The role of a science advisor in Hollywood, Kevin R. Grazier, PhD.
It’s no secret that “Hollywood” (The Machine, not the town) is one of the most un-self sustaining yet self sustaining industries in the world. No one person can get things done without the help of another outside source and it keeps itself alive and viable by importing the most creative, the most talented and sometimes just the most lucky people on this planet from far beyond the realms of Los Angeles, California. Many of those people, you’ll never get to see or meet because most of them work behind the scenes. Their roles are equally important and relevant to the final product (The movie or series we’ve all come to know and love) if not more, than that of the people performing in front of the camera.
One of those people is Kevin R. Grazier (PhD). As a science advisor, he has worked on some of Hollywood and TV’s biggest productions. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s “GRAVITY” (directed by Alfonso Cuarón), “ZULA PATROL”, an educational kid’s show that once ranked a top spot in viewmanship of women aged 18-34 and yes, even Syfy’s “EUREKA” and “BATTLESTAR GALACTICA”, a show we mustn’t introduce. He also co-authored the book “Science of Battlestar Galactica”and has written a passage in Bear McCreary’s new book where the correlation between music and science is investigated further.
According to Grazier’s exposé, the role of a science advisor and his job outlining differs from one project to another, but not the vigor he tackles these projects with. On shows like “Eureka”, the science can almost be seen as a character in and of itself. Current science has to be as perfect as possible and “future science” is speculative, meaning we won’t know how science will have evolved in the future, but based on natural progress and advances today, we can speculate on where it will be, say 25 years from now. With “Battlestar Galactica” on the other hand – a series Grazier worked on for the entire 4 years it was on the air, but for the miniseries – science was more of a background story. Story arcs rarely centered around science and therefore, 100% accuracy was never demanded but was “pretty accurate”.
The goal of a science advisor is to make the experience as real and accurate as possible without pulling the audience away from what’s actually going on with the story.
“Oh, PUH-LEEZE! V. Oh, WOW!”
A science advisor didn’t do as good of a job, according to Grazier, when the audience is so distracted by the mistakes in a movie, they get an “Oh, Puh-Leeze!”-moment. The moment a movie loses all credibility and people in the audience are watching it, feeling cheated on and sitting cross-armed, waiting for the movie to end. On the completely other side of the spectrum, are those moments an audience walks out of a theater or viewing going “Oh, WOW!” and the science helped the story progress without being a point of distraction. People watched the movie thinking Hollywood (the machine, not the town) isn’t making products for idiots – which is the way it should be – wants to impress the audience with the respect both the product and the audience deserves. Again, 100% accuracy isn’t necessary. As long as the final product sticks with the rules it’s laid out for itself from the beginning, it’s all good.
Little did we know there’s a difference between an error and a mistake. To Kevin Grazier and his scientific peers, an error is a necessary mistake to get further in life, say a natural part of life. To a layman’s person (not a scientist), an error is an un-overcomable mistake.
Many scientists – therefore also science advisors – turned to science because they fell enthralled with a work of science-fiction. They wanted to be Spock or Captain Kirk, they wanted to be the first person to fly to Naboo in a spacecraft able to travel light years in seconds and this was evidenced by picture slides Kevin Grazier shared of his co-workers’ and boss’ workspace, filled with action figures! Grazier’s Hollywood adventure started a 1 in a 1000 opportunity. The studios developing Star Trek, at that time, accepted non-solicited material (in this case, written material such as screenplays, story outlines or loglines sent in without the backing of a talent agent). They made a few promises. You could send in your material, they’d read it and you’d get it back 8 weeks to 8 months after having sent it in. The chance of anyone getting a call-back was slim to none, but Grazier did get that call and the rest is history.
He went on to recall reading the pilot script to “Battlestar Galactica”, “33”, and practically begged people to get a 5 minute interview with Ron Moore, after which he was hired. Not everything was perfect, though, there’s absolutely no shame in that.
– In the episode “Water”, after the explosion vents all of the water into space, either the lines would have snapped or they would have dragged the others with them, which they didn’t.
One thing the Battlestar Galactica team got a lot of flack for, was the episode “A day in the life”, in which Tyrol and Cally get trapped in the airlock and they have to jump into a decompressed raptor in order to survive. People would go onto message boards and send letters, going on about how wrong they were, there was no way they could have survived, the pressure would have exploded their lungs, etc. However, the truth is they made a point of having the actors exhale (on-camera) prior to “the jump”. Apparently, a person would be able to survive a few seconds in space as air chooses the path of least resistance. There would be some popped blood vessels in the eyes (see: Cally in the decompression tank) and their bones might be stiff and sore temporarily (see: Tyrol as he gets up to pick up Nicky) but overall, there is an actual chance of survival! (We didn’t know this!-)
For a science advisor, the job is ever-changing. With HD-TV, Grazier has been asked to write several pages of correct equations for scenes where characters would simply flip through a couple of book pages. There’s always those people that freeze-frame on the actual equations and do the calculations in the hopes of finding that single mistake on the page.
“DO YOU KNOW TRICIA HELFER?”
Kevin Grazier speaks about his job with passion and pazzas. It’s no surprise he enjoys “engaging the disengaged” when he speaks at a public forum. There’s always that one person in the room listening very carefully to every single word he says, hoping to pick up on a mistake, only to raise his hand and ask:
“Erm…do you know Tricia Helfer?” (The answer is yes, by the way.-)
We have to say, from a personal point of view and from listening to people who were in the room with us, every point was important, every topic was educational and engaging and managed to give us some insights into the role of a science advisor.
We want to thank the Imagine Film Festival, Amsterdam, for their incredible generosity and hospitality and for providing a forum for this masterclass!
PS: During the masterclass, the issue of “People asking actors questions that should be answered by science advisors” was raised, so we asked Kevin Grazier the one question we’ve seen popping up everywhere: “Do you know how fast Vipers fly?”
BSG-M: A lot of times, actors get asked questions at conventions that should – or could – be better asked to a Science advisor. One of those questions is “How fast does a Viper fly?” As “Battlestar Galactica” Science Advisor, can you answer that question?
Grazier: As fast as we need them to – depending on the scene that they’re in. We never actually figured that out because we never actually hád to figure it out. One thing we did figure out was something that was presented in the pilot but never really mentioned again afterwards. It was something called “the Red Line” – which basically is how far the Galactica could jump in one FTL-jump and still end up where they would expect for it to end up.
Through completely different lines of reasoning, Bradley Thompson and I both came up with five light-years. So five light-years – there you have it.
It are things like that we had figured out because they needed to be figured out. We didn’t NEED to figure out how fast a Viper goes. Things like speed of a ship are usually figured out need-based. If it’s not necessary, we won’t usually put a lot of time into figuring it out. I can probably randomly give you a number but I would be lying if I’d tell you that would be it.
After the masterclass, Kevin Grazier was kind enough to allow some time for a short interview. You can see our impromptu one-on-two here:
Many thanks to Kevin grazier for sharing his knowledge, his experiences and his general awesomeness with the masterclass attendees and more specifically, the BSG-M! You can follow Kevin on twitter @kevingrazier!