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Faculty Afield: Shriram Krishnamurthi And Scientist Colleagues Team Up With Media Stars

by Shriram Krishnamurthi

Click the link that follows for more news about Shriram Krishnamurthi.

A few months back, I attended one of the most unusual and interesting events of my life. Some years ago, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine created a program to bring together scientists and the entertainment industry, with the hope of connecting media-makers with scientists and improving the portrayal of science. As part of this, I was invited to a retreat with about a dozen scientists (I was the only computer scientist) and a dozen movie and TV directors.

Some parts of it were just plain fun. For instance, they paired up a scientist and director, and gave us twenty minutes in which to create a science-based super-villain and around them a plot for an action or drama movie. It's amazing to see what a director can do in 20 minutes. This is a fun activity that I recommend for parties, btw. Later, we were paired with a different director, and had to build on the character from the first part to give the plot and inciting incident and a call to action. (I was assigned to work, respectively, with the amazing Emily Carmichael and then the equally amazing Kimberly McCullough. It was really interesting to see how very differently the two of them worked.) The next day we were broken into teams of five —three directors, two scientists— and each asked to create a world based on a page from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. (Teams came up with everything from Venice on Mars to medieval hilltops resembling The Handmaiden's Tale.) Then our prompts were redistributed amongst the teams, who had to then plan out an action sequence using the previous team's world.

But the part that was most enlightening to me was the part where directors answered questions.

Until the first of these, I expected this would be an interesting study in contrasts: to use some clichés, left-brain vs. right-brain, pursuing truth vs. creating fiction, substance vs. style, and so on. I expected to learn most from exposure to the opposing styles of thought. So my biggest shock —and many of you have probably realized this already— is how similar we are.

Listening to the directors answer a question about how they manage creative talent, I could almost have been listening to a panel of professors saying how they manage PhD students. Both take in extremely talented and creative people; both have to manage and harness that creativity; both have to work within tight economic bounds with people who are always sure they can do much more with a little more resource; both have to find a balance between too much and too little restraint; both have to figure out what makes a person tick and exploit it, while also figuring out what makes them go off the rails and keep that from happening to them. For instance:

  • Kimberly McCullough described actors as tops: you spin them and then get out of their way, and in particular have to be very careful about nudging them because they'll spin out of control or fall down. She illustrated with a story from One Day at a Time, where she nudged an actor to change a scene, resulting in spontaneous motion that really touched audiences.
  • Alan Taylor, in contrast, picked up on the top metaphor but pointed out how sometimes he feels the need to put his finger on top of the top, and illustrated with stories from filming Game of Thrones; he also talked about an incident where he had to push back against James Gandolfini on The Sopranos, but how Gandolfini took the advice and turned it into something entirely his own to resolve the issue.
  • Billie Woodruff explained how combining creative forces requires balancing what each will provide with what the other wants. He illustrated with a story from using a costume designer for the video of Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart", where the designer would not provide sketches but he knew Braxton would demand them, and so he bridged them by running out to a store, buying a bunch of magazines, and ripping pages out of them.
  • And Charles Stone III talked about how on a recent set he showed up with a t-shirt that read "AWWW SHIT", and told his crew there are two kinds of AWWW SHIT moments in movie-making: the ones that are expressions of delight, and those that express despair. But he pointed out that when people came to ask for more resources, he made them focus on what essential idea they were trying to communicate, and that creative people eventually find smart ways that accomplish the same ends for less, so long as they focus on ends rather than their pet methods.

There were several other moments like this. For instance, the second director panel asked the directors to relate to scientific peer review by discussing a bad note they'd received that initially seemed bad, but eventually proved to be useful. Milena Govich said she always asks people writing notes to answer in the order: what did you like, what's confusing, and what's not working. Jerry Zucker tried to draw contrasts between science and the movies (science pursues truth, while in the movies, power lies with the person with the money), but in the end I think many of us scientists just came away thinking the two were more similar than he thought! (Zucker being Zucker, he also gave us some great anecdotes from the outstanding movies he's made.)

So, I've come away somewhat overwhelmed. The scientists gave fabulous talks, the NAS staff ran a fantastic event (Ann Merchant and Rick Loverd were born to do this), and the best part was that egos were checked at the gate from both the scientists and media stars.

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.