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Rensselaer Goes Hollywood

“Understanding these basic building blocks of the universe...is critical to comprehending the environmental, energy, and health issues that we face as a nation.”
For all three professors, working on the Molecularium project and Molecules to the MAX has been a crash course in the movie business. While Garde worked on providing the molecular simulations and Schadler honed the messaging and educational themes of Molecules to the MAX, Siegel worked as a full-time bridge-builder, securing funding, seeking out and landing partnerships with industry pros at Technicolor, DKP 70MM Inc., IMAX Corp., and Ampersand. He also joined on as a charter member of the Giant Screen Cinema Association.

Along with deals to be forged and contracts to be negotiated, Siegel had to pick up industry jargon and become fluent in the language of Hollywood. This “language barrier” also often showed itself as the three professors interacted with Nanotoon. Throughout the ongoing collaboration, the team has worked to seek out and establish a middle ground between their respective languages of art and science.

“I think the most challenging aspects of working on both films has been the communication between the engineers, the artists, and the computers, in that we keep running across problems that we didn’t expect because we’ve never done this before—and, in fact, no one has ever done this before,” Schadler says.

Kurt Przybilla, writer/producer of Molecules to the MAX, says that expanding the story and scope of the original digital dome show into an IMAX movie was an exciting challenge. “Everything, from the scientific simulations to the story and character animation, had to be bigger, better, and much more complex for the largest film format in the world,” he says. “Luckily, we were able to recruit and work with an extraordinarily talented and diverse team of artists, scientists, animators, and students to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.”

Another dynamic of the collaboration between Nanotoon and the Rensselaer professors is that Nanotoon’s production office is actually situated on campus. To boot, many Nanotoon employees are current and former Rensselaer students.

Adam Gaige ’07 worked for Nanotoon during his senior year as he was completing his double major in computer science and electronic media, arts, and communication. Soon after graduating, he landed his current position as a technical director with well-known independent animation studio DreamWorks Animation SKG. At DreamWorks, Gaige codes scripts, or small programs, to help translate digital data from one format or system into another. He mostly works with artists to solve tricky lighting and shading problems. It’s similar to the work he did with Nanotoon, though his duties with the smaller company were considerably more varied.

“My experience at Nanotoon, and working on the Molecularium movie, was really unique—especially when compared to the environment I’m in now,” Gaige says. “At Nanotoon, everyone wore a lot of hats and took part in a lot of different aspects of the movie, from coding scripts to modeling and simulations.”

Justin Rosen ’05 worked on Riding Snowflakes as a senior and after graduating took a position at Nanotoon, serving as lead technical director on Molecules to the MAX. “I really enjoyed working on the film. We had an extremely small team for the amount of content that needed to be produced, so at times it could be a little overwhelming, but overall it was a fantastic opportunity. The amount of energy that came out of the place was amazing,” says Rosen, who now works for CIS Vancouver, a visual effects firm that works on major Hollywood productions.

Giant Size Nanoscale

Not constrained to the confines of planetarium theaters, Molecules to the MAX has the potential to reach a much broader audience than Riding Snowflakes. The film, which is nearly double the length of its predecessor, is set to circle the globe. But the speed at which it propagates is subject to both demand from moviegoers and the movie’s acceptance by IMAX and other giant-screen theater owners.

The film also is in the midst of being re-rendered—or in industry parlance, “up-resed”—into stereoscopic 3-D, which would allow it to be played in the latest and most high-tech giant-screen theaters. A pair of sneak previews in late 2008 and early 2009 for industry officials and theater owners helped create and perpetuate a buzz about Molecules to the MAX. Another exclusive preview was shown in February in EMPAC as a “thank you” for students, faculty, and staff, who gave the film a warm reception.

A more substantial barometer for success, however, will soon show itself as Molecules to the MAX works its way into theaters and begins competing not only against Hollywood blockbusters that have gone 3-D, but also against the growing cadre of sharks, dinosaurs, insects, historic sites, and heavenly bodies that have become the bread and butter of the giant-screen movie industry. 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. “I may be biased, but I think the show is going to shake up and excite the giant-screen industry,” Siegel says. “I really think we’re onto something wonderful here.”

Back on campus, the Molecularium team is doing its best to ensure there will be a long-standing need for students and other talented animators at Rensselaer. The group is endeavoring to bring new adventures of Oxy, Hydra, and Hydro to the small screen. Siegel and the group are in discussions to expand their audience even wider by bringing the new movie to television, creating new Molecularium shows for television, and also making Molecularium content available on DVDs.

Promoting science literacy to the public is no easy task, Siegel says, but it is critically important and he and his colleagues are in it for the long haul.

“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 says. “And nothing justifies all of the effort and hard work more clearly than catching a glimpse of a group of children who just watched our movie, and seeing the excitement in their eyes and hearing the thrill in their voices.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.