Lujain Ibrahim June 21 2018

Science as Cinema: A Metamorphosis


Labocine’s SCENES is a collection of scientific footage and visual data from microscopy, simulations, field experiments, and more that have been recycled and repositioned into a different context in which they can be framed as cinematic experiences. This novel pairing of science and film, characterized by the balanced contributions of the two, does not conform to the one dimensional representation of science as a supplementary story-telling tool that is often seen in mainstream blockbusters. Not only does the success of this pairing challenge the aforementioned ideas, it also exposes science’s independent cinematic and artistic capacity. 

The performance of a scientific experiment is itself a cinematic act: it is a choreography involving various organisms, physical materials, and scientists all moving and working together to produce a notable final product. In a similar manner to cinematic experiences, clips of raw scientific footage allow us to observe and live through unexplored worlds beyond our own, but this time through a different lens, like for instance a microscopic one. Through this lens, we discover rebellious, free worlds governed by rather unfamiliar forces with organisms we do not fully understand. Even though these worlds appear to be chaotic and self-controlled, our experiences in them are meticulously crafted by the scientists who specifically select which segment of the recording to show us, the microscopic lenses which filter colors and alter them, and the laboratory conditions that dictate how our microorganismal actors behave in the films. 

In addition to the scientific experimentation process being in many ways homologous to the filmmaking process, some of these films introduce even more cinematic layers to their captivating visuals. These layers include auditory additions like the striking musical scores in Butterfly Buckeye Development & Wing Close-up [Music] and Squid: Coming to Lifethe immersive audio-visual experiences in Evolution, and the ominous voiceover in Nanoplanet. However, some films are completely free of auditory effects giving rise to a deafening yet anticipatory silence that occupies viewers’ minds inducing a distinctive cinematic experience in its own right.

Squid: Coming to Life (Nipam Patel)

SCENES consists of very diverse footage which seem to have acquired the status of films or art pieces in different ways. Some of them were obtained from scientific experiments conducted with no intention of being repurposed but are later appropriated and given abstract or aesthetic meaning, or are simply distributed and shared for informational purposes. This phenomenon of appropriation could be recognized in many instances in the history of art, most notably in the revolutionary concept of the “readymade” set forth by French-American artist Marcel Duchamp in the early 1900s. “Readymades” were ordinary everyday objects lacking any significant cultural or monetary value that Duchamp selected, slightly modified, and led into a process of conceptual metamorphosis that elevated their status into distinguished and desirable pieces of art. Even though Duchamp’s readymades were meant to counter what he called “retinal art”- purely visual art-  which is not necessarily the case with repurposed scientific footage, these two phenomena still share an artistic brand that challenges the traditional process of producing art and elevates its relatively ordinary components to a higher status. Similarly, when scientists choose to record and share their visual data which would have probably reached a rather limited audience, they transform this data into timeless, more far-reaching pieces that are also associated with the brand of the scientist or filmmaker themselves.

In the second category, artistic intent is a significant factor even during the conduction of the scientific experiments. For example, in the case of Sally Warring’s Tardigrade, Warring doubles as both the scientist and the artist, carefully making certain decisions purely for aesthetic purposes without scientifically influencing the course of the experiment. Finally, the last category is a version of how science has been traditionally incorporated into mainstream cinema where intent is purely artistic and science is used as a prominent storytelling tool to enhance an already established narrative.

Tardigrade (Sally Warring)

Since artistic intent (or lack thereof) is not always clear, in attempting to decipher the complex foreign visuals of these films, there is a tendency to assign meaning or social and anthropomorphic significance to the constituents of the films. For example, viewers often assign genders, social phenomena like competition and dominance, and mental states to cells and other chemical and biological components they are observing. This helps abstract this distinctive cinematic experience and extrapolate it into a more familiar territory where parts of a film are thought of as metaphors for bigger ideas in a similar way mainstream cinema often delivers its messages. Sometimes, the intent of the piece is explicit and explained through a voiceover or made visual by including labels and animations like in Nanosporin AI.

Nanosporin Al (Stephen Hal Fishman)

However, in many other cases of recycling raw scientific footage, the mystery of the intent of the piece is not clear, and becomes a more prominent issue. The line between expecting a purely retinal or visual experience that appeals to the eye and expecting a conceptual or abstract experience that appeals to the mind becomes very blurry. This makes each viewer’s experience very unique and catered to their own cinematic perception and interpretation. 

About the author

Lujain is an undergraduate student studying computer engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi who is particularly invested in engineering applications in the world of biotechnology and biomedicine. She is also interested in exploring science and technology in film as well as the cultural and political significance of cinema.

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