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Hollywood screenwriters and scientists: More than an artistic collaboration

August 29, 2011
American Chemical Society
In this International Year of Chemistry (IYC), writers and producers for the most popular crime and science-related television shows and movies are putting out an all-points bulletin for scientists to advise them on the accuracy of their plots and to even give them story ideas.

In this International Year of Chemistry (IYC), writers and producers for the most popular crime and science-related television shows and movies are putting out an all-points bulletin for scientists to advise them on the accuracy of their plots involving lab tests, crime scenes, etc., and to even give them story ideas.

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They really do want to get it right, and this is very good news for young people who absorb the information from these shows, and this helps shape their positive career decisions. That's the message delivered in Denver by producers and writers from top television shows speaking at a special Presidential Event at the American Chemical Society's (ACS) 242nd National Meeting & Exposition.

Producers and writers for some of television's most popular medical, crime, science and science fiction shows today said they do strive for accuracy and ask more scientists to get involved and lend a hand in helping TV accurately portray science. They spoke at a symposium entitled "Science on the Hollywood Screen." In addition to CSI, other shows represented were Breaking Bad, CSI New York, Buffy, Battlestar and Torchwood.

"Science on the Hollywood Screen" is one of the meeting's special Presidential Events, and was co-organized by Nancy B. Jackson, Ph.D., ACS President, and Donna Nelson, Ph.D. Nelson, a chemist adviser for the six-time Emmy Award-winning AMC Channel show Breaking Bad, organized the program with Jackson and said Hollywood needs more scientists to volunteer to vet the scientific accuracy of scripts and storyboards.

"CSI is a great example of how a highly popular show can be both entertaining and make science understandable to the public," said Nelson, who is with affiliated with the University of Oklahoma and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The people who make TV shows and films really are interested in presenting science accurately. That's why they have been encouraging scientists like myself to serve as technical advisers. It's been great fun for me and I even have appeared in a cameo role on Breaking Bad."

The producers of this show are serious in striving for accuracy and realism, she said. For example, the credits at the start of Breaking Bad feature symbols of chemical elements from the Periodic Table. The symbols Br and Ba, which stand for the elements bromine and barium, are depicted in the title of the show.

Not only should chemists and other scientists volunteer to advise the staffs of these popular shows, Nelson said, but "we should offer script ideas. The writers and producers are open to this. The more collaboration we in our profession have with these shows and with Hollywood films, the more we can raise the public's awareness about the importance of science." She also contended that the better writers get to know scientists the better equipped they will be to accurately portray them.

With 2011 being the International Year of Chemistry (IYC), Nelson said that chemists have a perfect opportunity to help increase public awareness of chemistry's major role in improving everyday life.

Nelson said that the producers and writers in the symposium will discuss how -- with the help of advisers -- they accurately portray scientists at work and suggested how chemists and other scientists can help with scripts in the future. In addition, the symposium focused on new ideas and evaluated existing ones for better communicating science to the public.

Here are titles of presentations in the "Science on the Hollywood Screen" symposium, with summaries of the presentations:

  • CSI New York: Science personified. Aaron Thomas, Writer, Producer, CSI New York. For writers who do not have a science background, thorough research is essential. The producers of CSI New York go to great lengths ensuring that the stories they tell are grounded in reality. This includes the science and forensic aspects of the show. They base many of their stories on actual cases. The show has an intelligent and diligent staff of assistants who thoroughly cross-check their ideas with the latest science journals and publications to ensure that they are as accurate as possible with their research. Often, ideas that are pitched for episodes of the show begin with interesting science mysteries.
  • CSI: Entertaining science via methodology and analysis. Corrine Marrinan, Writer, Producer, CSI. Forensic chemistry and materials analysis is the cornerstone of any forensic drama, just as it is considered the strongest physical evidence to be presented in a legal case. Accurately depicting these microscopic events in entertainment is considered one of the greatest challenges in on-screen storytelling. Fortunately, advancements in forensic chemistry have developed in tandem with great advancements in the entertainment technology, special effects and computer-generated images. CSI has mastered the visual expression of forensic chemistry in order to make specialized scientific information more accessible to worldwide audiences.
  • Buffy, Battlestar, Torchwood -- Chemistry vs. Magic on Sci Fi TV. Jane Espenson, writer, producer for a variety of television shows. While writers do at times attempt to include science, including chemistry, they find that magic, which serves many of the same basic functions as science, is often more adaptable. The presentation will describe a scene showing some well-researched chemistry and will include a montage of clips from various episodes that depict uses of magic, especially chemical-type potions. For chemistry to get more screen time, it would be advantageous for it to more closely resemble magic.
  • Breaking Bad: Factual and fabulous. Donna Nelson, Associate Professor of Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Oklahoma. The presentation will describe what it is like to be a chemist adviser for Breaking Bad and explain why more chemists should offer their talents to help producers of science-related shows and movies. Today is the perfect time for more scientists to volunteer, as show producers say they are working to create programs that are as accurate as possible.
  • Damn it, Jim (Cameron) -- I'm a screenwriter not a chemist! Ann Merchant, The Science & Entertainment Exchange. The presentation will outline the mission and the history of The Science & Entertainment Exchange and examine some of the realities of the relationship between science and entertainment as a way to explore a "win-win" collaboration. It will cover the origins of The Science & Entertainment Exchange and its expertise in both the entertainment and science communities. It will also describe a "typical" consultation, highlight some of the special events The Exchange has hosted and ground the program objectives in the research on education/entertainment.

More information about the International Year of Chemistry can be found at: http://iyc2011.acs.org/

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Chemical Society. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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American Chemical Society. "Hollywood screenwriters and scientists: More than an artistic collaboration." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 August 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110828171208.htm>.
American Chemical Society. (2011, August 29). Hollywood screenwriters and scientists: More than an artistic collaboration. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110828171208.htm
American Chemical Society. "Hollywood screenwriters and scientists: More than an artistic collaboration." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110828171208.htm (accessed December 21, 2014).

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