Of Schemes and Memes Blog

London Science Festival: SCISCREEN: INCEPTION

The inaugural London Science Festival taking place this week and next, has compiled a diverse program of sciencey entertainment that makes the most of different communication formats. Reminiscent of the World Science festival that we attended earlier this year, there are lectures and museum-based events but also creative use of theatre and film.

On Thursday night we attended the science film night in Notting Hill, organised by Science London, the London Branch of the British Science Association. The Coronet Cinema was the venue for a sell-out showing of the movie, Inception, including an exciting opportunity for a Q&A with the Oscar-winning VFX company, Double Negative, the visual effects house responsible for the CGI special effects in the movie.

For those of you who haven’t seen the multi award-winning film (where have you been?) Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, is a modern sci-fi thriller, located within the architecture of the mind. With an all star cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page, this film stuns the viewer with a strange alternate reality presented at its best through superbly creative visual imagery.

The plot is complicated and demanding, involving the unravelling of dreams within dreams. Viewing the film becomes a surreal experience, as the boundaries of fantasy and reality become steadily more blurred. Cutting-edge special effects are used to delve into the levels of psychology within dreams, leading the viewer deeper and deeper into this strange world of Morpheus, mutated by technology.

The movie puts a new spin (no pun intended, for those who’ve already seen it!) on the sci-fi tradition of alternate realities and drug-induced mind control – ideas which have opened opportunities for the imagination since Alice stepped through the looking glass and have formed the basis of films such as the cult favourite, The Matrix, or the less serious Total Recall. The imaginative dream-like quality of the story is taken to a new level by the ground breaking CGI.

Why not have a sneak peak at the film’s trailer to get a quick taster of the visual effects…

After the viewing (still in a semi-dream state!) we were lucky enough to gain a close insight into the making of the film by talking to Dr Nicola Hoyle from Double Negative, who played a leading role in developing the CGI. She talked us through the creation of these effects from the secrecy of her introduction to the concept (stuck in isolation in a small room for two hours with no phone and a script on coloured paper to prevent photocopying) to the actual techniques used to create many of the effects. With a masters degree in Maths and a PhD in Computational Engineering, Dr Hoyle was very aware of the difference between her science job and working on the film. As she pointed out; in science you can’t lie, whereas with visual effects you can cheat and nothing is impossible. Or does the film itself suggest that this premise is wrong and science can be used to create lies?

Dr Hoyle’s team was made up of people from a wide background of expertise, including scientists specialising in all aspects of the discipline. With an enormous financial budget – over $30,000,000 was spent on CGI – and a crew of 200 working 50+ hour weeks for four and a half months, superb, unrivalled lavishness of effects became possible. However, Dr Hoyle stressed that the film set was not glamorous, just sheer hard work with high level ingenuity pushed to the limits with challenging concepts.

Many of the team’s tricks of the trade were revealed, from the use of green screens and digital simulation to build artificial sets and scenes, to the painting out of harnesses, ramps and mirror reflections of cameramen. Fascinating details of the images were discussed, such as the creation of the slow-motion rain, the road damage and the addition of buildings. A thorough understanding of three-dimensional geometry was needed in order to create the limbo wall scenes with crumbling buildings and the Paris folding street scene.

With such an expert scientific input, it is hardly surprising that Inception is the type of action packed, fast-paced motion picture that is both thought-provoking and challenging, requiring the full attention of the viewer. Avoid nipping out for some extra popcorn if you want to keep up with the plot!

So, after an evening of surreal entertainment, Inception left us with a sense of deception and, as we began to wend our weary way home, I suspect a few of us were surreptitiously looking around in anticipation (or fear) of seeing a spinning top….


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