result in making a “wasn’t as pretty” film shot. The end result should be satisfying to an audience and should include both the content and excellent aesthetics at the same time. These kinds of mediations during production should result in something better than the preceding plan, not a lessening as described. There are numerous filmic methods to presenting material, and designing for an appropriate solution is what the whole of filmmaking is about.

This comment, tucked away at the end of the footnotes points, to the very heart of this paper. The design of effective educational films is just that: a design process that is collaborative, additive, enlightening, educational.

Footnote 4) Excerpt Pages 135-136, A Framework for Decision-Makers, by Mary Budd Rowe. Daedalus Scientific Literacy. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 112, Number 2, Spring 1983. The articles in this collection of essays give many deep insights. This text was one of the early books I read as I began to extend this topic from intuitive to concrete. It was helpful to understand that the issues are not new, and it was wonderful to delve into other’s thoughtful efforts at making change.

Footnotes 5 & 6) See Bibliography Below.

Frameless Film: For the last 18 years [2008], I’ve been calling this format “frameless film” and developing these ideas under the name EXPLODING THE FRAME. I’ve written several essays and papers on this idea as I’ve worked out this theory of filmic design. My initial paper on this idea EXPLODING THE FRAME was presented at the Technical Session of the 1989 STC meeting (the STC [Space Theater Consortium] later became the ISTC [International Space Theater Consortium], then the GSTA [Giant Screen Theater Association] now merged with LFCA [Large Format Cinema Association] to become the GSCA [Giant Screen Cinema Association] at www.giantscreencinema.com) (Changes, changes – whew/wow!). I presented an expanded version of the paper at the 1993 SMPTE [Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers] Conference Special Venue Day, and my paper is posted here.

This frameless film research was supported by a 1989 Alden B. Dow Creativity Center Summer Residential Fellowship and a grant from the Science Museum of Minnesota’s William L. McKnight-3M Omnitheater, Mike Day, Director. EXPLODING THE FRAME has become the general theme of my work and the title of this collection of papers.

Web page updated: 10/27/2008


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