VISIONS OF SCIENCE: ARTFUL SCIENCE DOCUMENTARIES
Inspired by a recent discussion of great science documentaries on LinkedIn (initiated by Producer-Writer-Editor Bill Lattanzi also an Adjunct Professor in MIT's Science Writing program) ASKlabs creates a list of artistic science films that we either love or want to see. These films represent stories of science and art on film, both featuring and embodying feats of innovation, invention, and investigation. Among them are creative retellings using animations and associative imagery, alongside more established doc tropes like the use of archival footage and interviews. These films include artforms like animation, dance, poetry, painting, origami, and music. The films range from stories about controversial characters like Jacque Fresco and Joe Davis, to influential and renowned science-artists like Ernst Haeckel and Anna Campbell Bliss. Despite the wide array of subjects, a pattern that emerges from this group of films is their focus on the relationship between humans and the environment.
Pushing the genre of science documentary filmmaking Death by Design (Peter Friedman, 1997) uses innovative techniques to help explore cell cycle: cellular life and death. Cell operations and functions, interactions, and contexts, and the interdependence of cells and organisms are intercut with archival footage of Busby Berkeley dancers. Moving from cellular function to the phenomena of the wider environment, Dutch Light (Pieter-Rim de Kroon, 2003) explores the myth of light in Holland. Has the peculiar Dutch light really impacted art and science over the centuries? What creates this effect?
Also invested in creative and innovative form, the next few films also focus on “characters” of science and art. Hybrid (Monteith McCollum, 2000) is an example of a film about science, humans, and the environment, implementing archival 16mm footage, animation, and more classic interviews to piece together the story of filmmaker Monteith McCollum’s grandfather, Milford Beeghly. In the 1930s, Beeghly was one of the first American farmers to genetically enhance his crops, and the film follows the effects of his obsessive vision on both the agricultural world and Beeghly’s family. Proteus (David Lebrun, 2004) is David Lebrun’s fascinating voyage of discovery, exploring the work of scientist and artist Ernst Haeckel. The film uses innovative ways to portray Haeckel’s science-art vision, and its influence on biology as well as art, design, and politics of the 20th century. Future by Design (William Gazecki, 2006) is another film which focuses on a boundary-smashing figure, this time the more controversial Jacque Fresco. A “futurist,” Fresco is a prolific designer, inventor, and theorist. This film takes us inside the world of this unique character. All About Tesla: The Research (Michael Krause, 2007) looks in on the life, work, and legacy of one of our favorite scientists, Nikola Tesla. Director Michael Krause not only explores Tesla’s own work, but also finds contemporary researchers and fans to see how Tesla lives on today. Lumia (Meredith Finkelstein and Paul Vlachos, 2008) is the tale of another, less successful, inventor: Thomas Wilfred tried for decades to develop an instrument which could capture light and coax music from the rays. The film takes a look at the excitement and possibilities of the era through Wilfred’s inventions, as well as the bizarre and ambitious projects of his contemporaries, many of which failed. Heaven and Earth and Joe Davis (Peter Sasowsky, 2010) follows another controversial and often marginalized figure at the crossroads of art and science. Director Peter Sasowsky delves into the visions and struggles of Joe Davis, looking back at a strange and intriguing life as well as investigating the way science and art come together in Davis’ creations.
Less controversially, Me and Isaac Newton (Michael Apted, 1999) chooses scientists and researchers at the very top of their fields as its subject. Michael Apted side-steps their scientific accomplishments, however, and looks more closely at the personalities and lives behind the research. Arc of Light: A Portrait of Anna Campbell Bliss (Cid Collins Walker, 2012) also chooses a subject at the top of her field. Exploring Utah artist Bliss’s life and work, which combines design, architecture, mathematics, and technology, the film focuses especially on her time with Bauhaus mentors Gyorgy Kepes of MIT and Josef Albers of Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
The next two films bring together science and art in innovative ways. Between the Folds (Vanessa Gould, 2008) brings to the screen the story of artists and scientists (from MIT and NASA) who are dedicated to the art of origami. Burning Ice (Peter Gilbert and Adam Singer, 2010) depicts a journey along the coast of Greenland as artists and scientists come together on a ship. The scientists gather data on climate change, and the artists (of all varieties) learn from the scientists and try to interpret the data through their artworks. The film combines interviews and performances.
The final group of films also focuses on climate change and the environment. The Hollow Tree (Daniel J. Pierce, 2011) is the story of a community coming together with innovative engineering to save a beloved dead redwood in Vancouver. One of our favorite films ever, The City Dark (Ian Cheney, 2011) starts as an investigation about the loss of visibility of stars in urban life, which takes filmmaker Ian Cheney on a much bigger journey as he tries to get to the bottom of what living in perpetual light and light pollution really means. Finally, Symphony of the Soil (Deborah Koons, 2012) takes a creative approach to understanding the science, structure, and life of soil. The film also explores humans’ relationship with and impact on the soil, and our interdependence with the health of the soil.
We hope these films will inspire you to explore the world of science and art.
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