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The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-World Technological Development

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Scholarship in the history and sociology of technology has convincingly demonstrated that technological development is not inevitable, pre-destined or linear. In this paper I show how the creators of popular films including science consultants construct cinematic representations of technological possibilities as a means by which to overcome these obstacles and stimulate a deisre in audiences to see potential technologies become realities. This paper focuses specifically on the production process in order to show how entertainment producers construct cinematic scenarios with an eye towards generating real-world funding opportunities and the ability to construct real-life prototypes. I introduce the term 'diegetic prototypes' to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology's need, viability and benevolence. Entertainment producers create diegetic prototypes by influencing dialogue, plot rationalizations, character interactions and narrative structure. These technologies only exist in the fictional world – what film scholars call the diegesis – but they exist as fully functioning objects in that world. The essay builds upon previous work on the notion of prototypes as 'performative artefacts'. The performative aspects of prototypes are especially evident in diegetic prototypes because a film's narrative structure contextualizes technologies within the social sphere. Technological objects in cinema are at once both completely artificial – all aspects of their depiction are controlled in production – and normalized within the text as practical objects that function properly and which people actually use as everyday objects.
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Social Studies of Science 40/1 (February 2010) 41–70
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ISSN 0306-3127 DOI: 10.1177/0306312709338325
ABSTRACT Scholarship in the history and sociology of technology has convincingly
demonstrated that technological development is not inevitable, pre-destined or
linear. In this paper I show how the creators of popular films including science
consultants construct cinematic representations of technological possibilities as a
means by which to overcome these obstacles and stimulate a desire in audiences to
see potential technologies become realities. This paper focuses specifically on the
production process in order to show how entertainment producers construct
cinematic scenarios with an eye towards generating real-world funding opportunities
and the ability to construct real-life prototypes. I introduce the term ‘diegetic
prototypes’ to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future
technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and
benevolence. Entertainment producers create diegetic prototypes by influencing
dialogue, plot rationalizations, character interactions and narrative structure. These
technologies only exist in the fictional world what film scholars call the diegesis
but they exist as fully functioning objects in that world. The essay builds upon
previous work on the notion of prototypes as ‘performative artefacts’. The
performative aspects of prototypes are especially evident in diegetic prototypes
because a film’s narrative structure contextualizes technologies within the social
sphere. Technological objects in cinema are at once both completely artificial all
aspects of their depiction are controlled in production and normalized within the
text as practical objects that function properly and which people actually use as
everyday objects.
Keywords cinema, entertainment production, popularization, prototypes, science
consultants, technical development, visualization
The Future is Now:
Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular
Films in Generating Real-world Technological
Development
David Kirby
I want to make humans-to-Mars real in the minds of the viewing public.
(Film director James Cameron speaking to The Mars Society)
1
Space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.
(Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Californication’, 1999)
How Film Establishes Technological Viability, Necessity
and Benevolence
On 19 September 1981 audiences witnessed the first successful implanta-
tion of a permanent artificial heart. The patient, a 20-year-old woman, did
not experience any physical complications after the surgery. As she walked
out of the hospital the doctor told her that he had given her ‘a heart as good
as any God ever made’.We will never know how long this woman lived with
her new heart because this transplant took place within the fictional film
Threshold, not in the real world. A year after the film’s release the first per-
manent artificial heart transplant on a living patient took place on 2
December 1982 at the University of Utah Medical Center (Jeffrey, 2001).
Audiences watching Threshold today could be forgiven for mistaking
the film for a historical docudrama or a documentary re-enactment of the
artificial heart’s development.The film listed 11 medical doctors as science
consultants, including Denton Cooley and Robert Jarvik, who played sig-
nificant roles in the actual 1982 transplant. Given that Jarvik was the inven-
tor of the artificial heart (the Jarvik-7) used in that operation, he, in
particular, had valid reasons for participating in the production of a film
such as Threshold that could ease public fears and demonstrate the possi-
bilities of his future medical technology. Other controversial medical tech-
nologies, including test-tube babies, the pacemaker and artificial limbs, had
seen fierce public resistance in the 1960s and 1970s as researchers moved
towards clinical trials (Turney, 1998). After an initial wave of enthusiasm
about the technology in the late 1960s, even heart transplants involving liv-
ing organs had received heavy public criticism, including a ban in Great
Britain (Nathoo, 2009).
In order to overcome public anxiety about the implantation of a per-
manent artificial heart in humans, scientists had to establish: (1) the neces-
sity of this technology; (2) the normalcy of a person who receives an
artificial heart and (3) the heart’s viability. Jarvik, Cooley and the other
consultants clearly believed that this film was an important public relations
opportunity and they helped film-makers construct a narrative for
Threshold that overtly addresses these three concerns.
A key theme in the first half of the film is the rarity and fallibility of
donated hearts. One early plot thread follows the character of Henry who
is waiting for a heart donor. As one character crudely puts it, Henry is actu-
ally waiting for ‘one good motorcycle accident’. Henry’s body rejects the
donor heart, prompting the central protagonist Dr Vrain to rail against
those who would prevent the development of an artificial heart (necessity).
In addition, the film’s dialogue highlights scientists’ concerns about ‘irra-
tional’ fears that accompany new medical technologies. Aldo Gehring, the
character who invents the heart, for example, tells a sceptic:
The fact is that fifteen years ago when the pacemaker was introduced it
created a furore. People said it was unnatural. That it was better to let the
sick die in peace. Now it is considered an everyday affair. No one ques-
tions its use.
42 Social Studies of Science 40/1
The film also addressed the public’s concern that a mechanized heart
might make the recipient feel like a mechanized person. The surgeon and
scientist repeatedly assure their patient that although the heart is a ‘mira-
cle’, she will be the ‘same person’ (normalcy).
Most importantly, the film’s visualization of a working technology
within its realist orientation established the achievability of a permanent
artificial heart (viability). Robert Jarvik designed the film’s heart model,
which he modelled after his own Jarvik-7. The film demonstrated how the
Jarvik heart solved the problems associated with older technologies. In a
crucial scene Dr Vrain inserts the Jarvik heart into the woman’s body. After
Dr Vrain attaches the heart, he switches it on. The audience then heard a
sound recognizable to anyone familiar with modern electronic devices: a
faint whirring sound that reassured the audience that the machine works.
The subsequent close-up of blood flowing through the artificial heart
shows the audience that it will indeed be a life-saving device. Through its
plot, narrative, dialogue and visual effects the film made something unfa-
miliar and frightening seem familiar and desirable.
In a previous paper in this journal, I showed how science consultants
can use popular movies to create highly plausible depictions of scientific
disasters in order to arouse fear in the audience (Kirby, 2003a). I argued
that popular cinema allows audiences to ‘virtually witness’ disasters in the
hopes that such movies will stimulate public action so as to prevent the dis-
asters from occurring in real-life.
2
In this essay, I extend that work by
demonstrating how film-makers, scientists and engineers can also create
filmic portrayals of technological possibilities with the intention of reduc-
ing anxiety and stimulating desire in audiences to see those possibilities
become realities. I build upon work on prototypes as ‘performative arte-
facts’ (Schrage, 2000; Iacucci et al., 2002; Suchman et al., 2002), as well
as the role of prototypes in contextualizing technologies within the social
sphere (Winston, 1998; Carroll, 2000). For film-makers and science con-
sultants, cinematic depictions of future technologies are what I term diegetic
prototypes that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need,
benevolence and viability. Although I will primarily focus on the actions of
science consultants on popular films, there are also cases where film-makers
have had financial or ideological motivations for advocating development of
a proto-technology. Even film-makers who have no vested interest in seeing
the real-world development of a technology play a role in how these tech-
nologies are depicted on the screen. At the very least, any cinematic depic-
tion requires the consent of film-makers at the top of the production
process such as directors and producers.
Diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage even over true
prototypes: in the fictional world what film scholars refer to as the
diegesis these technologies exist as real objects that function properly
and which people actually use. Diegetic prototypes extend the analytical
utility of virtual witnessing by addressing the issue of how cinematic
depictions can lead to real-world technological development. The notion
of virtual witnessing that cinematic narratives present scientific and
Kirby: The Future is Now 43
technological objects as conforming to natural reality is central to a
diegetic prototype. Witnessing a technology as a naturalistic part of a cin-
ematic landscape is significant, but it is not sufficient to convince audi-
ences of a technology’s essential worth. Diegetic prototypes entail an
additional visual and narrative rhetoric specifically framed so as to encour-
age audience support for the development of the technology on the screen.
Equally important, the embedding of diegetic prototypes within narratives
contextualizes emergent technologies within the social sphere. Within the
film world, Robert Jarviks artificial heart diegetic prototype worked prop-
erly, was safe and saved lives.
Social Contextualization and Diegetic Prototypes as
Performative Artefacts
If scholarship in the history and sociology of technology has taught us
nothing else, it has taught us that technological development is not
inevitable, pre-destined or linear. Any number of obstacles can impede or
alter the development of a potential technology including a lack of funding,
public apathy over the need for the technology, public concerns about
potential applications, or a fundamental belief that the technology will not
work (Williams & Edge, 1996). For scientists and engineers, the best way
to jump-start technical development is to produce a working physical pro-
totype. Working physical prototypes, however, are time consuming, expen-
sive and require initial funds. James Cameron’s quote that opens this paper
illustrates the faith that film-makers and science consultants place in cin-
ema’s ability to entice public support for technological development by
revealing possible technological futures. As Threshold demonstrates, cine-
matic depictions can foster public support for potential or emerging tech-
nologies by establishing the need, benevolence and viability of these
technologies. It is fictional film’s ability to create images of ‘technological
possibilities’ in the audience’s mind that leads film-makers and scientists to
believe that depictions embedded within cinematic narratives can help
overcome developmental obstacles.
In Serious Play, Michael Schrage (2000) argues that the prototyping
process has now become the driver of technological innovation. Models,
simulations and virtual prototypes are the means by which engineers and
futurists determine not only the viability of embryonic technologies, but also
which aspects meet the social needs of users. As Schrage says, ‘it’s not enough
to have brilliant ideas, you have to demonstrate them.You have to get people
to want to play with them (p. xiii). Schrage’s contention about the impor-
tance of social context for technological development is in line with the work
of Brian Winston (1998). Winston found in the development of communi-
cation technologies that patterns of innovation and technological diffusion
were not separated from the social sphere but instead were highly dependent
on social forces. Winston (1998: 6) argues that the transformation from pro-
totype to invention movement of a technology from the lab into the larger
world requires ‘supervening social necessities’. Prototypes, then, are what
44 Social Studies of Science 40/1
Lucy Suchman et al. (2002: 164) call ‘performative artefacts’ that establish
in the social realm the viability and possibilities of a nascent technology.
The performative aspects of prototypes are especially evident in diegetic
prototypes, because a film’s narrative structure contextualizes technologies
within the social sphere. Narratives in popular cinema require certainty from
their technological devices to move their stories forward. That is, of course,
unless a plot hinges upon technological uncertainty for dramatic purposes.
Even in these cases, however, the closure required by most popular movies
establishes certainty by the end of a film. So cinematic texts require tech-
nologies to work and provide utility to their users. Technological objects in
cinema are at once both completely artificial all aspects of their depiction
are controlled in production and normalized in their representation as
practical objects. Characters treat these technologies as a ‘natural’ part of
their landscape and interact with these prototypes as if they are everyday
parts of their world. For technologist Julian Bleecker (2004: vi), fictional
characters are ‘socializing’ technological artefacts by creating meanings for
the audience ‘which is tantamount to making the artifacts socially relevant’.
Thus, the supervening social necessities for potential technologies are estab-
lished as given within the framework of a popular film and are disseminated
to a large audience through the highly popular medium of cinema.
Joseph Corn’s and others’ studies on the ‘history of the future demon-
strate how visions of the future in popular culture have been a powerful force
in creating and framing the desire for technological advances (see, for exam-
ple, Corn, 1986; Corn & Horrigan, 1996). There is, in fact, a long tradition
of scholars charting the ways in which popular cultural representations,
including entertainment media such as cinema, have led to the production of
real technoscience (for example, Hayles, 1999). Studies examining space sci-
ence, in particular, have demonstrated how scientists, engineers and space
enthusiasts have used science fiction literature to promote, and secure fund-
ing for, space initiatives (Bainbridge, 1991; McCurdy, 1997; Penley, 1997;
Kilgore, 2003; Franklin, 2008).There has also been recent work done on the
use of science fiction tropes and imagery within non-fiction texts, such as
popular science books, magazines and documentaries, to promote the need
for and potential of an emerging technology (Milburn, 2002; Haran et al.,
2007; Mellor, 2007). These works all demonstrate the utility of speculative
narratives in promoting technoscientific agendas across a wide variety of
media. What separates out a diegetic prototype in cinema from other media
is its combination of a visual rhetoric along with narrative integration. No
matter how evocative a novel is in its descriptions and storytelling, it still lacks
the visual element that is at the heart of a diegetic prototype. Movies can show
audiences how a technology works, why it is safe and why they need it.
Despite numerous studies showing the importance and efficacy of sci-
ence and technology in entertainment media, there has been surprisingly
little academic attention paid to the production of these texts (for excep-
tions see, Frank, 2003; Kirby, 2003a, b). Cinematic texts are the sum total
of film-making and consulting decisions made during production. In this
essay, I acknowledge the agency of those who made these decisions by
Kirby: The Future is Now 45
examining the production context for entertainment media in order to
show how process impacts content. The cases that I report below of con-
sultants and film-makers using cinema to promote technological develop-
ment are located within a larger research project concerning the role that
scientists play in constructing cinematic texts and how such popularization
affects real world technoscientific culture.
The goal of this essay, then, is not to explain the development of med-
ical, computer or space technologies in cinema. Rather, its aim is to focus
on the social actions of film-makers and science consultants in order to
show specifically how they construct cinematic scenarios their diegetic
prototypes with an eye towards generating real-world funding opportuni-
ties and the ability to construct real-life prototypes. Diegetic prototypes dif-
fer substantially from what I term ‘speculative scenarios’ in movies, such as
manned missions to the centre of the Earth as in the film The Core (2003).
Speculative scenarios represent highly implausible and impractical situa-
tions and technologies that film-makers and science consultants imbue
with a sheen of plausibility, so that they look possible within a film’s narra-
tive. They make these technologies look plausible, knowing that they are
impossible to achieve in real life. In contrast, technological advocates who
construct diegetic prototypes have a vested interest in conveying to audi-
ences that these fictional technologies can and should exist in the real world.
In essence, they are creating ‘pre-product placements’ for technologies that
do not yet exist. Film-makers and science consultants craft diegetic proto-
types and enhance their realism by creating a full elaboration of the tech-
nological diegesis which includes any part of the fictional world concerning
the technology. Through their actions they construct a filmic realism that
implies self-consistency in both the real world and the story world.The cre-
ation of diegetic prototypes involves the inclusion of scenes that provide
opportunities to demonstrate this realism as well as positing a real world
need for the technology and the avoidance of scenes that would undermine
the technology or cast it as risky. Popular cinema, then, provides scientists,
engineers and technological entrepreneurs with the opportunity to pro-
mote visions of a shiny future in hopes that these visions will become self-
fulfilling prophecies.
Below I explore four cases of technological development in which diegetic
prototypes played a role in generating public excitement (and subsequent
governmental or corporate action) for moving these technologies from the
fictional into the real world. It should be mentioned that, although this
study moves across several historical ranges and changing cultural contexts,
the key point of the essay the use of film to visualize, and thus realize, spec-
ulative technologies holds across contexts. Cases were chosen to best
demonstrate how diegetic prototypes have been constructed for a broad range
of technologies that exhibit a range of real world obstacles to production.
I began the essay with the case of a medical technology that had already
been built, tested in animals and made ready to use, but which required
public willingness to allow human use because of ethical issues. In contrast,
non-medical technologies, such as virtual reality or data gloves pose few
46 Social Studies of Science 40/1
physical dangers to users, but incur huge financial risks to entrepreneurs
because of high development costs amid uncertainties about potential con-
sumer markets. What better way to generate market interest for a potential
technology than to demonstrate its potential in a popular movie? In The
Lawnmower Man (1992) and Minority Report (2001), diegetic prototypes
of embryonic computer-based technologies directly resulted in funding
opportunities and the ability to construct real-life prototypes. Audiences
could see with their own eyes ‘real’ people effortlessly interacting with
these futuristic computer technologies. But what if technologies have no
obvious social benefits, an extremely high price tag and high risk factors?
Technologies where the success or failure of development hinges upon
whether or not scientists garner public support? Such is the case for space
travel, which presents hard-to-define benefits alongside easily understood
challenges and risks. Therefore, I examine two ground-breaking space-
based films, Frau Im Mond [Woman in the Moon] (1929) and Destination
Moon (1950), which provided scientists and engineers with the opportunity
to create diegetic prototypes of rocket travel and promote visions of a shiny
outer space future that played a role in convincing the public that space
travel was essential.
Virtual ‘Virtual Reality’: Visualizing the Potential of
Computer-based Technologies
Technological entrepreneur and film director Brett Leonard created an
entire movie, The Lawnmower Man (1992), which highlighted the potential
of virtual reality (VR) and three-dimensional (3-D) interactive technolo-
gies. The horror aspects of the film certainly angered many VR proponents.
Especially scenes set within the virtual space where Jobe uses the technol-
ogy to try and take over all the world’s computers (see Fig. 1).Yet, the film’s
visuals were an important vehicle in promoting the potential of VR.
According to Leonard, his exposure to these embryonic computer tech-
nologies came through his integration into ‘the social network of digerati’
in northern California in the 1980s.
3
The financial success of his first film
The Dead Pit (1989) brought him to the attention of producers who owned
the rights to ‘a 7–10 page Stephen King short story called “The
Lawnmower Man” about a guy who telekinetically controls a lawnmower
to rip a guy apart’. As Leonard tells it, the minimalist nature of the source
material presented him with an opportunity to create a film based around
the VR technologies he had been discussing with digital pioneers such as
Jaron Lanier: ‘I told [the producers] “Well, I can’t really make an entire
movie out of this but I have this idea about something called virtual real-
ity.”’ So the King short story became a single scene in a larger narrative
involving VR technologies.
4
The film’s computer-generated visual effects served a dual purpose for
Leonard. First, the state-of-the-art computer graphics would be the film’s
major selling point. Second, the VR world inhabited by the film’s central
character, Jobe, would illustrate for the audience VR technology’s potential
Kirby: The Future is Now 47
applications in the real world. For Leonard, VR represented an extreme
example of the types of interactive technologies he was publicly promoting,
‘If you go back and read the profiles of that time, I was crying for a revo-
lution. I saw an end of passive media and the beginning of interactive
media. His goal for The Lawnmower Man was to create a modern ‘techno-
logical mythology’ featuring interactive technologies. According to
Leonard, a film director acts like a ‘tribal shaman’ who creates visions of
the future that can define a culture’s shared desires:
If you study the work of Joseph Campbell, in particular his book The
Mythic Image, you see that it presents a thesis of how visual, artistic and
visionary storytelling creations define for cultures what the future will be
because it creates this vision first. Cinema, because it is a visual story
telling modality, fits this notion very, very strongly. The feedback loop for
cinema is very quick and it is getting quicker all the time. So when I talk
about myth, I am talking about creating iconography for a new landscape.
That was one of the things that I was very focused on while creating the
visual style of The Lawnmower Man.
As part of this myth-making process he created a ‘narrative environment’
for The Lawnmower Man in which the technologies on display became a
natural part of the visual landscape in the film.
Leonard also understood that the inclusion of emerging but unknown
Internet technologies enhanced the plausibility of this elaborate diegetic pro-
totype. Through his social contacts he was able to discuss upcoming devel-
opments in digital technology with several people who were at the forefront
of computer science including Lanier, Nicholas Negroponte and Steve
48 Social Studies of Science 40/1
FIGURE 1
The Lawnmower Man took audiences for a ‘virtual reality’ ride as seen in this film still.
While the film was criticized for its horror elements, the film’s depictions of virtual real-
ity technology increased the public’s desire for their own virtual reality journeys
Wozniak. According to his production designer Alex McDowell, film-makers
also toured various computer companies, such as Sun Microsystems, and
talked to a number of computer scientists about recent developments in com-
puting technology. They were looking for nascent technologies that would
make the VR technology in the film seem more cutting edge and prescient:
I met some interesting people at Apple. It was pre- any public access to
web links or hyperlinks. I remember that the speed gleaning idea for Jobe
in the film, seeing him scan all this stuff, came from this meeting. I was
completely fascinated by this thing that is so commonplace now.
5
While the horror aspects of the film angered many VR proponents, the
film’s visuals were an important vehicle in promoting the potential of VR.
The film provided audiences with a VR ‘experience’ that contemporary VR
technologies could not. An Omni magazine article from 1992 captures this
sense of the film presenting an alluring vision of a VR future:
In the graphics scenes you will see what such worlds might look like in the
future. At present, most VR systems are fairly crude, but the technology is
developing extremely fast. According to David C. Traub, an immersion
computing expert from Centerpoint Communications who was a consult-
ant on the film, by ‘looking beyond the futuristic luster of these new toys
to the somewhat pained fantasies they often portray, The Lawnmower Man
will give us some powerful hints about what might be in store. (Wertheim,
1992)
The Lawnmower Man was a financial success with an estimated budget of $10
million and a worldwide box office take of $150 million. Leonard followed
up The Lawnmower Man with another VR-based film Virtuosity (1995).
As Leonard had hoped his cinematic depictions of VR technology cre-
ated a ‘modern myth’, which whet the public’s appetite for enhanced VR
and immersive entertainment technologies. The Lawnmower Mans success
was a key component in his ability to acquire the venture capital needed to
start L-Squared Entertainment where he could develop new interactive
entertainment technologies: ‘[L-Squared] came out of my success as a
young director on [The] Lawnmower Man and an acknowledgement of my
futurist talents. I was very much wanting to create a company to extrapo-
late off of those things both from an entrepreneurial level and on a creative
level. After Virtuosity Leonard began to create the types of interactive expe-
riences he hinted at in The Lawnmower Man including the first IMAX 3-D
movie T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) that Leonard believes:
was the closest thing to an amazing immersive virtual reality experience as
you could have in the context of a narrative. This work followed from my
previous work on Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity in a natural kind of pro-
gression both from the interactive side and the IMAX 3-D side.
For Leonard, then, this ‘immersive virtual reality experience’ was only pos-
sible because of his successful diegetic prototypes.
Kirby: The Future is Now 49
Computer engineer John Underkoffler’s engineering firm has also ben-
efited from his opportunity to create cinematic depictions of computer-
based technologies in films such as Aeon Flux (2005) and Iron Man (2008).
He has worked as a science consultant on several other high-profile films
including the Steven Spielberg technology-laden blockbuster Minority
Report (2001), starring Tom Cruise, which was based on the Philip K. Dick
short story ‘The Minority Report’. Underkoffler is well aware of cinema’s
ability to instil public desire to see the real-world development of fictional
technologies. In fact, he approaches every consulting opportunity with the
explicit goal of creating cinematic technologies that enter into the ‘techno-
logical imaginative vernacular’ of actual scientific discourse.
6
To do this,
Underkoffler treats his diegetic prototypes as if he were designing not only
physical prototypes but also real objects that become part of ‘everyday life’
in the diegesis.
Production designer Alex McDowell and prop master Jerry Moss
noticed Underkofflers dissertation work on interactive technologies during a
pre-production tour of MIT’s Media Lab where he had just completed a
PhD. They were impressed enough with his work and his knowledge of
movies to hire him as the primary science consultant on Minority Report a few
months later. Although Underkoffler was responsible for helping design all of
the technologies in Minority Report, his chief concern was the gesture-based
computer-interface technology that protagonist John Anderton uses to
manipulate computer data with his hands (see Fig. 2). Minority Report was a
golden opportunity for John Underkoffler to demonstrate to the public, and
potential funders, that not only would his gestural interface technology work,
but also that the technology would appear as if it were ‘natural’ and intuitive
for users.The important factor was that Underkoffler conscientiously treated
this cinematic representation as an actual prototype, ‘We worked so hard to
make the gestural interface in the film real. I really did approach the project
as if it were an R&D [research and development] thing.
The most successful cinematic technologies are taken for granted by
the characters in the diegesis, and thus, communicate to the audience that
these are not extraordinary but rather everyday technologies. These tech-
nologies not only appear normal while on the screen, but they also fit seam-
lessly into the entire diegetic world. In these cases audiences will accept as
true that characters still use these technologies even when they are off-
screen. Successful cinematic technologies conform to Lionel Trilling’s
(1972) notion of ‘sincerity’ in acting as the performance of not performing.
‘Technological sincerity’, then, means taking technological entities as part
of the film’s natural landscape. For Minority Report, this meant that the ges-
tural interface technology appeared to be something John Anderton has
used before it appeared on the screen and will use again even when the
camera is somewhere else. Yet, for audiences they do represent extraordi-
nary technologies because they do not exist in the real world. This means
that these cinematic technologies come across to audiences as both ordi-
nary and extraordinary.To achieve the sense of an extraordinary technology
appearing as ordinary within the diegetic space, Underkoffler established
50 Social Studies of Science 40/1
the gestural interface as a ‘self-consistent technological entity’ that adhered
not only to the rules of the diegetic world but also to its own internal logic
and the constraints of real-world computer technologies.
To achieve self-consistency, Underkoffler worked out an entire new
gestural language for his technology that he based on American interna-
tional sign language, SWAT team commands, air traffic control signals and
the Kodály hand system for musical notes. Although only a small fraction
of the language appears in the film, Underkoffler believed it was essential
to develop an entire system of commands and gestures. According to
Underkoffler, previous incorporations of a gestural interface into movies
were not formalized in any way:
The way a gestural interface normally happens in a film, like Johnny
Mnemonic (1995) that involves some suggestion of a gestural interface and
Paycheck (2003) with which I was indirectly involved, the way you usually
do that is the director says ‘Argh, just have the actor out there and wave
his hands around or her hands around and let the editor sort it out. And
the poor hapless editor is left with this task to piece together something.
The best you can do at that point is to make it spatially continuous and
consistent so that you can cut around and the same basic gestures are hap-
pening. But you cannot really put any meaning in at that point.
To make sure his diegetic prototype functioned appropriately and conveyed
a sense of internal consistency with established protocols for use, he cre-
ated training videos and manuals, and a dictionary of gestures. He worked
Kirby: The Future is Now 51
FIGURE 2
Police detective John Anderton uses science consultant John Underkoffler’s gestural
interface technology in a film still from Minority Report
extensively with Steven Spielberg, the actors and special effects technicians
before and during filming. For production purposes, Underkofflers com-
prehensiveness allowed actors to engage in improvisation work on set. In
terms of the technology’s cinematic realism, a completely worked out ges-
tural interface minimized the possibility of the types of logical inconsistency
that call attention to cinema’s constructed nature. In addition, a totally self-
consistent technology would convey to the audience that they could operate
this technology themselves:
The gestural interface has real narrative and technological consistency. I
think the lay audience look at the technology in the film and say, ‘Wow.
Okay, I see how that works. I think I could operate that myself in fact. I
learned how from the film. I bet I know what that gesture means, and I bet
I know what that command is. Somehow that technological consistency
has remained very, very resonant since the film came out.
Self-consistency of the gestural interface enhanced the film’s realism
but more importantly for Underkoffler it moved his technology into the
technological imaginative vernacular by making it appear that anyone could
operate the gestural interface.
In addition to fully working out a complete gestural language,
Underkoffler established the gestural interface as a ‘real’ technology in the
diegesis by acknowledging potential design flaws. ‘Perfection’ is a mistake
made with most cinematic depictions of technology, because it is a por-
trayal that does not mesh with most audience’s experiences. In the case of
the gestural interface, Underkoffler reasoned that the technology’s design
would make it incredibly sensitive to the user’s hand motions. Therefore,
the data on the computer screen would follow any hand movements, inten-
tional or otherwise. Underkoffler suggested to Steven Spielberg that he add
a scene to the film in which someone extends his hand to Anderton while
he is using the gestural interface. Anderton would instinctively move to
shake this person’s hand, and by doing so, he would shift all the data on the
screen into a corner. Underkoffler successfully conveyed to Spielberg that
rather than detracting from the technology’s realism, this flaw would add to
the believability because it highlighted the self-consistency of the technol-
ogy. Spielberg found the idea visually interesting and so he incorporated it.
This ‘flaw’ also served Underkoffler’s goal of convincing the public that his
technology could function in the real world. One concern with potential
gestural interface technologies is the possibility that they will not be
motion-sensitive enough to be considered useful. Thus, the ‘flaw’ in the
movie was not really a design flaw, Underkoffler meant for it to highlight
the fact that the technology worked too well.
In the end, Underkoffler’s diegetic prototype was extremely successful
on many fronts. His gestural interface quickly entered into the techno-
logical imaginative vernacular and has since become a focal point for dis-
cussions about interactive technologies. Underkoffler points out that,
‘A simple internet search will turn up dozens of academic projects and
products that identify themselves with or allude to the Minority Reports
52 Social Studies of Science 40/1
gestural interface technology. Underkoffler himself was able to generate
significant capital because of his diegetic prototype:
In the wake of Minority Report there have been countless approaches from
individuals, organizations, and companies that saw a piece of technology
in the film and want to know from Alex [McDowell] or me is that real?
Can we pay you to build it if it is not real? Chief among those technolo-
gies, of course, is the gestural interface.
These approaches led to the funds he needed to start the company Oblong
Industries and to turn his diegetic prototype into a physical prototype.
This real world prototype in turn led to a development contract with
defence giant Raytheon to produce gestural interface technology for the
US military.
7
From Underkoffler’s perspective, his work as science con-
sultant on Minority Report was not simply a minor component in this story;
his well-worked out diegetic prototype was the crucial element in the
development process.
Cinematic Test Rockets: Demonstrating Space Travel’s
Viability in Woman in the Moon
Diegetic prototypes can be particularly effective for technologies such as
space travel that have no obvious social benefits, an extremely high price
tag and high risk factors. Development of these technologies hinges
strongly upon whether or not scientists can garner significant public sup-
port. Director Fritz Lang hired the Romanian rocket scientist Hermann
Oberth, popular science writer Willy Ley, and the German Rocket Society
to serve as consultants/assistants for his film Woman in the Moon. On the
surface, the collaboration seemed a win–win situation. Lang created the sci-
ence fiction classic Metropolis in 1926 and was one of Germany’s greatest
cinematic artists. In addition to increasing scientific verisimilitude in his
film, Lang hoped that linking the well-known Oberth to his space-flight
film would add significant publicity value. Lang and the film’s production
company, the world-renowned Universum Film AG (Ufa), even commis-
sioned Oberth to build a 2 m gasoline–oxygen rocket to be launched as a
publicity stunt at the premiere of the motion picture.
8
For Oberth, a film by one of the world’s most famous film directors
provided a significant means for promoting the field of rocketry, especially
his own research on liquid-propellant rockets, to a worldwide audience
including potential financial backers. In addition, Oberth received vital
research funds from Ufa and Lang for his work on a test rocket. Ultimately,
Oberth’s work on the Lang film provided a significant boost for his scien-
tific research, improved his funding opportunities, and successfully pro-
moted rocketry to a wide audience.
Oberth was in need of research funding and experimental validation of
his ideas about liquid-propellant rockets since all of his work to this point
was theoretical. Essentially, Oberth was in a catch-22 situation that would
be familiar to any present day scientist who applies for funding through
Kirby: The Future is Now 53
granting agencies.The only way for Oberth to obtain funds for experimen-
tal research was to convince investors of the viability of his approach. Yet,
Oberth could only show the viability of his ideas by successfully firing a test
rocket and building that rocket, of course, required financing.
Although there were few channels for research funds in 1920s
Germany, there was enormous public excitement about rocketry and space
flight (Neufeld, 1990). The VfR was founded in 1927, in part to obtain
funding for Oberth’s research (Winter, 1983). Former palaeontologist
turned popular science writer Willy Ley was one of the founders of the VfR,
and its initial vice-president. Ley was an enthusiastic crusader for space
travel in general and for Oberth’s ideas in particular.While the VfR was able
to gather some capital through donations and membership fees, there was
still not enough money available for Oberth to pursue experiments to
demonstrate the feasibility of his liquid-propellant rockets.
Like many in the Weimar Republic, rockets and the possibility of space
travel fascinated Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou. Inspired by industri-
alist Fritz von Opel and Max Valier’s ‘rocket car’ experiments, von Harbou
published the novel Frau im Mond in 1928 which she and Lang adapted
into a screenplay. Before contacting Oberth, Lang initially approached
Valier about serving as science consultant on the film.
9
Valier seemed to be
the perfect choice; his rocket car experiments had inspired the screenplay
and Valier’s book DerVerstoss in den Weltraum [Breakthrough Into Space] was
immensely popular. Although Valier was an almost shameless promoter, he
did not see the promotional value in working on a fictional film and turned
down Lang’s offer. He felt he was better served by directly promoting his
ideas through the lecture circuit and traditional academic venues, and by
continuing with his rocket car experiments. Upon actually meeting Valier,
Lang also decided that he might not be the best on-set consultant because
‘he talks too much’. It was unfortunate for Valier, someone trying to pro-
mote visions of the future, to have so clearly underestimated the power of
cinema as a communication technology.
It was at this point that Fritz Lang approached Oberth about serving
as consultant during production of Woman in the Moon. Oberth’s acquain-
tance, cultural historian and writer Otto Folberth, recalled in an article in
1930 that Oberth was surprised by the offer of Ufa to be an advisor on
the rocket film Frau im Mond (quoted in Freeman, 1993: 43). Despite his
own positive experiences with the fictional novels of Jules Verne and H.G.
Wells, Oberth originally had misgivings about communicating the idea of
space travel through a fictional medium. He worried that rather than con-
veying the feasibility of space travel, the film would add to cartoonish
visions of space travel he had seen in other popular cultural portrayals. As
Folberth states, ‘Oberth had to overcome a number of misgivings before
he decided to accept the offer. For the newspapers, magazines, novels,
comic strips had already significantly compromised the scientific rigor of
the idea’ (quoted in Freeman, 1993: 43). Despite his misgivings, Oberth
accepted Lang’s invitation and moved to Berlin in Autumn 1928 to begin
work on the film.
54 Social Studies of Science 40/1
Willy Ley, whose popular 1928 book Die Möglichkeit der Weltraumfahrt
[The Feasibility of Interplanetary Travel] was also cited as a scientific source
by von Harbou, joined Oberth in Berlin to serve as astronomical science
consultant and write promotional articles for the film and the publicity
rocket. Unlike Oberth, Ley had no misgivings and he foresaw great pro-
motional possibilities in having Germany’s most famous director make a
movie on space travel. According to Ley:
The news that Fritz Lang was going to make a film on space travel was
very good news indeed. It is almost impossible to convey what magic that
name had in Germany at that time .... A Fritz Lang film on space travel,
consequently, meant a means of spreading the idea which could hardly be
surpassed in mass appeal and effectiveness. (Ley, 1968: 115–16)
Ley was hoping that Oberth’s diegetic prototype would galvanize public
support for governmental research funds. Although Lang constantly battled
with his consultants over depictions of the Moon, he gave Oberth wide lat-
itude in designing scenes featuring the rocket, its take-off and technical
details of its flight scenes. Oberth’s input included advice on a lengthy
scene featuring the movement of the rocket from a hangar into firing posi-
tion (see Fig. 3). A ‘Fritz Lang film’ had the added bonus of being a major
social event in Germany and invitations to the film’s premiere requested
‘tails or black-tie’.
10
This provided an opportunity to convey the message
directly to important and influential individuals who might actually have
the means to support rocket research:
Kirby: The Future is Now 55
FIGURE 3
For Oberth and Ley the take-off scene was the most crucial element of Woman in the
Moon. In this film still, the rocket is being moved into position for firing
The first showing of a Fritz Lang film was something for which there was
no equivalent anywhere as a social event.The audience it was an unwrit-
ten but rigid rule that one had to wear full evening dress, not just a dinner
jacket comprised literally everybody of importance in the realm of arts
and letters, with a heavy sprinkling of high government officials. It is not
an exaggeration to say that a sudden collapse of the theater building during
a Fritz Lang premiere would have deprived Germany of much of its intel-
lectual leadership at one blow. (Ley, 1947: 128–29)
Of course Ley and Oberth were counting on many potential funders to
attend the premiere of this particular Fritz Lang film. If done properly the
scenes of space travel could ‘demonstrate’ the feasibility of space travel suc-
cessfully enough to acquire funds for actual experiments. Thus, Oberth
treated the design of the fictional rocket and the trajectory as if he really
was designing a trip into space. Although Lang constantly battled with his
consultants over depictions of the Moon, he gave Oberth wide latitude in
designing scenes featuring the rocket, its take-off and technical details of its
flight scenes.
11
For Oberth, the opportunity to create depictions of rocket
travel in a Fritz Lang film outweighed any disappointment he may have felt
about the scientific accuracy of the Moon.
In conjunction with their film-making duties, Oberth and the VfR were
also constructing the publicity/test rocket. While the test rocket was nomi-
nally promotion for the film, Oberth, Ley and the VfR realized that the
rocket was as much about promoting the rocket itself as it was about pro-
moting the film. Moreover, Oberth and Ley saw a significant connection
between the film and the test rocket. Since Oberth designed the fictional
rocket his diegetic prototype based on his Model B liquid-fuel rocket,
then a successful rocket launch at the premiere would ultimately legitimate
the vision of space flight in the film. According to Ley (1947: 129), ‘The
idea was to say that this actual rocket represented the first step toward the
solution of the problem shown in the movie. In the end, Oberth envisioned
the launching of the test rocket at the premiere as a way for him to validate
the viability of the ideas that the audience was going to see on the screen.
By accepting Ufa and Lang’s offer of research funds Oberth commit-
ted himself to constructing and perfecting in less than 4 months a rocket
capable of soaring 90 km (50 miles) high. Unfortunately, Oberth’s previous
work consisted mainly of theoretical studies with few experiments.
According to Ley (1968: 115–16), ‘[Oberth] was the greatest authority on
rocket propulsion at that time, but he was a theorist, not an engineer. Four
months after construction had begun on the rocket, there was only a series
of explosions one almost blinded Oberth to show for Oberth’s efforts.
Fearing that failure to produce a much-publicized rocket would endanger
his reputation and call into question the feasibility of the liquid-fuel rocket,
he fled Berlin when he realized that he could not get a working model ready
in time for the film’s premiere (Ley, 1947: 135).
12
Despite Oberth’s failure in the real world, the diegetic lift-off that he
designed for the film was a complete success, since it visually and dramat-
ically communicated the possibilities of rocket travel to potential funders
56 Social Studies of Science 40/1
and government officials at the film’s premiere. According to Ley, the take-
off scene in the film achieved the goal of generating excitement in the pre-
miere audience about the potential of space travel:
There is without question no other scene, either on Earth or on the
Moon, that would have ruffled the poise of this cool, reserved, expert
audience these journalists, scholars, diplomats, men of affluence, and
film stars. In the face of these outstanding technical achievements, the
audience exploded. Electrified, carried away. The fiery jets of this film
rocket swept away their carefully prepared skepticism, indifference, and
satiety with the same speed with which the rocket raced across the screen,
giving their minds a small glimpse of the tremendous possibilities. (Ley,
quoted in Freeman, 1993: 47)
Film critics also acknowledged seeing the ‘tremendous possibilities’ in that
take-off scene. Despite overall mediocre reviews for the film, the take-off
and rocket scenes impressed film critics throughout the world including art
historian Rudolph Arnheim and French journalist Jean Arroy.
13
Other rocket scientists quickly recognized the film’s capacity to visually
render rocketry and show audiences technological ‘possibilities’, and they
used the take-off scene from Woman in the Moon as a promotional device and
a fundraising tool (Geppert, 2007). A NewYork Times report on the showing
of the take-off scene from Woman in the Moon at a 1931 fundraising event for
space research captures the essential elements of a diegetic prototype:
The moving picture graphically illustrated some of the amazing experi-
ences which travelers to the moon could expect. Last night’s spectators
watched it [footage from Woman in the Moon] as if it were a newsreel of an
actual happening today. (Anonymous, 1931)
Oberth and Lang certainly considered that a successful test rocket would
have been the primary means of publicizing their ideas.Yet, the film served
their purposes just as well. In the end Oberth’s virtual rocket his diegetic
prototype succeeded in ways that his test rocket could not. Like a
Latourian immutable mobile (Latour, 1986, 1990), the cinematic demon-
stration provided advantages missing from an actual demonstration; the
film was portable, repeatable, and larger than life. These advantages would
again prove critical as space travel appeared in cinema 20 years later dur-
ing the next big step in aerospace engineering: moving from rockets to
manned space travel.
Documentary of the Future: Space Travel as a Dire
Necessity in Destination Moon
Destination Moon reached theatres as the Cold War was heating up and pro-
pagandists in the US and the USSR were beginning to use technological
supremacy as a symbol of ideological correctness (see McCurdy, 1997;
McDougall, 1997). While the space-race was well underway scientifically by
1950, the public campaign started in earnest with the release of producer
Kirby: The Future is Now 57
George Pal’s documentary-like film about a privately financed trip to the
moon, Destination Moon.The film’s financial and critical success launched a
long-lasting space film cycle that was bookended in 1968 by director Stanley
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Producer George Pal was indeed inter-
ested in rocketry and considered Destination Moon a ‘documentary of the
near future’ (Pal, quoted in Hickman, 1977: 42). Like all film-makers, Pal
was most interested in making money, but he hoped that the film would be
useful in promoting space travel to the public.The future of space travel was
certainly of critical concern to the numerous scientists (astronomer Robert
S. Richardson, rocket scientist Werner Von Braun and physicist Robert
Cornog, among many others) and scientific experts (artist Chesley
Bonestell, science popularizer Willy Ley and writer Robert Heinlein) who
assisted film-makers during the construction of the film.
14
Destination Moon
highlights cinema’s power as a persuasive tool for those with an ideological,
financial or research stake in promoting space travel and who had the capa-
bility to significantly influence the film’s visual and narrative construction.
I will focus on Destination Moons initial scriptwriter and main science
consultant, science fiction author and former US navy engineer Robert A.
Heinlein, who also wrote the 1947 book on which the film was nominally
based, Rocketship Galileo (Heinlein, 1950[1947]). Using Heinlein I will
show that his role in constructing this ‘documentary of the future’ went well
beyond technical recommendations. Whereas Herman Oberth was initially
reluctant to lend his scientific credibility to a fictional film, Heinlein envi-
sioned the film as a major opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility of and
the need for rocket travel to the American public. Also unlike Oberth,
Heinlein was not looking to acquire research funds. He was, however, a
strong advocate for developing rocket travel in America. He held member-
ship in several rocket societies, such as the Pacific Rocket Society, and had
published several short stories and novels based on space travel. Although
he received financial compensation for his script and his technical assis-
tance, the film provided him an opportunity to advocate not only ideas
about the viability of space flight itself but also to visually explicate the rea-
sons for going into space. In fact, this one technology advocate fundamen-
tally created a new genre the space film. Before Destination Moon there
were no preconceived expectations of what a space movie should look like.
Heinlein’s influence over the look of Destination Moon, his emphasis on
realism and believability, and his anxiety about beating the Soviets into
space shaped this new genre for the next 20 years.
According to Heinlein, the key to the film’s rhetorical power was its
adherence to scientific veracity, and his correspondence shows a consistent
insistence that the film-makers approach the film as if they were planning a
real trip to the Moon. Based on his archival material, I would argue that
Heinlein had multiple reasons for insisting upon verisimilitude, all of which
were in line with his belief that cinema was a legitimate and powerful means
for promoting a vision of space travel. First, as a ‘hard science fiction author
Heinlein thought it would be intellectually dishonest to make a space-based
fictional text and disregard scientific accuracy.
15
In addition, he felt that it
58 Social Studies of Science 40/1
would be deceitful of the film-makers to publicize the film as ‘realistic’ if
they did not make a sincere effort to adhere to scientific principles.
16
Fundamentally, Heinlein believed that scientific realism was the key to
the film’s box-office success something film-makers and financial backers
wanted to hear. Heinlein conveyed his belief in realism’s box office benefit
through various memos and letters:
If people believe in our picture emotionally, accept it as real while they
are seeing it, it will be a success a box office success. Those who see
it will tell others what a wonderful, thrilling, out-of-this-world experience
it was My dear, you have no idea! They actually made you feel that you
were on the Moon!’
17
Heinlein also recognized that a scientifically accurate film would generate
significant positive publicity within scientific circles and that it would be a
picture ‘the New York Times science editor would praise and that scien-
tists would commend publicly’. He also worried that an unrealistic film
would lead to negative publicity from scientists and teenage audiences
because he ‘knows what the “hep kids in the first six rows” like’. Box office
success meant that the largest possible audience would witness Heinlein’s
diegetic prototype.
For Heinlein, accurate representations spoke for themselves. A scien-
tifically accurate film was ‘truthful’, thus; it was a legitimate promotional
tool and not propaganda. As an ardent anti-communist and staunch liber-
tarian, Heinlein was sensitive to the charge of sloganeering and propagan-
dizing. Despite the fact that the film reeks of propaganda to present-day
viewers, he believed at the time that the film’s message was subtle. Heinlein
was adamant that ‘reality’ was the key to political transparency. He warns
film-makers on several occasions that the ‘one purpose of this picture is to
show what free men and free enterprise can do but such an effect can
never be achieved by blatant propaganda. It must be handled gently.
Specifically, we must not say it, we must show it.
Space travel on the screen had to be based on ‘genuine’ science and
engineering; not science in the service of political motives. The only way an
audience would support space endeavours was if the audience believed that
the space flight in the film was actually possible.
Heinlein felt that audiences could ‘sense’ when something was authen-
tic. Therefore, he approached the making of the film as if he were model-
ling an actual trip to the Moon. Like Underkoffler, Oberth and other
successful science consultants, Heinlein approached this film project with
the attitude that the film’s fictional nature was irrelevant. Heinlein’s
archival material contains dozens of pages of hand calculations for every
technical aspect of the cinematic space flight including the mass-ratio, jet
speed, trajectory times and the fuel requirements. As he explained ‘none of
these calculations would appear on screen but the results do’ (Heinlein,
1992 [1950]: 129). Similar to Hermann Oberth, he viewed the most cru-
cial aspect of the film as the technical detail of the take-off, flight and land-
ing on the Moon. Heinlein was so concerned about these scenes that he
Kirby: The Future is Now 59
generated a lengthy letter to the George Pal and production supervisor
Martin Eisenberg entitled ‘The Care and Feeding of Spaceships’, which
was to provide them with technical details ‘in case I should be hit by a taxi,
go to jail, or otherwise be unavailable’.
18
He complained during James
O’Hanlon’s script re-write that he ‘was assured repeatedly that the part of
the picture from takeoff to the end had not and would not be tampered
with’. As with Oberth, Heinlein believed that the reputation of space flight
as a serious scientific endeavour was at stake and he could not afford
for the film to be sloppy or lenient with the technical details. Unlike
Underkoffler, Heinlein could not afford to let any technical ‘flaws’ appear
in the film, even ones that could add to the technology’s realism.
Despite believing that these technical details would ‘feel’ authentic,
Heinlein was concerned that audiences would not grasp the scientific prin-
ciples well enough to actually believe the cinematic trip to the Moon was
‘authentic’. His initial script treatment contains side notes to co-screen-
writer Rip Van Ronkel expressing this concern:
I have a mild fear that, in attempting to maintain good story and strong
drama, we may be skipping over explanations necessary in understanding
the issues on which our drama is based. In a Western, one does not have to
explain steers, revolvers, lariats, nor branding irons whereas we are prac-
tically forced to explain acceleration, reaction, planet vs. star, vacuum, free
flight, et cetera ad nauseam. Sad but true.
19
(emphasis in original)
To quickly educate the audience on complex technical principels, Heinlein
recommended several didactic elements, which while common now, were
groundbreaking at the time including expository dialogue, lecture scenes
and, most famously, the use of a Woody Woodpecker ‘animated movie’, all
of which appeared in the final film (see Fig. 4).
20
The studio did not immediately embrace Heinleins commitment to film
realism. At the time, cowboys and musicals sold movies seats; not science lec-
tures. The film-makers hired veteran script doctor James O’Hanlon to add
elements with box office appeal. O’Hanlon radically altered Heinlein and Rip
Van Ronkels original screenplay by adding several sure fire movie staples of
the period, including comedy, musical interludes and cowboys. The film’s
financial backers, including N. Peter Rathvon, preferred O’Hanlons version
of the script because it included elements they knew would make it prof-
itable. Heinlein was furious when he saw the O’Hanlon re-write. He spent
‘five days of unrelenting toil’ composing a memo that he fired off to Rathvon
and George Pal. He rants that their profit motives would be better served by
spending money on the rocket and special effects. He tells them that in this
script their money is needlessly spent on extraneous elements ‘at the expense
of that part of the picture on which it was agreed that money would be spent,
to wit, the special effects needed to give it authenticity. We skimp the space
ship to put in a dude ranch, a horse, a barbeque pit!’
21
Heinlein’s lengthy memo is a scathing critique of the script. While he
points out the script’s factual inaccuracies, he aims most of his criticisms
at the additions of fantastical elements to the plot, such as the singing
60 Social Studies of Science 40/1
cowboys. He knew that these clearly fictional elements would, by proxim-
ity, cast doubt upon the legitimacy of the cinematic space flight. The addi-
tion of a musical interlude, for example, created too great a disconnection
from the real world and thus threatened the believability of the space flight.
He complains, ‘We put the audience into a musical comedy farce mood,
where anything goes, when we are about to try and get them to believe in
a trip to the Moon.
22
He also understood that any money budgeted
towards barbeque pits and dude ranches would detract from the money
allocated to the space trip itself. In a later memo Heinlein sums up his
belief that the audience’s acceptance of the space flight scenario depended
on their buying into the entire film:
There is to my mind, a basic criterion which should be axiomatic in deal-
ing with this picture: if the audience believes emotionally that they are
making a trip to the Moon while they are seeing this picture, the picture
will be a success, financially and other ways. If they don’t, we’re a flop.
23
Heinlein successfully argued for the removal of every fantastical element.
His strong comments as science consultant wiped out an entire script
which the film’s funders were keen on producing. Ultimately, the final film-
ing script looked nothing like the O’Hanlon script because the director
‘removed practically every objection I had to its predecessor’.
24
Even if the technical details were completely accurate, Heinlein under-
stood that the film would not be successful as a promotional tool for
Kirby: The Future is Now 61
FIGURE 4
Heinlein recommended that film-makers incorporate several didactic elements in
Destination Moon to explain complex ideas to the audience, such as through a
Woody Woodpecker cartoon as seen in this film still
rocketry research unless it engaged the audience at every level. Heinlein
influenced the narrative so as to remove elements that portrayed the trip as
risky, such as a meteor shower originally in the O’Hanlon script.
25
He was
also able to enhance narrative elements to make the Moon trip appear to
be a necessary and highly desirable future. He inserted dialogue that pro-
vided several justifications why a trip to the Moon would be advantageous
including mineral deposits, scientific progress, and industrial patents. Most
importantly, Heinlein believed that a trip to the Moon was essential for mil-
itary reasons and his dialogue became part of the national rhetoric of the
era.
26
In one scene, the General tells a group of industrialists that it is a
matter of national security for America to be the first on the Moon:
The reason is quite simple. We are not the only ones who know that the
Moon can be reached. We’re not the only ones who are planning to go
there.The race is on, and we’d better win it, because there is absolutely no
way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the
Moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentle-
men, is the most important military fact of this century.
Publicity material for the film also highlighted the military necessity of a
Moon trip with several articles addressing the topic including one entitled
‘Must America Engage in a Race to the Moon in Self-defense?’
27
The film’s
meticulously constructed diegetic prototype effectively enhanced Heinleins
cinematic argument about the Moon’s military importance. If the film could
convince American audiences that their scientists could make it to the Moon,
it also needed to convince them that America’s enemies could as well.
Judging from reviews of the film, Heinlein was successful in conveying
both the excitement of space travel and its military necessity.
28
Bosley
Crowther (1950) of the New York Times, for example, states, ‘They make a
lunar expedition a most intriguing and picturesque event. Crowther also
singles out the military rhetoric as particularly convincing, claiming, ‘It is
arresting to hear an eloquent scientist proclaim that the first nation which
can use the moon for launching missiles will control the earth. The inter-
vention of real-world events heightened the effectiveness of the film’s rhet-
oric. As if to underscore Heinlein’s argument, the 1950 adaptation of
Destination Moon on NBC’s radio program Dimension X was actually inter-
rupted by a news bulletin stating that North Korea had just invaded South
Korea.
29
Not only were communists on our doorstep, they were threaten-
ing to invade the heavens as well.
Despite Heinlein’s belief that his film was legitimate promotion of space
flight, it was certainly viewed as propaganda by the Soviets who considered
Destination Moon and subsequent space-based films such as When Worlds
Collide (1951) and Red Planet Mars (1952) as attempts to scare Americans
into space. One Soviet journalist even claimed that the American
Department of Defense created the films in order to ‘propagandize the idea
of conquering the universe’ (Anonymous, 1954). Of course, Heinlein was
correct in stating that Soviet scientists also were aiming for the Moon. It was
62 Social Studies of Science 40/1
not just American scientists who understood cinema’s rhetorical power.
Futuristic Soviet space films such as Planeta Bur [Cosmonauts on Venus]
(1962) employed several science consultants, including astrophysicist
Aleksandr Vladimirovich Markov. While a film such as Doroga k Zvezdam
[Road to the Stars] (1958) inspired Soviet audiences with its depictions of
colonies on the Moon and Mars, these same scenes caused ‘heavy breath-
ing’ among American audiences (Thompson, 1958). One audience’s shiny
spaceship future is another audience’s impending doom.
Diegetic Prototypes After the Moon: Missions to Mars
and Beyond in Cinema
It is tempting to view the experiences of Hermann Oberth, Robert Heinlein
and others on these space-based films as relics of a bygone era where film-
making was a much simpler process. Such a view would not only be igno-
rant of film-making’s history, it would also discount the fact that scientists
still promote space travel through cinema. From 1920 when Robert
Goddard advised Max Fleischer on the combination animation–live action
short movie All Aboard for the Moon to NASA’s involvement in recent films
such as Space Cowboys (2000) and Sunshine (2007), scientists and film-
makers have worked on space travel films for more than 80 years as a means
of promoting outer space futures.
Even with space travel successes in the 1960s, culminating with the
moon landing in 1969, scientists still considered fictional films as a useful
vehicle for popularizing space ventures. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a classic
example of cinema creating expectations for space travel, as well as other
technologies, with more than 65 private companies, government agencies,
universities and research institutions providing free advice and material
objects for the opportunity of shaping technological visions in a highly
anticipated film about the future. They happily shared information on
future designs for the chance to have ‘pre-product placements’ which estab-
lished their brand as ‘futuristic’ in this high profile film.
The film created with the assistance of scientists, engineers and futur-
ists contextualized space travel for audiences in the same manner that
Fritz Lange’s Woman in the Moon (1929) and George Pal’s Destination Moon
(1950) had done in previous eras. Unlike those two films, however, 2001
did not establish the technological capabilities and societal necessity of
space travel. Manned space flights had been taking place since 1961. What
2001 did was contextualize for audiences the cultural and social potential
of space travel. 2001s vision of space travel with its space stations, trans-
port shuttles to the Moon and interplanetary space ships is still influential
(McCurdy, 1997).
Outside of an institutional context, diegetic prototypes can still help indi-
vidual scientists involved in space science. The Disney film Mission to Mars
(2000) served as a high profile platform for Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct
plan (Kirby, 2003a).There is no obvious reason to spend public money on a
Kirby: The Future is Now 63
clearly risky manned mission to Mars. Film-makers brought in physicist
Robert Zubrin, president of the engineering firm Pioneer Astronautics and
founder and president of the Mars Society, to help them design a ‘plausible’
plan for colonizing Mars. The filmmakers also used his book as a model for
the mission and several scenes of the colonization modules appear as near
identical to images from Zubrin’s book (see Fig. 5). Given the incredible
expense involved in developing space-based technologies, Mission to Mars
was the most effective form of advocacy Robert Zubrin could have hoped for.
Not only was Zubrin paid for the rights to develop a cinematic version of his
Mars Direct plan, he also received all the advantages associated a diegetic
prototype. He was able to demonstrate to the public and other scientists that
a trip to Mars was desirable and that his Mars Direct plan could work suc-
cessfully without serious incident. As with Underkoffler, Oberth and
Heinlein, Zubrin gained these benefits because he took his diegetic prototype
seriously and planned it as if it were a real, not fictional, space trip.
Conclusions: Technological Development, Diegetic
Prototypes and Happy Endings
In her influential study of science fiction films and American culture,
Screening Science, Vivian Sobchack (1987) regards space films of the 1950s
as a form of technology worship. According to Sobchack (1987: 69–70),
films such as Destination Moon and WhenWorlds Collide (1951) ‘visually cel-
ebrate the spaceship and dwell on its surfaces with a caressive photographic
64 Social Studies of Science 40/1
FIGURE 5
This film still from Mission to Mars looks remarkably similar to an illustration from
Robert Zubrin’s (1996) book The Case For Mars
wonder which precludes any ambiguous interpretation of its essential
worth’. Sobchack singles out Conquest of Space (1955) ‘with its lavish treat-
ment of takeoffs, maneuverings, and landings as a particularly blatant form
of technological worship (p. 70), but she overlooks the fact that it is not only
film-makers who are worshipping at this altar. Conquest of Spaces science
consultants, including Chesley Bonestell, Robert Richardson and Werner
Von Braun, significantly helped in creating these take-off and landing scenes
because they had an enormous stake in establishing the ‘essential worth’ of
space travel. Movies have provided many film-makers and scientists with the
opportunity to create diegetic prototypes establishing the necessity, viability
and minimization of risk associated with space travel.
These films then served as promotional tools for other scientists and sci-
entific organizations who used the films, or at least the technical parts, to
bolster their own lectures. Such public showings offered the public glimpses
of a future that could happen. Hermann Oberth and the VfR were so suc-
cessful in creating a sense of future possibilities that film stills from Woman
in the Moon were routinely used as illustrations in journals and magazines
until the 1950s (Geppert, 2007). Film footage was also spliced into several
research films, and one such film was shown by the British Interplanetary
Society in the War Office at Whitehall (Gatland, 1948, 1950). Likewise,
it is telling that the only two films shown at the ground-breaking First
International Astronautical Congress in Paris in 1950 were a film of V-2
launches at the White Sands missile range and Destination Moon.
30
These
films gave the collected experts a vision of the present state of rocketry and
a vision of where they wanted rocketry to be in the future. We have ample
evidence from social studies of science and technology that space travel films
made a difference; they were extremely successful in exciting the public and
other scientists about the possibility of space travel (see, for example,
Neufeld, 1990; Bainbridge, 1991; Freeman, 1993; McCurdy, 1997; Penley,
1997; Billings, 2007; Geppert, 2007; Franklin, 2008; Telotte, 2008).
The utility of the diegetic prototype may be most evident through
space films, but their advantages are certainly not limited to this technol-
ogy. Brett Leonard and John Underkoffler’s diegetic prototypes of embry-
onic computer-based technologies directly resulted in funding
opportunities and the ability to construct real-life prototypes. Audiences
could see with their own eyes ‘real’ people effortlessly interacting with these
futuristic computer technologies in The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity,
Minority Report, Paycheck, Iron Man and other computer-based films.
Underkoffler, in fact, felt that the potential of cinema for technological
development should be brought into the scientific and design community.
After Minority Report Underkoffler and Production Designer Alex
McDowell helped to form an organization called MATTER Art and
Science, whose objective is to transfer the creative methods of cinema into
scientific and engineering work. For MATTER Art and Science every
potential technology should be treated as a diegetic prototype. This allows
them to map out the social, political, economic and practical possibilities of
a technology before it is even considered for development.
Kirby: The Future is Now 65
The presentation of science within the cinematic framework can con-
vince audiences of the validity of ideas and create public excitement about
nascent technologies. Fiction’s lack of constraints and film-makers’ creative
assistance provides an open, ‘free’ space to put forward speculative concep-
tualizations; it also embeds these speculations within a narrative that treats
these ideas as already actualized within a social context.The key to cinematic
diegetic prototypes is that they allow scientists and film-makers to visualize
specific methods and technologies within the social realm of the fictional
world. Film-makers and/or scientists can use the narrative and visual frame-
work of cinema to contextualize and model potential futures for their partic-
ular technology whether it be medical, computer or space-based. Cinema
provided an ideal vehicle for establishing a technology’s necessity, its viability
and its benevolence within society. It is Robert Jarvik’s artificial heart func-
tioning perfectly on the screen, Brett Leonard’s and John Underkoffler’s
computer-based technologies, and Hermann Oberth’s and Robert Heinlein’s
visions of space travel. Disney’s Touchstone Pictures provided Robert Zubrin
with the opportunity to show the public that his Mars Direct plan could work
and the narrative provided reasons why the public should want it to work. For
any science consultant who is trying to get funding for their un-developed
technology diegetic prototypes allow for ‘happy endings’.
Notes
I want to thank audiences and commentators at the 2007 Science and the Public
Conference and the 2008 Society for History of Technology (SHOT) Conference for helpful
comments. I also wish thank James Sumner, Jeff Hughes, Ray Macauley, Paul Marshall
and other members of the History of the Physical Sciences and Technology reading group
at the University of Manchester for useful feedback. Three anonymous reviewers provided
invaluable suggestions, which have improved the work substantially. A debt of gratitude
is particularly owed to Laura Gaither, who read and commented on many versions of
this manuscript.
1. James Cameron’s speech to the Mars Society can be found at <www.spaceforum.com/
articles/Cameron_Mars.doc> (accessed 22 April 2009).
2. On the concept of virtual witnessing see Shapin and Schaffer (1985).
3. All quotes from Brett Leonard come from Brett Leonard, phone interview by David
Kirby, 8 February 2009.
4. For the producers it was crucial to maintain a tie to the original story so they could use
Stephen King’s name in publicity. The official title of the film was Stephen King’s The
Lawnmower Man and King’s name was used heavily in marketing the film. King
unsuccessfully sued to have his name removed from the film (see Winteringham, 1994).
5. All quotes from Alex McDowell come from Alex McDowell, interview by David Kirby,
London, UK, 17 January 2005.
6. All quotes from John Underkoffler come from John Underkoffler, interview by David
Kirby, Los Angeles, CA, 25 March 2005. In addition to his work on the interactive
technologies Underkoffler was also responsible for developing the ‘predictive
surveillance’ technologies depicted in the film. According to Underkoffler, many of
these technologies have advanced further than what was predicted in the film, which for
him represents a disturbing development:
We have a lot of biometric stuff and iris scanners in the film. It turns out that iris
scanning is a lot more reliable than retina scanning. Officially speaking our Minority
Report scanners were iris scanners. Unfortunately, the US in particular, especially in
66 Social Studies of Science 40/1
the wake of 9/11, is starting to veer towards the panopticon society depicted in the
film. So, the film accidently became really, really prescient. In the movie the notion
was that this was by virtue of out of control consumerism.There was a desire on the
part of vendors and manufacturers to track one’s every move so that you could be
appropriately advertised to. Instead in the name of security we are seeing the same
kinds of civil liberties dissolving. Still, in that case that stuff is happening much
faster than we said in the film.
Despite its role in influencing the development of these technologies, Minority Report
ultimately conveys the same cautionary message shared by much of science fiction
cinema by warning against excessive trust in technology.
7. There are several news accounts of Raytheon’s acquisition of this technology (see, for
example, Karp, 2005). Underkoffler’s real-world prototype can be seen in CNN’s
coverage of the technology. Available at <www.g-speak.com/press/cnn-gspeak-
19apr2005.avi> (accessed 22 April 2009).
8. See Ufa Press Release (1929), ‘Die Ufa Meldet’, 21 September, in the Willy Ley Papers,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC.
9. Information and quotes in this paragraph come from an undated manuscript in which
Willy Ley recounts the making of the film. Willy Ley (date unknown) ‘Frau Im Mond,
A Film by Fritz Lang’, in the Willy Ley Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives,
Washington, DC.
10. Quoted in Ufa Invitation (1929) ‘Ufa Programm Frau Im Mond’, 15 October, in the
Willy Ley Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC.
11. See Ley, Willy (date unknown) ‘Frau Im Mond, A Film by Fritz Lang’, in the Willy Ley
Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC.
12. Ley indicates that Oberth returned to Berlin for the World Premiere of the film on
15 October 1929.
13. Summaries of film reviews can be found in Kaplan (1981). Most reviewers dismissed
the story as fluff but all were impressed with the technology on display.
14. Several scholars mistakenly attribute the film’s science consulting to Hermann Oberth
(see, for example, Frayling, 2005 and Vieth, 2001). Oberth was living in Switzerland
and Italy in 1949–1950 and did not work on the film.
15. For example, in one memo he tells film-makers that good storytelling requires scientific
authenticity, saying that ‘there is a way to please the overwhelming majority by telling
an honest story honestly, by being careful of little details, by not assuming that the
audience is too dumb to catch you when you pull a phony on them’. Robert A. Heinlein
(1949) ‘Critique of the James O’Hanlon Script’, Memorandum from Robert A.
Heinlein to producer George Pal and financier N. Peter Rathvon, 18 September in the
Robert A Heinlein Archive, University of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, Special
Collections, Box 19.
16. Heinlein emphasizes in several memos that the film can benefit from his publicity
contacts but only if it is scientifically authentic. In one case he tells Pal and Rathvon
that his book publisher is willing to promote the film ‘provided it maintains the same
high standards of technical accuracy as do my books. The proviso is important. Robert
A. Heinlein (1949) ‘The Care and Feeding of Spaceships’, Memorandum from Robert
A. Heinlein to producer George Pal and production supervisor Martin Eisenberg, 30
September in the Robert A Heinlein Archive, University of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz,
CA, Special Collections, Box 19.
17. All quotes in this and subsequent paragraph come from Robert A. Heinlein (1949)
‘Critique of the James O’Hanlon Script’.
18. This and subsequent quote from Robert A. Heinlein (1949) ‘The Care and Feeding of
Spaceships’.
19. Quoted in Robert A. Heinlein (1948) ‘Initial Script Treatment for Operation: Moon’, in
the Robert A. Heinlein Archive, University of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, Special
Collections, Box 19.
20. Heinlein had suggested the use of Elmer Fudd and Buck Rogers, but George Pal was a
personal friend of Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker.
Kirby: The Future is Now 67
21. Quoted in Robert A. Heinlein (1949) ‘Critique of the James O’Hanlon Script’.
22. Ibid.
23. Quoted in Heinlein (1949) ‘The Care and Feeding of Spaceships’.
24. Ibid.
25. Heinlein worried that such a scene would overstate the likelihood of a meteor hitting a
spaceship while it was on the Moon: ‘This is a question of probability. It could happen
but it is just as likely as the possibility that a meteor will hit your parked car and keep you
from going home tonight (Heinlein [1949] ‘Critique of the James O’Hanlon Script’).
26. Heinlein believed that the military argument for developing space travel was so essential
that he fought throughout the production to keep this dialogue in the screenplay.
A letter from his collaborator Rip Van Ronkel shows how one potential financier was
concerned about how this dialogue would go over in foreign markets: ‘Pal’s oil company
contact out here insisted that his company would not go for the war stuff nor would
they ever accept even veiled references to Russia’ (emphasis in original). Alford Van
Ronkel (1949) ‘Letter to R.A. Heinlein’, 15 February, in the Robert A Heinlein Archive,
University of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, Special Collections, Box 19. Although the
military angle survived through several script revisions, Heinlein continually found
himself arguing for the importance of this dialogue. In one instance, he responds to a
producer’s concern that the Russians may not respond well to the inclusion of this
dialogue by arguing, I think the military angle is important and I think it is too late to
worry about what Russia thinks about it’ (emphasis in original). Heinlein (1949)
‘Critique of the James O’Hanlon Script’.
27. See George Pal Productions (1950) ‘Must America Engage in a Race to the Moon in
Self-Defense?’, Facts About Destination Moon, press kit, in the George Pal Papers,
UCLA, Arts Library Special Collections, Los Angeles, CA, Box 1.
28. Heinlein was clearly correct about realism selling the picture. Destination Moon was on
the NewYork Times’ ten best pictures of 1950 and it was the third highest grossing film
of 1950.
29. The radio adaptation was broadcast on 24 June 1950.
30. See Eric Burgess (1997) ‘Paris, 1950, First International Astronautical Congress’, from
the Record of the Formation and First Decade of the International Astronautical
Federation and its Annual Congresses. CD in the Eric Burgess papers, Manchester, UK.
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David A. Kirby was a practicing evolutionary geneticist before leaving
bench science to become Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the
University of Manchester. Several of his publications address the relationship
between cinema, genetics and biotechnology including essays in New
Literary History, Literature and Medicine, and Science Fiction Studies. He is
also exploring the collaboration between scientists and the entertainment
industry with publications in Social Studies of Science and Public
Understanding of Science. He has just completed a book manuscript on the
subject of science consultants in Hollywood entitled Lab Coats in Hollywood:
Scientists’ Impact on Cinema, Cinema’s Impact on Science and Technology.
Address: Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine,
University of Manchester, Simon Building, Manchester M16 9WD, UK;
e-mail: david.kirby@manchester.ac.uk
70 Social Studies of Science 40/1
... Sterling [71] frames design fiction as a marriage of science-fiction literature and industrial product design, which should address the inabilities of both to "imagine effectively." Kirby [48] has described the relationship between science-fiction cinema and design. Design in service of cinema produces "diegetic prototypes," objects that function within a film's story world. ...
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Boyle argued for a new epistemology, of the "matter of fact" that could be shown by experiment. The experiment would be witnessed, or virtually witnessed, by credible persons. Causes would not be sought beyond certain boundaries, but matters of fact could be attained. This new natural philosophy was opposed by Hobbes who has historically been eliminated from the story as the loser. But he attacked Boyle on attackable points - the imperfections of instruments (the air pump), and the lack of public space surrounding an experiment. In the aftermath of the English Civil War, as people were groping for new forms of political order, Robert Boyle built an air-pump to do experiments. Does the story of Roundheads and Restoration have something to do with the origins of experimental science? Schaffer and Shapin believed it does. Focusing on the debates between Boyle and his archcritic Thomas Hobbes over the air-pump, the authors proposed that "solutions to the problem of knowledge are solutions to the problem of social order." Both Boyle and Hobbes were looking for ways of establishing knowledge that did not decay into ad hominem attacks and political division. Boyle proposed the experiment as cure. He argued that facts should be manufactured by machines like the air-pump so that gentlemen could witness the experiments and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on. Hobbes, by contrast, looked for natural law and viewed experiments as the artificial, unreliable products of an exclusive guild. The new approaches taken in Leviathan and the Air-Pump have been enormously influential on historical studies of science. Shapin and Schaffer found a moment of scientific revolution and showed how key scientific givens--facts, interpretations, experiment, truth--were fundamental to a new political order. Shapin and Schaffer were also innovative in their ethnographic approach. Attempting to understand the work habits, rituals, and social structures of a remote, unfamiliar group, they argued that politics were tied up in what scientists did, rather than what they said. [Megan, STS 901-Fall 2006]