Keeping The Faith In Hollywood!

Keeping The Faith In Hollywood!

Monday, August 31, 2009

When Worlds Collide!

On August 6, 2009, I attended When Worlds Collide: The Science of Movies, an Academy of Motion Pictures event in the Samuel Goldwyn building on Wilshire. The event was sponsored by the Academy's Science and Technology Council and it was hosted by Adam Weiner, a high school physics teacher and author. The event included a panel of stunt and special effects experts as they reviewed clips of their respected movies. Mr. Weiner's goal is to see if what we see happening in the movies can happen in real life (i.e. within the realm of science). This is the approach he takes to get his restless teenage students to pay attention in class and maybe eventually to love science.

He reviewed the science and physics of about 20 movies and he even did physics calculation as the audience laughed or groaned playfully. Here's some of what he discussed.

Action Movies:
(1) Speed: How fast would the bus have to be going to jump over the 50 feet gap in the freeway?
or How does a bomb look when it explodes?

John Frazier, the special effects supervisor explained about the different ramps they used to propel the bus upwards with enough velocity (plus a bit of CGI magic) to make the bus jump look real. He also discussed as well the explosives he used to make the explosions and fires look good on film. Mr. Frazier has also worked on (Twister, Armageddon, Spider-man 1 & 2 (for which he received a Best Oscar), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Hancock and Transformers, just to name a few. The guy knows his stuff and he was very engaging to listen to. He especially lauded Keanu Reeves for doing a lot of his own stunts in Speed and the audience gave Mr. Reeves a big ovation even though he wasn't present. I wholeheartedly agreed with them as Speed is on the top of my list of all time favorite action flicks.

(2) Can motorcyclist in XXX do a vertical jump of 20 feet from a standing start?

John Frazier regaled us with a story of how a helicopter and a stunt motorcyclist collided in the air by accident after a miscue during a practice jump on the set of this movie. He said that the helicopter blades were chopping against the stunt man's helmet and the helicopter couldn't maneuver away from him. Gravity kicked in and the cycle plunged back to the ground but the guy never knew what hit him! They thought that he was a goner but thankfully, the stunt man lived to tell about it. After the event was over, I spoke to Mr. Frazier about on film set health and safety issues from a medical stand point. He re-assured me that they do their best to be very careful and that the stunt and effects crew are professionals but I know that they must also pray a whole lot.

Super-hero Movies:
(3) In Spider-man: Can Spidey's weight really be supported by a thin spidery web? Did they depict the Sandman's shape-shifting sand grain body well?
(4) Could the cable wire from Batman's motorcycle in Dark Knight really flip an 8 ton wheel semi truck?
(5) Iron Man: Could Iron Man really fly in a heavy armour suit and how much fuel would he need to carry with him to accomplish this?

I actually got to hold and examine one of the Iron Man masks that Shane Mahan, the sculptor and designer had brought with him. I was too scared to put it on b/c it might get stuck and I'd have to walk around looking like "The Man(Woman) in the Iron Mask" (lol). Mr. Mahan worked on the physical suits for Iron Man but he has worked on special effects on Aliens, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, Galaxy Quest, and Indiana Jones: Crystal Skull and most recently on GI Joe: Rise of Cobra and the upcoming Iron Man 2. See Iron Man's mask at

(6) Hulk: Could a human really survive gamma radiation without getting cancer or dying?

The Science of Space:
(7) Armageddon: can noise from drilling into the meteor be heard in space? (Hint; space is a vacuum)
(8) Did Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey portray space accurately?
(9) Apollo 13: Did the film depict the weightlessness of space correctly and what camera tricks did they use to achieve it?

Todd Hallowell, exec. producer and 2nd unit director and Robert Legato, a visual effects artist on Apollo 13, discussed how the weightlessness of space was simulated. (Hint: Does the name "vomit Comet" ring a bell?) Some scenes were shot upside down or on a see-saw. Mr. Legato was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film.

Historic Wrecks:
(10) Titanic: Why did it sink?

Mr. Legato also worked on the movie Titanic, for which he won a best visual effects Oscar in 1997. Adam Weiner and Legato discussed the unsinkability of the real Titanic.

Other panelist were:

(1) Scott Stokdyk, a visual and digital effects artist with credits on films like The Fifth Element, Stuart Little, Godzilla, Starship Troopers, and Spider-Man 1 and 2 (for which he won an Oscar) Spider-Man 3 and G-Force which is in theatres now.

(2) Matthew Sweeny, a special effects expert who worked on movies like The Goonies, Lethal Weapon 3&4, The Fast and the Furious (original) and its sequel FF: Tokyo Drift, The Time Machine and Role Models.

(3) Dan Bradley is a stunt coordinator and second unit director who has worked on Bill and Ted Excellent Adventure, Independence Day, Three Kings, Spider-Man 2&3, Superman Returns, The Bourne Ultimatum, and help reboot James Bond in the Quantum of Solace and Indiana Jones in the Indiana Jones: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It was a good night because I love it when my science geek side and my movie geek side can meet! I was even doing some of the physics calculations in my head as we looked at the clips. I have one big problem though. I like my movies with lots of action and realistic science but I'm feeling a little guilty as a health professional, knowing how dangerous these movie stunts are. I'm going to start praying for the safety of the stunt and effects professionals especially during the summer blockbuster movie season chock full of films filled with dangerous stunts and explosions.

For more on the event go to the Academy's website at

Ceck out Adam Weiner's book Don't Try this At Home: The Physics of Hollywood Movies at

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