Monday, November 15, 2010

Science Fact or Cinematic Fiction?

Flight of Fancy

Mankind has always yearned to fly. From ancient stories of Icarus to Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of flying machines, we have dreamt of flight since we first watched birds fly. And, thanks to the Wright brothers, and a lot of other innovative people, we actually are able to fly. But that doesn’t stop us from dreaming up newer and more creative ways to break the ties of gravity. The wildest of those ideas very often end up as entertainment and find their way into movies that attempt to create various flying machines. As examples, in “Return to Oz” there is a flying moose couch, in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” there is Jack Skellington’s flying sleigh, and in “Zardoz” a giant stone head glides through the sky. These three flight vehicles are all compelling and interesting transportation devices, but when measured up against the real world of physics, all of them would fall flat. In fact, none of these devices would last even a second in the air before plummeting. There are certain very real conditions one needs in order to obtain flight. In this essay, I will explore the science behind why these three movie flying machines wouldn’t come close to flying.

“Return to Oz” (1985) picks up the story thread six months after Dorothy returned to Kansas at the end of “The Wizard of Oz”. Since Dorothy arrived back home, she cannot sleep. She has been talking to Auntie Em so much about her first crazy adventure that her aunt has taken her to mental hospital. Dorothy escapes the mental hospital only to find herself back in Oz where mayhem resumes. Midway through the movie, Dorothy, running to hide from the wicked queen, locks herself and her friends in the attic. There she finds two couches roped together, a raggedy stuffed moose head tied to the front, a broom serving as a tail in the back, and four palm fronds attached – wing-like – to the sides. Dorothy sprinkles magic dust all over the wings and head and says the magic words. Naturally, the contraption comes to life! The moose head talks conversationally and the palm frond wings begin to flap. Dorothy and her friends climb in and the flying thing propels itself out the window just as the witch opens the door to the attic. They fall several stories, almost to the ground, but the moose-headed flying couch is able to take flight at the very last moment – to everyone’s relief!

In reality however, this couch-as-air vehicle would have fallen to the ground and probably killed everyone in it. As we dissect the reason why, we can deduce from the flapping palm fronds that in this story the flying contraption is trying to mimic bird flight. Birds are usually small creatures, with hollow bones that make their mass light. They have large wingspans in comparison to their bodies, rely heavily on gliding, and flap their wings to provide upward thrust. While flapping motions are used by Dorothy’s flying moose-headed couch, it wouldn’t be able to get off the ground because of how it is designed. The wings are far too small to support the weight of two couches alone, even without Dorothy and her friends, and the palm fronds just aren’t aerodynamically sound wings. Palm fronds are feather-like pinnate compound leaves that certainly aren’t designed to allow moving air to support them together as a “wing”. When one moves a palm frond back and forth, the air simply moves through the frond, and doesn’t catch the thrust of the air beneath it. This palm frond “wing” simply couldn’t be supported in the air. On the other hand, when one holds even a single bird feather and moves it through the air, you can really feel the air catch the feather and support it. The zany flying vehicle from “Return to Oz” is definitely unrealistic. Yet, set in a fairytale-like world along with talking chickens, a witch who can change heads, and men made out of metal, we viewers are able to suspend our disbelief and enjoy Dorothy’s ride.

The “Nightmare before Christmas” is a 1993 claymation fantasy. The hero of this story is Jack Skellington, King of Halloweentown, who discovers seemingly preferable wonders in Christmastown. Enamored by Santa Claus’s role, Jack tries to take over Santa’s duties by delivering gifts on his bizarre version of Santa’s sleigh. This sleigh is made up of various items that come from Halloweentown – his carriage is a coffin, his bag of gifts is made from an oil barrel, and his reindeer are made… well, they are reindeer, but they’re skeleton reindeer with Christmas wreaths around their necks. Jack flies around driving his makeshift sleigh to deliver gifts to children throughout the real world. It is all fine and dandy if you suspend your disbelief about how sleighs might or might not fly though the night, but in reality the sleigh wouldn’t be able to budge an inch, let alone get off the ground. First and foremost, let me point out that Jack is a skeleton, which makes him lifeless and dead and therefore unable to build this contraption in the first place. Second, the reindeer are also dead and hence wouldn’t be able to pull the sleigh on the ground let alone consider flying. Putting the whole everyone-is-dead thing aside, Jack’s invention might possibly be pulled by three live reindeer. As reindeer push their heels into the earth, the earth pushes back, and depending how heavy Jack’s sleigh is, the reindeer might be able to pull his sled forward. But moving forward isn’t flying, and in the movie this sleigh definitely flies through the air at night, delivering presents to children. It would take a lot more for his sleigh to even get off the ground – perhaps energy to move it upward would help, or installing aerodynamically sound bird-like flapping wings, or to be attached to a giant balloon.

“Zardoz” is by far the weirdest movie of the three. It is a mid-1970s science fiction futuristic movie. In the year 2293, Earth is inhabited by two kinds of humans, the Brutals and the Eternals. The Brutals worship the god Zardoz, who is a giant hollow flying stone head. From within the flying stone head a god-like voice bellows, “The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth . . . and kill!” The Brutals provide Zardoz with grain and in return, out shoots hundreds of guns from the mouth of Zardoz. But what the Brutals don’t know is this god-like head is controlled by an Eternal. One day, Zed, a Brutal (played with gusto by Sean Connery), hides inside the head of Zardoz, flies off to the Vortex where the Eternals live, and sets off a string of strange events. But, what about Zardoz? Could this giant stone head actually glide across the sky? In this movie Zardoz looks to be only a giant flying hollow rock carved with a scary face. The storytellers don’t even attempt to explain how such a thing could hover in the air. Zardoz doesn’t have wings so it isn’t trying to mimic a bird or a plane. It doesn’t fall under the category of ballistic flight because it moves very slowly. It doesn’t fall under the category of buoyant flight because rocks are certainly not lighter then air. It doesn’t appear to have an engine or any mechanical parts at all. (Its insides looks like a stone cave.) Perhaps since the movie is set so far in the future we might assume that whatever is allowing the rock to fly, hasn’t yet been discovered. So, from my standpoint in the year 2010, I find myself scratching my head to even know how to approach the discussion of why Zardoz wouldn’t really fly. Except, well, it’s a big giant flying rock but big giant rocks don’t really fly. One can throw smaller stones and watch them sail in the air for a short time before hitting the ground. One can pick up and drop a big rock and let gravity take over. However, when it comes to flying, people usually tend to rule out anything having to do with rocks since rocks could be said to be the opposite of flying. This film is simply science fiction, I guess. Therefore, anything can happen and “physics be damned!” So, as Forrest Gump would say, “That is really all I have to say about that.”

The addition of a flying vehicle is a popular element in many, many movies and I can see why. Flight is appealing. Humans want to be able to soar through the air, get out of danger, go quickly and easily from one place to another on a crazy adventure (and, of course, without dealing with the Transportation Security Administration every time they want to fly.) They want to MacGyver something out of a few unrelated elements that allows one to fly adventurously and spontaneously through the air. Many of these fantasy and Sci-Fi movies don’t write in the elements that believably make these contraptions fly, but when you look over the plots, you realize why they don’t bother. These kinds of movies are often so fantastical and strange from the get-go that flying vehicles don’t seem out of place. We would only really question these flying vehicles if they were put into more serious movies, like “The Godfather” or “Lawrence of Arabia”. And, that is why Sci-Fi and fantasy are appealing to so many people; they are so magically unreal and dreamlike that there’s no reason to be bothered by the facts.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Outline for the Second Term Paper


A. Into: Flight happens when an object moves through the air by generating lift and thrust or the ballistics. Yet there are so many movies with flighting objects that simply wouldn't ever get off the ground.

Zardoz - Flying Head

The Nightmare before Christmas - Jack's Slay

Return to Oz - Flying Moose couch

B. Zardoz Giant rocks heads flying though the sky aren't possible

i. It has no way to possibly fly - Doesn't glide, no lift, no thrust.

ii. Not aerodynamic

iii. Weight alone wouldn't get it off the ground.

C. The Nightmare before Christmas jacks flies a slay through the sky with three reindeer lead by zero the dog.

i. no action reaction on the skeleton reindeers feet and the ground. No way for it to move forward.

ii. no source of trust to propel in air

iii. wouldn't get very far with dead animals.

D. Return to Oz: Magically flapping palm fronds couldn't support A moose head, some couches, Dorothy, Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkim head a chicken.

i. mimics flying and gliding in animals but birds have light have hallow bones and giant wing spans.

ii. Drag Created by aerodynamic friction

iii. Weight

E. Conclusion

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Stop-Motion Character Animation

I took photos of fruit, moved them around, put them into Premier, added a song: video!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Laws of Physics in an Animation Universe: Unbelievably Believable

The Hudsucker Proxy is a live action film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It opened in 1994. Set in the 1940’s, this film begins as Waring Hudsucker, head of the exceedingly prosperous Hudsucker Industries, jumps out of the forty-fourth floor of his own building and dies. Hudsucker Industries board members soon install the naive and seemingly dumb stock boy Norville Barnes as president of the company. They figure that once the public realizes that Norville is a “moron” the company’s stock will go down, and they can buy up the late Hudsucker’s valuable 51% share for pennies on the dollar. The board stands to make loads of money once the stock returns to normal. The Hudsucker Proxy is presented as a tall tale, complete with a narrator/janitor and fantastical happenings, and it doesn’t let reality or the laws of physics stand in the way. In this essay, I will explore the believability of some of its near-miraculous happenings. In The Hudsucker Proxy Joel and Ethan Coen shatter our sense of real-world physics in order to facilitate their crazy story. We believe precisely because of how unbelievable it is.

In animated features and live action movies people are often willing to accept outrageous stories for the sake of entertainment. We are happy to believe in Babe the talking pig and in friendly, singing mice. In the film, Avatar, we have no trouble accepting that humans can be embodied in ten-foot tall blue aliens in order to share their world. The crazy story elements of tall tales, fairy tales, or myths are so over the top we are willing to simply go along for the fun. On the other hand, skewing subtle details of everyday physics seems to be harder to get away with. Audiences are so in tune with how the real world works that when they see slightly wonky special effects presented as reality, viewers are jolted out of the film experience. Take the animated wolves in The Day After Tomorrow. Their fur is life-like, their roars ferocious, but that the wolves’ musculature is rubbery and that their connection with gravity is slightly off, makes them just plain laughable. Audiences begin to disbelieve what they see. Instead, they roll their eyes at the special effects and scoff, “That just isn’t real”.

By contrast, in Hudsucker Proxy, Joel and Ethan Coen make physics so absurd that the audience doesn’t bother to question the impossible. In this film there are three separate incidents where individuals fall (or try to throw themselves) out of a forty-four-story building. In a world of ordinary physics a person falls out of a skyscraper, and then, that person dies. In this film, one dies, one hits the window and lives, and one floats in mid-air as time stops.

The first to fall out of the Hudsucker building is Waring Hudsucker himself. In a classic film moment, a distracted Hudsucker sits at the head a long table during a board meeting only half listening to a member talk about how business is exponentially booming and how rich and “loaded” everyone is. Hudsucker clears his throat as if to say something important, winds his watch, then unexpectedly steps up on the table, runs heavily down the length of the long table, and jumps through a closed glass window. He jumps, the glass shatters, he falls forty-four stories, and he dies – a normal outcome by the standards of reality. Everything seems right and is in place – in the world of physics that is. You jump out of a high enough building, you die right? Well, not always.

The second individual to jump out of the building is a Hudsucker Industries board member. He finds out that without his knowledge all his stock was sold. Instead of being a millionaire, he has nothing. A ruined man, he whimpers, steps onto the table announcing he is “getting off this merry go round”, and runs down the long table mimicking Hudsucker himself. But instead of falling out of the building like Hudsucker, he gets stuck to the glass in a comical Wile E. Coyote kind of way. “Plexiglas”, remarks another board member, “Had it installed last week”. Our character sticks for a few seconds and then slowly starts to slide down the window. In reality, there isn’t enough friction to sustain a fully clothed 200lb man on a 90-degree sheet of Plexiglas. However, regardless of what actually happens in the real world, the viewer is willing to suspend disbelief because they know that the story is really a tall tale. Of course, Joel and Ethan Coen used this effect to make the audience laugh – The Hudsucker Proxy is a comical tale. The quickness of the run, followed by the overdramatic hesitation and then the slow descent to the ground is the exact formula used by all those wonderful Roadrunner cartoons. It gives the scene texture in timing. It’s a tried and true recipe for laughter.

The strangest fall of the three is that of the title’s Hudsucker proxy himself. A pensive Norville Barnes climbs out a window onto a ledge of the towering building during a snowstorm. Finding himself locked out, he accidently slips, falls, and then clings to the ledge with only the tips of his fingers. He cries out for help but he can’t hold up his weight and he falls. We watch him descend for a very long time. Suddenly, he stops mid-air! Norville’s fall is suspended in time. The huge clock face on top of the Hudsucker tower reads 12:24 (12:30 is when he was to hit the ground). The scene cuts to the janitor/narrator who has put a broomstick in the gears of the clock tower. He has stopped time. To add to the complexity, even stopping time has different effects for each person involved in the scene. Norville is stuck in the air, conscious and able to move his head, arms, and feet – as if on a wire. We see the senior board member Sidney J. Mussburger in his office, frozen like a still photograph. There’s a huge smile on his face, along with a stopped-in-mid-swing Newton’s Cradle on his desk. The janitor is unaffected by the time stoppage as he wrestles with a symbol of evil, the handyman Aloysius. The snow continues to fall. Meanwhile, an angel version of Waring Hudsucker floats down with a halo hula hoop and heavy-looking, handcrafted wings – beating about every 5 seconds or so – that sustain him in flight. It is hard to criticize the physics of this scene because ordinary rules are so shattered by the Coen brothers, that we just accept what we see. In this tall tale the wrongness of the physics only furthers the story.

There’s another intriguing aspect of these falls. Through the narration, the Coens make the point that it will take thirty seconds to fall from the forty-four-story Hudsucker Building. It’s a nice round number that we can remember. However, rather than being a fact, the ‘thirty second fall’ becomes a fairy tale element of the story, similar to, “At midnight your coach will become a pumpkin,” or, “Jacob Marley will visit you at 1 AM.” If one were to actually fall from a building of that height it would actually take a much shorter time to hit the ground.

In another pivotal part of the story, a toy seller, angry because no one bought any of the newly invented hula-hoops he has in stock, throws all of the leftover hoops out the back door. Colorful hoops roll down the alleyway and soon fall over – except for one. While all its sister hoops fell after only a couple of feet, this solo red hula hoop manages to make its way down the alley and out onto the street. Then, the hoop turns the corner, goes across the cross walk, stops traffic, and then continues down the street for three more blocks. The red hoop finally falls over in front of a young boy who picks it up and twirls it around his hips. Since the toy seller throws all the hoops at the same time they should have gone roughly similar distances. The fallen hoops didn’t have objects or forces to get in their way; they simply ran out of energy within a few feet. It doesn’t truthfully follow the laws of physics, but it makes sense in the story because the hoop must find the young boy.

The Coen brothers unrelentingly bend the laws of reality in this movie. But far from alienating their audience the unreality adds to its charm and the film is compelling to watch. This discussion brings to mind the Uncanny Valley hypothesis about robotics and 3D animation: The more lifelike a robot becomes, the more humans are repelled by any subtle wrongness in the fabrication of life. To return to film, I feel that when the physics is intentionally and substantially off kilter we more readily allow ourselves to accept it. By contrast, when it’s only slightly off – like the ungrounded rubber wolves in Day After Tomorrow – we’re more apt to cringe, laugh uncomfortably, or snap out of the story. In the tall tale Hudsucker Proxy, the filmmakers flaunt bad physics and yet we readily accept what we see. Joel and Ethan Coen completely disregard some of the basic laws of physics and yet they charm us with their warm fairytale-like story. Without the impossible physics, The Hudsucker Proxy wouldn’t have been nearly so extraordinary and fantastical.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Outline of the First Term Paper

Physics in "Hudsucker Proxy"

I. Introduction – A naive business graduate is made president of a manufacturing company as part of a stock scam.
a. Time is slowed down to emphasize drama
b. Laws of inertia are broken
c. Laws of time are shattered to facilitate story
d. Thesis statement

II. Time is slowed down to emphasize drama
a. Huckersucker falls out of 44 story building - Takes 30 seconds
b. Norville Barnes falls out of 44 story building - Takes 30 seconds
c. Broard member tries to jump out of 44 story building but instead slowly slips down the window (in a very Looney Toons kind of way)

III. Laws of inertia are broken
a. Newton's cradle abruptly stops when Sid raises his voice
b. Norville Barnes stops falling just before he hits the ground

IV. Laws of time are shattered to facilitate story
a. Broom in town clock gears, stops time
i. Snow is still falling
ii. Some characters are frozen others aren't
b. Norville Barnes is able to move, and read, but not fall, in mid fall off a 44 story building

V. Conclusion
a. Restate thesis
b. Summary of main points
c. Last thoughts

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Stop Motion Animation of Falling

I risked my life and took Ziggy, my cat, and made him into... a ball. I marked the floor, with paper, with the general path of action of a bouncing ball. Then I placed, sweet darling Ziggy, aligning him to those marks. I then took those images and re-aligned them in Photoshop to compensate for his wanderings. I imported those images into Premiere, adjusted the timing, inserted a sweet jam, and Tada - video!

Ziggy was not harmed in the making of this video.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010


My name is Emily Johnstone. I just moved to San Jose from Santa Cruz. I am excited for not commuting anymore. I like baking, music, movies, painting, and musicals. I think the combination of science and art are awesome.