Inside Rensselaer
* Richard W. Siegel
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Richard Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is executive producer of the Molecularium film Molecules to the Max.
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Professor-Turned-Producer Learns the Movie Biz
It’s not every day that a research scientist and university professor gets to see his work on the silver screen.          

But in just a few months, Richard W. Siegel will get to watch his name scroll down the giant screen of a darkened IMAX theater with a new title that seems light years away from laboratory benches and lecture halls: Executive Producer.           

The film, Molecules to the MAX, has been a three-year labor of love for Siegel. From securing funding and hiring a production company to negotiating post-production and distribution deals, Siegel has been a champion and a driving force behind the newest Molecularium movie. His enthusiasm and vision have touched nearly every aspect of the 40-minute film, which was previewed for the first time last month.           

“It’s been quite a ride, and we were thrilled to introduce our new movie to the world,” Siegel said.           

The IMAX production was supported by a generous gift from Rensselaer Trustee Curtis Priem ’82, co-founder of NVIDIA, a world leader in visual computing technologies.           

A world-renowned nanotechnology pioneer, Siegel is the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer, as well as director of the Institute’s nanotechnology center. The unique perspective from the helm of the Molecularium project has put the lifelong researcher in the unlikely situation of vetting the precision and impact of this work not with journal editors and peer-reviewers, but with an even cannier audience — his grandchildren.          

And so far, the reception of Siegel’s grandkids and the children of colleagues to the latest exploits of Oxy, Hydro, Hydra, and other Molecularium characters as they get an up-close-and-personal view of the scientifically accurate molecular landscapes of snowflakes, chewing gum, and a penny, among other environs, has been outstanding.            

Though Siegel concedes that Molecules to the MAX may not be on a trajectory to become the next Star Wars or Finding Nemo, he is confident that the new film is poised for considerable long-term success — both in the entertainment world, and in fulfilling the project’s paramount goal of boosting global science literacy.           

The first barometer of this success was last month, when Siegel and Molecules to the MAX distributor SK Films unveiled a clip from the film at a giant screen cinema trade show in New York City. They also held private screenings of a digital version of the full movie for theater owners and other industry VIPs. Siegel said the viewings were quite successful in drumming up a buzz around the new movie.

A few years ago, the depth of Siegel’s knowledge and experience of film was limited to watching the occasional movie. But after his experience as executive producer on Molecules to the MAX, alongside fellow Molecularium project executive producers and Rensselaer professors Linda Schadler and Shekhar Garde, he can now talk shop with the best in the business.            

“I tackled the situation like I would any scientific or business problem: I did as much research as possible, and then I sought out the wisdom and advice of people who know more about the subject than anyone else,” Siegel said.         

His motivation for this self-imposed crash course in the movie biz is the same basic tenant at the very heart of the Molecularium project: the critical need for instilling young people of all ages with a passion for science and a lifelong yearning to learn more about the world around them.           

Embedded in the fabric of every creative and strategic decision that Siegel, Schadler, and Garde made concerning Molecules to the MAX was the notion of “stealth education.” At the end of the day, the film is about educating viewers and raising public science literacy, Siegel said. But to make the movie an effective vehicle to propagate this important scientific and educational message, it was imperative that the team not allow the core properties of the medium — immersive, engaging entertainment — to take a back seat.           

“After watching the movie, parents, children, and teachers all rave about the story line, the characters, the songs, and the animation — they just love it,” Siegel said. “But we’ve also done before-and-after assessments that prove viewers coming out of the theater know a great deal more about atoms and molecules in the world around them than they did before they experienced the movie. They learned without even trying. That’s why we call it ‘stealth education.’”           

Molecules to the MAX and Molecularium are owned, funded, and managed by Rensselaer, with additional funding support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and from Rensselaer Trustee Curtis Priem ’82. Schadler created the concept of Molecularium circa 2001, and has worked to develop and expand it with Siegel and Garde. The first Molecularium movie, Riding Snowflakes, was released in 2005 and is still in worldwide distribution.           

To help create Riding Snowflakes and Molecules to the MAX, Schadler, Garde, and Siegel enlisted production company Nanotoon Entertainment, which employs and had employed several Rensselaer students and graduates. The three professors collaborated with director V. Owen Bush, producer Kurt Przybilla, and art director Chris Harvey of Nanotoon to write the script of the new film.

Siegel is also currently investigating funding and potential partnerships for a Molecularium television show and DVD series.          

“If you’re doing something that makes a positive impact, it drives you to keep pushing that idea further to reach wider audiences, and pushing yourself to do better,” Siegel said.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 16, October 3, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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