of molecules: (l-r) V Owen Bush and Kurt Przybilla.
By John Rodat
as a science-education tool, the animated short Molecularium
may change the way audiences regard the planetarium
sure don’t look like science teachers.
Seated at a diner’s booth, discussing their short animated
film Molecularium, writer-producer Kurt Pryzbilla and
writer-director V Owen Bush look and sound, well, like indie-movie
makers. They discuss the choices made by other artists and
directors, the good and the bad; they talk about the need
to balance content and form; they talk character backstory
and narrative structure. It’s lunchtime, but the duo are slightly
rumpled—Pryzbilla in jeans and a T-shirt, Bush in a colorful
print shirt, multipocketed safari-style jacket and days-old
beard—and look as if they may have been up half the night
talking just like this.
Pryzbilla is listing some of the conventions—that is, the
failings—of many science-education-themed films. The criticism
centers not on the accuracy of those warbly k-5 film strips,
but on their craft. First among those shortcomings, he says,
is “the disembodied voice of God.”
He pushes his shades up his forehead to hold back a sweep
of graying hair, drops his already deep voice into a smooth
and solemn rumble and intones, “Billions and billions . .
the Charlie Brown effect,” he says, referencing the mush-mouthed
and incomprehensible voicings given the adult characters in
animated versions of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. Lecture
a kid on what he should find interesting, rather than showing
a kid something that is interesting and mwah mwah mwah mwaaah,
mwah mwah mwaaaah mwaah—that’s the effect. “Kids aren’t going
to retain information just because Tom Hanks is telling ’em
to,” he says.
when making Molecularium, they worked to keep the film
engaging and entertaining. They focused on drama, action,
humor and storytelling. They thought cinematically—which is,
of course, what you would expect of a pair of slightly rumpled,
thoughtful and craft-conscious indie filmmakers.
What makes this project slightly different, however, is that
they did so in collaboration with a team of animators and
scientists—scientists like Dr. Richard Siegel, the director
of RPI’s Nanotechnology Center; Dr. Shekhar Garde, who was
the head of “molecular visualization and simulations” for
the film, and material scientist Dr. Linda Schadler, who initiated
the project as a way to satisfy the educational-outreach component
required for RPI to be selected as a National Science Foundation
center. What is different is that they put grad students to
work crunching gigantic numbers with some of the most sophisticated
computer modeling programs currently in use. What is different
is that they did so at the molecular level. And what is different
is they did so in a 210-degree hemispheric theater.
Take that, Kevin Smith.
Digital Dome technology is, in the world of planetaria, a
pretty exciting innovation in itself. Rather than the nearly
static “star ball”-type presentation that people are familiar
with—essentially, constellations projected on an inverted
bowl—digital-dome tech facilitates the creation of a more
“immersive entertainment.” High-definition moving imagery
(1280 x 1024, progressive—for those of you in the know) projected
on a spherical screen combined with a spatial surround-sound
system. With such a setup, otherwise unobservable (due to
distance or scale) phenomena can be reproduced in a physical
space and audio-visualized in a convincing simulated 3-D.
According to Derek Sweeney Kesler, Molecularium team
member and physical-sciences coordinator at the Junior Museum,
local home of the dome on which Molecularium is being
shown, one of the earliest uses of digital dome technology
was to model the process of “molecular docking” at the labs
at Los Alamos, N.M. Such important scientific uses continue;
but in entertainment terms, the technology has yielded unintended
results and promise.
is illustrative, says Kesler, of the combination of science
and artistry the technology allows, even encourages. “Basically,
what we did was transform a computer for number crunching
into an animation server that enabled us to translate the
most recent scientific data into Hollywood-style entertainment,”
As if to answer any question about the extent to which his
Tinseltown comparison may be hyperbolic, Kesler proudly mentions
that Molecularium was awarded top honors at the 2005
Domefest. The festival, hosted by the University of New Mexico
in Albuquerque, is described as “the international festival
for large-format, immersive, digital dome theaters.” Its mission
is “exploring, celebrating, diversifying and advancing the
potentials of this nascent and powerful new medium.” This
year Molecularium was selected from among 14 other
finalists to win—you guessed it—a Domie.
Subsequently, the film was screened at the 32nd International
Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques
(SIGGRAPH) in Los Angeles. Tellingly, it was shown on a dome
sandwiched by booths set up by Apple computers and Pixar,
the production company responsible for the hit films Toy
Story and The Incredibles.
There’s some serious science behind Molecularium’s
introduction to the subatomic world and the three states of
matter, but science needn’t be dull, says Kesler—all previous
evidence to the contrary. “Sometimes the combination of stuff
needed to make an educational entertainment—mostly math and
money—would lead to a bad show,” he notes. Sometimes the filmmakers
are too caught up in other exigencies to focus much on the
art of the piece, and instead they rely on clichéd gags and
set pieces. “It’s like in horror movies, where there are the
same old ‘punches.’ In science films, there’s always the ‘whoosh’
of something shooting past, then the omniscient narrator.”
Kesler drops his voice in what may be an impersonation of
Pryzbilla’s impersonation: He booms, “Space . . .”
Standing at a triple-screened monitor in the control room
of the Junior Museum’s dome, flanked by a towering rack of
AV components, Kesler readies Molecularium for a screening;
as he does, he further echoes his teammates’ enthusiasm for
the movie’s routine-breaking approach. With relish, he acts
out reactions to the short film’s characters and structure:
“ ‘Talking atoms? Whoa. Singing atoms? Whoa. A Latin atom?
Whoa. A Latin atom? Yes, Carboné, the carbon atom (voiced
by Kesler himself, in a credible take on Ricky Ricardo). This
is just one of the colorful characters viewers meet as they
travel into the microscopic realm aboard a minute spaceship,
the titular Molecularium, in the company of Oxy, an
oxygen atom, and her two hydrogen-atom pals. Along the way,
molecules and polymers are encountered and explained—often
in catchy songs by local talents such as Jason Martin, or
to the accompaniment of musical background by Troy-based musicians
Jessie Stiles and Stephan Moore.
It’s a lighthearted script, peppered with jokes aimed to appeal
to a wide demographic: The gag about the Earth being one giant
water park will amuse the youngsters; parents, though, will
probably get a bigger—if bitter—kick out of the description
of a penny as an “obsolete monetary unit.” It is, of course,
informative by design. If you go in unaware what DNA stands
for, you leave a changed person. But it is also fun and gently
irreverent, in the manner of the classic Looney Tunes or the
Silly Symphony cartoons—cartoons that Pryzbilla and Bush cite
as overt influences on their project.
All of which gives you an idea where Molecularium came
from, what it’s about, what it looks like. But what does an
immersive entertainment feel like? What, after all is said
and done, is the deal with the digital dome?
Imagine being dropped—a la Bob Hoskins in Roger Rabbit—into
a “cartooniverse,” then being shrunk and injected—at a speed
such that you feel your roller coaster car’s launched right
off its track—into the body of another living creature.
It’s a combination movie and flight simulator, cartoon and
amusement-park ride. And according to the filmmakers, it’s
a format with legs. Pryzbilla says they’re aware of a number
of people trying to mount dome productions in larger “environmental”
ways: from “[night]clubs to casinos.” The dramatic possibilities,
they say, are endless and exciting. It’s a new—and intensely
visceral—wrinkle to storytelling.
Not that Pryzbilla and Bush are jumping ship. There are plans
for a second film to continue the tale of the Molecularium,
and the pair remain excited about both planetaria-based shows
and the educational applications thereof.
a fantastic mission to educate kids about science,” says Bush.
“Molecularium is entertaining, it’s a cartoon; but
it delivers as much scientific information as they’ll get
in 25 minutes.”
really important that education be entertaining,” adds Pryzbilla.
“It’s one of the failings of our educational system that it’s
. . . well, let’s say it’s the opposite of entertainment.”
Take that, Our Friend, the Amoeba.