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Postcard from GDC 2005: Fluid Loop: Science Design in Cinema, Games, and Life

by Brad Kane [Art]

March 10, 2005
 

John Underkoffler

At one of GDC 2005's Vision track sessions today, John Underkoffler, science and technology advisor on films such as Minority Report and The Hulk, spoke about the intermingling of science and cinema in twenty-first century entertainment.

Underkoffler said that film and game makers have an opportunity - and a responsibility - to draw on real science as they create and develop new projects. Not only does scientific credibility lend educational value to a piece of entertainment, but also greatly adds to its overall production value as well.

Drawing on extensive examples from Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, Underkoffler demonstrated the myriad of ways in which that movie's design team used real science to help Spielberg bring the future to life.

A Cohesive Vision for The Future

The Minority Report design team, led by Art Designer Alex McDowell, set out to develop an internally consistent future based on modern-day science and technology. Drawing on established science and newly emerging technologies, the team began what Underkoffler described as an "accretion of self-consistent details," and turned the world of today into an incredibly believable 2054 AD.

Thus began what would eventually become the "2080 Bible" - a definitive design document that described in elaborate detail every element and nuance of Spielberg's future. (The title stems from an older version of the story, in which the movie took place slightly later in the future.) This design document was bound and fully illustrated, such that it could be given to the various department heads and used to keep everyone on the same page with Spielberg's vision for the future.

The Bible included anything at all that might have been seen on screen, from architecture and public transportation, to home furnishings and personal electronics, to everyday consumer products. The Bible also described wider social infrastructures, such as futuristic ecological conservation efforts, the predominant forms of media distribution, and common methods of marketing and advertising.

And behind every item in the "2080 Bible" was sound science, extrapolated from present day theories and technologies. Whether in describing the workings of a simple household gadget or expounding on Washington D.C. 's communications infrastructure, every concept and design was created as a natural next step from the technologies of today.

The Gestural Display

Perhaps the best remembered future technology in Minority Report is the gestural display system used at "Pre-Crime" Headquarters, which Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell use to explore psychically foreseen crime scenes.


The heart of "Pre-Crime" headquarters.

Spielberg's vision for this system was a giant curved screen whose interface was based entirely on arm gestures, allowing a user to act like a conductor conducting an orchestra. Rather than simply have the actors wave their arms in space and then create post-production visuals to match the performances, Spielberg asked Underkoffler and his team to create a complete gestural language that could be used on set and on camera.


One of the many gestures in Minority Report.

Underkoffler and his team did just that, and produced a lengthy handbook and training video that could be used to teach gestures to the cast. The gestural language covered everything from navigating in 3D space with six degrees of freedom, to working with fixed spatial constraints; from managing multiple display windows, to controlling playback through time - which includes gestures for rewinding, fast-forwarding, setting in-points and out-points, and looping video clips.

When the cast needed a new gesture created on set, Underkoffler was able to use the system's built-in design structure to generate new gestures on the fly. This allowed actors to deliver cohesive and believable performances, which in turn allowed ILM to generate a highly believable set of accompanying visual effects.

The net result was a cinematic element that stands as one of the more striking visual concepts in recent films.

Other Technologies of Tomorrow

Here are some more of the many science-based design concepts generated for Minority Report:

  • Moving Walkways. For day-to-day transportation, Spielberg envisioned a series of interconnected moving walkways that would help people get around the city. After exploring how such a system might work, Underkoffler landed on the idea of silia-like filaments moving rhythmically beneath the walkway's surface - an idea borrowed from cellular biology - which would maintain a person's velocity in a given direction.


    Scientifically speaking, this meant that passengers would appear to be surrounded by a circular "ground halo" created by the localized motion of the sub-surface micro-filaments beneath the platform. This detail greatly helped ILM in developing the look of the walkways.
  • Instant News Updates. Based on existing communications technologies, Underkoffler and his team imagined how criminal identification might play out in Spielberg's future. In one scene, Tom Cruise receives a retinal scan as he steps onto a subway train. His identity is confirmed, and the information is sent back to "Pre-Crime" Headquarters for a routine database cross-check.

    Because Cruise is at this point a known fugitive, the database automatically patches an update to a real-time news network. Seconds later, Cruise's face appear on newspapers all over his subway train. Such an event even now sounds remarkably plausible given the rapid development of wireless communications.
  • Displays, Displays. "E-ink," an emerging technology which promises to attach flexible, micro-thin display screens to every object imaginable, was the basis for the widespread display technologies seen in Minority Report. For Spielberg's future, the design team conceived of video wallets, dynamically updating newspapers, a switchblade containing a retractable video screen, and even a high-end fashion line with displays embedded in the material.
  • Sketchy Holography. At one point in the movie, Tom Cruise watches a holographic representation of a scene that has been recorded with a two-dimensional home video recorder.

    The concept here, said Underkoffler, was that holography might still be a newly emerging technology in 2054, and as such the projector would probably behave sketchily at best. The holograms in the movie exhibit a certain blurry streaking, indicative of the system's inability to read information from the hidden faces of an object recorded in 2D.
  • Neural Disruptors. In the movie, the "Pre-Crime" police use a neural disruptor to apprehend criminals. Underkoffler and his team based this device on modern-day neurophysiology, and figured out exactly what kinds of energy would need to be channeled into various areas of the brain in order to achieve the desired effect. This in turn informed Spielberg and the cast in how to craft a scientifically accurate performance.

Bridging Science and Entertainment

Underkoffler also showed additional examples from his work on The Hulk, as well as from a real-life design project involving a 140-acre ecological theme park enclosed within an enormous geodesic dome.

Each of his examples demonstrated ways in which a creative team was able to bring real science into an imagined setting, and thus create a highly believable presentation of how that world might actually function. This idea, said Underkoffler, can be applied in any creative situation, across any genre.

The bottom line, said Underkoffler, is that audiences respond well to internally consistent systems based on scientific fact. Adding scientific accuracy to a movie or game draws audiences into that fictional world, and makes people feel that they understand how a fictionalized technology might actually work.

And this, Underkoffler said, makes our entertainment experiences more educational, more true to life, and more enjoyable all around.

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