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Science at the Movies

This past weekend the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held the Oscars, its yearly award ceremony honoring movies released in 2015. The awards are traditionally seen as a celebration of the aesthetic elements of filmmaking (acting, directing, composing, etc.), with the Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation being relegated to a different, untelevised event. Yet the very name of the Academy belies the close ties that the art of filmmaking has with all sorts of scientific fields, and the winning films are increasingly dependent on technology to render the magic that we see on the screen.
Best Cinematography winner, “The Revenant,” showcases many of the truly game-changing camera technologies that have been revolutionizing the way films are made. The film was shot with an Arri Alexa 65 digital camera, a state of the art piece of equipment with an extremely powerful sensor that allowed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot almost entirely using only natural light (the only lights used were a handful of light bulbs that helped even out the light from a fire). Most films have an entire lighting department that is dedicated to creating the mood of a scene by using a not insignificant amount of artificial lights. This not only allows for exact control of the film’s look, but also ensures shots within a scene (which may end up being shot days apart) look the same once the film is cut together.
With no artificial lights used in “The Revenant”, the filmmakers had to wait for certain times of day to get the light they wanted, as well as rush to get as much done before dusk. The compact nature of the camera, enabled by the increasing miniaturization of electronics in recent years, let the filmmakers move swiftly and venture deep into the natural landscapes that are a signature part of the film’s aesthetic. The fact that this technical and aesthetic feat was achieved with a digital camera would have been unthinkable only a few years ago as digital cameras were, until recently, unable to produce images that matched the visual quality of film, especially in low light.
This advancement in digital camera technology is due to efforts in many fields, but owes its greatest debt of gratitude to computer science. Technical advances in the miniaturization of microprocessors and sensor technology have allowed for more and more pixels to be squeezed out of a camera. Compression algorithms and software improvements then allow all of this data to be stored, transferred, and played back with as small of a digital footprint as possible (while retaining an amazing degree of image quality). All of this is the direct result talented programmers and software designers.
It may be easy to forget the “Science” part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whilst carefully critiquing dresses on red carpets or awkward acceptance speeches, but the art of film is inherently an art of science. A small, but critical, exploit in our visual system allows the magic of sequences of still images coming to life. From this, an entire industry and over one hundred years of technological developments have spawned. With no foreseeable end to our desire to escape reality for a brief moment, the evolution of film technologies will continue its march forward.