Black holes, gravity and film – Depicting gravitational lensing in Interstellar

Listening to the Science Magazine podcast I found out that the black hole depiction (or its effects rather) as shown in the latest film by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, used the expertise of physicists to create the visualisations. Furthermore, the researchers used the work for the film to write an academic paper!

There are a number of things that are not as sound in the film, for instance the contrast of the efforts to free the ship from the embrace of the Earth’s gravitational field, and the whizzing out from a tidal-wave-ridden planet by simply floating away… But, that is not why I wrote this post…. it was to highlight the black hole depiction… so back to the subject. In order to better depict the black hole, the film used the expertise of theoretical astro-physicist Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of theoretical Physics at Caltech.

Thorne Diagram

In order to produce the effect of the black hole Thorne, worked together with Double Negative in implementing the equations that would render the visual effect. However, no rendering software was able to do the rendering as they are based on the fact that outside black holes, light rays travel in a straight line. In order to show the gravitational lensing around the black hole a new renderer had to be created. The result were images that took over 100 hours to be  created. The images obtained provided Thorne with unexpected results as they showed that the light that is emitted from the accretion disk around the  black hole would have its light distorted by gravity in such a wat that a halo would apere above and below but also in front of it too. So we just have to wait for the papers to be out and read more about this. In the meantime if you are interested in finding our more about research into black holes take a look at this page.



This country likes what science gives it, but doesn’t like the questions science raises – Frankenweenie

Earlier this week I had the great opportunity of attending the Opening Gala of the London Film Festival at the IMAX in London. The film that had the honour of opening the 2012 edition was “Frankenweenie“, an excellent stop-motion animation by Tim Burton. As expected the themes in the film had that strange gloomy optimistic horror geeky feeling. The story is that of a teenager whose love for his dog transcends death.

Certainly the story is one of friendship combined with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The teenager, Victor Frankenstein is a solitary but creative kind of guy who is interested in stop-motion films (self-referential? perhaps…) and is interested in science. When his dog Sparky dies in an accident, Victor gets the idea of bringing Sparky back to life after seeing a demonstration in class involving a frog and electricity (you know the one…).

rp_frankenweenie-mr-rzykruski1.jpgI thought the film was very good but what really made it for me, apart from the multiple reference to classic horror films, was the presence of the vampiresque science teacher, Mr Rzykruski. He certainly is a striking teacher and although severe-looking, a great inspiration for the kids interested in the science fair. After the experiments to bring back the dead go wrong, the parents decide to hold a meeting to expel the teacher. In his defence, the heavily accented teacher tells the parents that they react like that because they are ignorant and stupid, but that their children can still be instructed.

In a great sequence afterwards, Mr Rzykruski remarks that “Science is neither good nor bad, but it can be used for both”. We are indeed in a time where scientific advancements make a lot of people uneasy and the film reminds us, via Mr Rzykruski that those pursuing the scientific endeavour to be patient and respectful. One line that is still with me is the one delievered as Victor approaches Mr Rzykruski to say good-bye: “This country likes what science gives it, but doesn’t like the questions science raises”. A very timely remark.

Der schweigende Stern

If you are a Sci-Fi fan you might have come across all sorts of different films: long and short, good and bad, new and old. Furthermore, you might have gone out of your way to catch that unseen gem or attend an all-nighter, ahem… Well, if oldies are the sort of thing you want to see, I recommend having a look at the latest season in the BFIKosmos: A Soviet Space Oddyssey.

science fiction klassiker der schweigende sternAs part of the season, I attended the screening of “Der schweidende Stern” aka Silent Star or “This first spaceship in Venus”. The film is a co-production of East Germany and Poland, made at the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) film studios and for its time it was indeed a big-budget one. The story is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem about an expedition to Venus where the international crew of the Cosmokrator spaceship encounter what is left of a civilisation that brought destruction upon themselves. So, why is an East German/Polish production part of this Soviet-themed season? Well, simple enough, in the film the Soviets are portrayed as being all-inclusive and offer their ship, the Comokrator, to an international team of scientists. The team include a Chinese linguist, an Indian mathematician, a Japanese medic, an African (country not specified) communications officer, an American astrophysicist, a Polish engineer and a German pilot… Great!

The team is sent to Venus because a strange (alien) cylindrical rock was unearthed in the Gobi Desert and after initial examinations it is found that the cylinder contains some communications sent by the inhabitants of Venus. While on route the team discovers that the message is actually a warning about an imminent attack on Earth… The film presents us a very interesting Venus and even a Venusian city, the atmosphere of the planet is dense and very reminiscent of… the 60s!

The Der schweigende Stern does not escape the opportunity of presenting some propaganda, for instance, the Americans are shown as not very cooperative and I really liked the whiskey-enhanced discussion they have while trying to convince their compatriot not to go in a Soviet mission. Also, the ghost of Hiroshima shows its face in more than one occasion and the references to the horrors of atomic war are ever present.

So, if you find that Harry Potter does not have the appeal for you on a rainy Sunday evening, try having a look at what is on offer at the BFI.


Helvetica (film)
Image via Wikipedia

Fonts are all around us and they have become a bit more familiar after software such as MS Word or Apple’s Pages put them at the fingertips of their users.In this manner, terms such as serif, kerning, pica, point and boldface have become part of (almost) every day language. Similarly, the names of different fonts are familiar to many of us. How many times have you used Times New Roman, Lucida, Arial or Calibri? Or for that matter, have you noticed how many signs, ads, books, films and stationary use Helvetica?

If so, you would not be at all surprised to hear that there is even a documentary dedicated to the ubiquitous Helvetica! That’s right, Gary Hustwit’s documentary is a film about typography, graphic design and visual culture and if you are a bit of a geek like me, then you would definitely enjoy it. I had the opportunity to watch the film at the ICA in London this weekend, and I was very pleased to have seen it.

Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman back in 1957 and its original name was “Neue Haas Grotesk” because of its relationship to the sans-serif German type Akzidenz Grotesk and because it was commissioned by the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland. The change in name came about after the type began to be marketed internationally in 1961, and the rest is history.

The film came out in 2007 just in time for the 50th anniversary of Helvetica and shows a myriad of examples were the font is used and some of the reasons behind its proliferation. The film presents short interviews with some of the most renowned people in design: Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf, Tobias Frere-Jones, Wim Crouwel, Jonathan Hoefler, Michael Bierut, etc. Their comments show the interesting relationship that we have, not only with Helvetica, but with other typefaces and with design in general. The font has its advocates and its detractors, but it is undeniable the impact that the font has had in the world over the past five decades.

So, if you are the kind of person that notices the wrong physics in films and complain about typecasting, i.e. notice when filmmakers used the right or wrong type for the period of the film, Helvetica is a film to watch.

Pina, simply delightful

Pina Bausch

If you are interested in dance and all things dance related, then you might be familiar with Pina’s work. Philipinne Bausch is one of the most influential  choreographers the World has ever seen. Her Tanztheater has become synonym of German expressionist dance.

Bausch passed away in June 2009, at the time when Wim Wenders was about to start filming the great film that opened up earlier this year. Wim Wenders is a very eclectic filmmaker, his creations go from “Wings of Desire” to “Buena Vista Social Club” and “Paris, Texas”, and the addition of “Pina” to this list is just great. The film is shot in 3D, and unlike in a number of so-called blockbusters, it does make absolute sense to use the media in this case. 3D allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the world of the dancers, to see them in their element and perceive things that otherwise they would not be able to experience.

The dirt and brutality of The Rite of Spring and  the hilarity of Kontakthof are brought to life before the eyes of cinema goers in a fresh and new way. For me there were two moments that really took my breath away. One was the performance of Café Müller, a seminal piece that encapsulates Angst, passion, confusion and control. In particular that moment when two of the dancers come to hug each other, while a third one forces them over and over again to take a pose in which he carries her in his arms, a battle that the controlling rational mind can only loose against the visceral one. The second moment was the absolutely phenomenal treat of one of the dancers entering the monorail in Wuppertal and attacks without mercy a white pillow while making hilarious sounds effects as if she were a robot.

The film is definitely a tribute to Pina Bausch and the testimonials that the dancers give (portraits with voiceovers) let you get a glimpse to the everyday work with Pina the choreographer, Pina de human being. “Keep searching” she recommended to one of the dancers, although it was not obvious  to search for what or where… Such is life I suppose.

I could continue trying to explain why I liked this film so much (the music is just great for example), but I would not make it justice. I can only recommend (urge) that you watch it. Pina is just simply delightful.


Café Müller:


The Rite of Spring:


Related articles

Last Night

Image by RSNY via Flickr

“The end of the World” is, has been and will be a source of inspiration for stories, books and films. For the latter, we have accounts that go from the silliness of “2012” or “Armageddon” to the more accomplished “12 Monkeys” passing by the “Dr Strangelove” treatment. And so one of the questions hanging in the air with these films is “what would you do on your last day on Earth?”. Perhaps you would go for the “Keep calm and carry on” attitude or maybe for the “Now panic and freak out” perspective.

Yesterday, I faced that same question yet again while watching Don McKellar‘s Last Night in the BFI. In this particular case we are not told any scientific (or otherwise) explanation at the heart of the doom scenario: no sign of a nuclear winter, Sun dying, global warming or Gods’ wrath. In that sense, it is great because there is no heroic figure that rises from the ashes of the Earth to save the day Bruce Wills’ style. Instead, we are in placed in Toronto, Canada, where normal people go about their not-so-normal lives. Everyone in the film, even those who are causing havoc in the streets, seems utterly resigned to the unfolding events. So much so that, downtown Toronto, will host some sort of  New Year’s Eve-like ‘countdown’ to the end, which quite aptly for them is scheduled to happen at midnight. Quite handy, really!

I am not too sure that most people would react as imagined in the film when faced with the prospect of the end. I guess there would be far more rioting and panicking, but you never know. I was quite pleased with the way in which the media react to the news: rather than a painstaking 24/7 reporting on every single detail of the demise, they treat it as well as a New Year Eve-like opportunity to play ‘The 500 Greatest All-time Hits’.

Great performances of McKellar himself as Patrick, a gloomy man disaffected  by the recent death of a woman he loved, and of Sandra Oh as Sandra, a young woman stranded in the city after her car is vandalised while she is shopping. Patrick has chosen to spend the last moments on his own after having had a cringey ‘Christmas Dinner’ at home, while Sandra is desperately trying to get home and close the pact with her husband Duncan (played quite suitably by the director David Cronenberg). Patrick and Sandra are drawn together by the circumstances and in the same way that their stories collide, the rest of the characters are shown to have some form of connection. This reminded me of the narrative style used by González Iñárritu in “Amores Perros“; the inevitability of the end is reflected by the unavoidable fortuitous encounters.

In that manner, Duncan, a gas company executive ends up talking to the rest of the characters as he spends his last hours at work leaving messages on his costumers’ answering machines. Or Patrick’s best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie, of Cylon fame in BSG) who has chosen in his final hours to try and complete a check list of sexual fantasies that include sleeping their old French teacher (Geneviève Bujold), and even with Patrick. The professeur-étudiant dialogue between Mme Carlton and Patrick does put a smile on your face.

There were a couple of things that I really liked: 1. the unmistakable seventies decor and 2. the fact that the entire drama is played out in broad daylight: darkness never falls, even at the inescapable demise at midnight. Finally, should the world come to an end as seen in Last Night, at least there seems to be a flicker of human spirit and solidarity, for instance in that scene when Patrick explains to Sandra the socialist significance of Pete Seeger’s version of José Martí’s “Versos Sencillos” used in the well-known song “Guantanamera”.

Good Monsters with pretty bad sense of geography

I first heard about this film in The Culture Show in the BBC. It  was good to see how the director of “Monsters”, Gareth Edwards showed Mark Kermode how he made the monsters in his own bedroom using some 3D computer generated tentacles. You can catch the clip here.

The plot is quite promising: We are presented with a futuristic world where NASA has definitely found extraterrestrial life, and no, we are not talking about arsenic-based lifeforms. A probe containing samples crash lands in Mexico, where the aliens spread throughout the U.S.–Mexico border region leading to the quarantine of half of Mexico. The film then becomes some sort of Sci-Fi road film, where we follow the story of Sam and Andrew, two Americans who are trying to make it back to their home country.

Surely the film is worth talking about in terms of the special effects, which considering they were done is Edwards’ bedroom, are quite impressive. The film is indeed an independent film with a low-budget and although the Monsters are brilliant, I was not impressed by other bits and pieces.

On the one hand, they paid a lot of attention in creating road signs and maps of Mexico where the “infected zone” was marked. On the other hand, the combination of English and Spanish in a lot of them was quite shocking and some of the Spanish was actually what I would call “Spanglish”. I guess they wanted their English speaking audience to understand what was written, but it just looked quite fake among the rest of the carefully conjured sets. Not only that, but at the beginning of the film we are explicitly told that the action takes place in Mexico, then they put some subtitles mentioning “Central America”… Indeed they were in Central America, as they filmed in Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica. But they explicitly mention Mexico and USA. I am sure that they could have taken better care of following their own plot.

I still do not understand what a Mayan pyramid from “El Ceibal” archeological zone in Guatemala is doing overlooking the border of Mexico with the US. I would like to think that people with a bit of geographical knowledge would know that there is a desert in that part of the world, and that the Mayan civilisation was never present in that region. I fail to see why there is a thick jungle in the supposed Mexican side, whereas on the other side of the border they faithfully reproduce the barren desert landscape. Finally, I could not understand why the Mexican population in the North of the country were listening to Jaranas or Sones Huastecos, which are from a completely different part of the country… And as for the dialogue, well, do not even start me up…

By far the best part of the film was when the Monsters appeared, glowing along and destroying things. I wish they had shown more about the monsters and researched their depiction of Mexico a bit better.

All in all, do go and watch the film but bear in mind that you won’t be able to glance at the US border from the top of a Mayan pyramid in the middle of the jungle.