I recently read David Kirby’s new book on science film consulting. This book is an absolute must-read for anyone even remotely or subconsciously interested in being a science consultant for the next Iron Man or Transformers, or smaller budget real-life dramas with real-life science in them. His book is both easy and interesting to read – and is filled with information. He explores the history of science-consulting, going all the way back to “Woman in the Moon” and of course the still canonical “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and discusses a large number of recent examples. He does not glorify the status of the movie science consultant – on the contrary he discusses both the positives and negatives in interesting and substantial detail. He also spends a significant amount of text delving into academic/communication studies issues connected to science consulting, such as the concept of science films as “virtual witnessing technologies”, and the design of as yet unknown science as exercises in “speculative modeling”…and such – and even makes these more academic sections accessible and interesting.
Kirby interviewed a large number of consultants and filmmakers for the book, and he makes it clear that the science consultant is just that: a consultant, someone who can give advice which is as often, or more often, discounted than it is utilized. He discusses the highly variable relationships with directors: some of whom hire science consultants seemingly solely for the purpose of ignoring every single piece of advice they offer, and some of whom rely heavily on science advisors to help them shape the drama, the story, the setting, and the characters. He emphasizes that there has not been a single science advisor in the history of film who has walked away from a film saying, “Ah, everything was accurate” – never, ever, ever. When the director does take accurate science seriously, the result is always a hybrid of real science and cringe-worthy gobbledygook. Probably one of Kirby’s most illuminating conclusions is when he notes that scientists often think there is a tension in film-making between the story/entertainment content and the science-accuracy content. Kirby says this is a myth that lives in the minds of scientists – there is no such tension between science and entertainment: entertainment issues always win: always. When the science enhances the entertainment or story, it gets included.
But all this is not to say that Kirby, or the many science-consultants he interviewed for the book, view science-consulting as futile or from a predominantly negative perspective. Quite the contrary – he sees science consulting as an effective way to get a variety of scientific concepts into the mainstream consciousness. And while he cautions that science in the movies, for some of the reasons described above, will never be fully accurate – that scientists should count any enhancement of science accuracy in the movies as successful. The realistic picture of science consulting that Kirby paints is tremendously useful to anyone considering doing paid or pro bono science consulting. If you have any need or desire for real creative control on a project, then science consulting is probably not for you – and you’d be best off working on your own “entertainment” projects, like an increasing number of scientists are doing. If, however, you want to experience the fun of working with the talented teams of people who put together both big and small budget films, and if you want to help make the world of cinema a little more science-savvy and a little less science-cringe-worthy, then science consulting can be quite enjoyable, and sometimes lucrative. As for how to become a science consultant: according to Kirby, this often involves google-induced phone calls from producers to unsuspecting scientists, but Kirby’s book also describes a number of different ways for scientists to try to purposefully get involved in this growing new form of science outreach.