so you want to be a science consultant

DirectorJen We are reminded that we have been remiss of late in passing on nifty book recommendations. So let me heartily recommend the just-released Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema by David A. Kirby, who was a practicing evolutionary geneticist before he switched to the Dark Side, leaving bench science to become Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester in the UK. I met David through my association with the NAS Science & Entertainment Exchange — mostly because so many of his publications address the relationship between cinema, genetics, and biotechnology.

Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for Kirby's book, but yanno, I'm a genuine fan. I don't blurb books I don't like. And honestly, there really are no other books right now quite like David's. My blurb: “There have been many books written on the intersection of science and Hollywood. But David Kirby’s excellent tome is the first to examine seriously the role of the science consultant in the movie-making process and assess its potential impact. Lab Coats in Hollywood is essential reading for anyone who shares Kirby’s passion for bringing science into the service of storytelling for the silver screen.”

41ySKX2XmXL Of course, you don't have to just take my word for it. Take it from one of my fellow blurbers, film and TV writer/producer Zack Stentz (Thor, X-Men: First Class, Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles):  

“In the gap between science fact and science fiction stands the motion picture and television science consultant. In this brisk, lively account, David Kirby provides us with a history of these often unheralded scientific ambassadors to Hollywood and the critical role they play in shaping how film and television makers depict science–depictions which in turn shape how science is understood by the public at large.”

If you're a scientist interested in consulting for film and TV, you should read David's book. And in honor of its release, I offer my own humble tips, gleaned from two years with the Exchange. First and foremost:

(1) Manage Your Expectations. Shhh! Keep this under your hat, but Hollywood isn’t nearly as glamorous as you think. I know, you think it’s all just one long episode of Entourage (the colorfully foul-mouthed Ari Gold character is, indeed, based on a real-life agent, Ari Emmanuel). But power lunches and club-hopping are what people do in between projects, and even then, it’s mostly agents and studio execs with expense accounts — or A-List stars — who can afford that. Once a film or TV show is in production, everyone is working much too hard to have time for an actual life. Catering services are huge in Tinsel Town because often nobody leaves the set (or production office, or editing room) for 12- to 16-hour stints. So don’t expect that you’ll be whisked off to Spago or Mr. Chow’s for a chic lunch meeting with Big Name Producer/Director. The reality is that you’re more likely to have a short afternoon meeting in a makeshift production office with some soda, coffee or cookies to nosh on.

That said, one scientist who came to a studio consult jokingly demanded champagne when asked if he'd care for refreshment — only to be mollified when the earnest young production assistant magically produced a bottle sent to the producers as a gift. I told him if he truly wanted to be shockingly outrageous, he should have demanded a few lines of cocaine. Although even that might not have been shocking. Apparently, it used to be quite common in the 1970s to show up to a pitch meeting and find bowls of coke on the (glass-topped, natch!) coffee table. I heard this from a longtime executive producer, who sighed wistfully in remembrance: "These days it's all just bottled water."

(2) Listen, Don’t Lecture. This is probably the single most common mistake scientists make when consulting with Hollywood for the very first time: they walk into a meeting and proceed to expound on their area of expertise, with little regard for whether it’s relevant to the developing story. This is understandable: scientists are accustomed to certain kinds of communication: giving class lectures, technical talks for colleagues, and an ever-larger fraction are also reasonably adept at speaking to the press about new research results.  But Hollywood is looking for more of a dialogue, a brainstorming session among equals — not a lecture. Remember, they're smart, skilled professionals in their own right; they just have a different expertise than you.

Dr-horrible (3) “No” is Not Enough. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It's not enough to just tell a writer, director or producer that their nifty plot twist is bad science. That's just pointless nerdgassing; it might be cathartic for you, but the goal should be convincing Hollywood that paying attention to the scientific details results in a more successful film or TV series. Instead of "No, you can't do that," make sure you put a positive spin on your input: "Well, that's stretching the science a bit too much, but have you considered this?"

(3A) A corrollary: they'll be more likely to listen to your input if The Science Serves the Story. Hollywood is not in the business of creating PR campaigns for science out of the goodness of their hearts. It will always be about the narrative. Make sure you honor that.

(4) Honor the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Discretion is very much the better part of valor when it comes to advising on Hollywood projects. Ideas are bona fide currency in this town, and projects in development — and even in production — are treated as closely guarded state secrets. Think I'm kidding? I organized a local team of five scientists with varying expertise to consult on TRON: Legacy. They expected to be emailed the draft script. Instead, production assistants brought each scientist an individual copy of the script stamped with their name on every page — so if pages leaked, it could be traced back to the miscreant — and waited in their office while they read it, then took the manuscript back to the production office "vault."

Even if nobody asked you to sign an NDA, it's still a good idea to say as little as possible, even if it seems like a pretty trivial detail; not doing so could get you blacklisted from future consultation. So, even though it's tempting to regale your friends down at the pub with tales of your mind-blowing meeting with Big Name Director at a Major Studio, resist that temptation — until the film comes out or the episode airs. Then you can reap the reward of all that reflected glory. It can also be a great educational opportunity, as Jim Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes) discovered when he made this Webby-nominated YouTube video on the science of Watchmen (for which he consulted):

(5) Your Input Is Never Wasted. Don't feel discouraged if few, if any, of your ideas make it onto the screen in the end. Maybe you consulted on a project in early development that never made it into production, or you were brought in too late to have much of an impact. (I cringed inwardly during one consultation when, towards the end of the meeting, the director commented, "Wow, this would have been really helpful, like, four weeks ago….") Maybe the writers just didn't take your suggestions, because the story ended up going in a new direction, or the studio demanded changes (or gave "notes"). A lot can happen to a film or series in development between the draft script and final cut. That doesn't mean your input wasn't valuable, or that you wasted your time. If nothing else, you've established a good foundation for future interaction. They may call on you again for another project, and next time, your input will make it to the final product.

(6) Expect Small Perks in Lieu of Payment. Look, it's a very rare occurrence when a science/technical consultant gets paid, and even then, I'd advise you not to quit your day job. I'm asked about this constantly: why don't get consultants get paid more often? And I explain that most of the time, when creators need input the most is during the early development stage — also the stage where a science consultant can have the most impact in shaping the story. But at that point, there's usually no budget, either. Trust me: everyone is working on spec. (Hollywood is a town of freelancers, basically.) Make a strong enough pitch — for which you need good science input — and you might get picked up by a network or studio. But it's only when a project gets "greenlit" that it goes into actual production — and until then, there's really not any money to be made. Be the person who helped them in the early, unpaid stage, and you're far more likely to be approached about paid consulting when the budget finally materializes. Or not. Like I said, don't quit your day job.

Not everyone likes to hear this. I've had more than one scientist stuffily inform me that s/he received so much per hour as a technical consultant for industry, and lawyers received similar rates for their consulting services, so why shouldn't scientists who consult for film and TV be paid accordingly? One such person was so insistent on this point that, exasperated, I finally said, "Look — you keep telling me how you think things ought to be. I'm telling you the way things actually are." It all comes down to what the market will bear, and currently, the market will bear…. pretty much nothing. This will only change when it becomes clear to the folks who hold the purse strings in Hollywood that a technical consultant is absolutely essential to the success of a given project. And I think their numbers are growing. But a blockbuster film with bad science is still a blockbuster film. So it might be awhile.

That doesn't mean the creators don't care about getting the details right — they do! — or that they aren't generous. They are! They'll find some way to express their appreciation. We have a growing collection of DVDs, baseball caps, sweatshirts, even a pen in the shape of a bone (from the writing staff of Bones, of course). The Time Lord is justly proud of his Stark Motor Racing sweatshirt, courtesy of Marvel Studios in thanks for his consultation work on Thor. I've been invited to watch shoots for Bones, Castle, and The Big Bang Theory and toured the set for Tony Stark's lab in the Iron Man films. Helping Hollywood is fun! Having fun, getting to be creative, and hopefully feel you've made a difference in some small way is actually pretty darned rewarding. If those are terms you think you can handle, congratulations — you could make an excellent science consultant.

1 thought on “so you want to be a science consultant”

  1. That sounds like so much fun! Hollywood would be smart to use grad students as technical consultants. Free cookies is enough incentive for us to do pretty much anything. I don’t suppose the book actually gives tips on how to get into doing consulting in the first place?

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