Digital Complexity

 Join us for a lecture by Oliver Gaycken (Department of English, University of Maryland) on the new artistry of special effects and computer generated imagery in contemporary cinema and media.

Digital Complexity: On the Circulation of Special Effects

Wednesday, April 4, 2017, 1 pm at 228 Battelle-Tompkins Hall


One of the most venerable Hollywood institutions is named the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But science is rarely in the forefront of discussions of the movie industry, featuring only occasionally and then usually in reductive discussions of whether films have gotten their science “right.” The confluence of the cultures of science and entertainment nonetheless offers a wide range of topics for investigation. This talk will consider the transformations within filmmaking as the sciences traditionally associated with motion-picture industry—optics, photochemistry—have given way to the sciences of digital imaging. Gaycken will focus on a certain type of scientific object, the scientific visualization, and its transit between laboratory and special-effects studio. The history of how these visualization techniques were adopted by the entertainment industry attests to a greater proximity between the cultures of science and entertainment in the age of digital technologies. In particular, Gaycken will share his investigation of “swarming” algorithms, which originated in the study of such complex natural systems as bird flocks and insect swarms, and which have become a prominent feature of effects-heavy science-fiction and fantasy films. 


About our speaker

Oliver Gaycken received his BA in English from Princeton University and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He previously has taught at York University (Toronto) and Temple University. His teaching interests include silent-era cinema history, the history of popular science, and the links between scientific and experimental cinema. He has published on the discovery of the ophthalmoscope, the flourishing of the popular science film in France at the turn of the 1910s, the figure of the supercriminal in Louis Feuillade’s serial films, and the surrealist fascination with popular scientific images. His book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, appeared with Oxford University Press in the spring of 2015.



Check out Professor Gaycken’s book below. 

Devices of Curiosity excavates a largely unknown genre of early cinema, the popular-science film. Primarily a work of cinema history, it also draws on the insights of the history of science. Beginning around 1903, a variety of producers made films about scientific topics for general audiences, inspired by a vision of cinema as an educational medium. This book traces the development of popular-science films over the first half of the silent era, from its beginnings in England to its flourishing in France around 1910.

Devices of Curiosity also considers how popular-science films exemplify the circulation of knowledge. These films initially relied upon previous traditions such as the magic-lantern lecture for their representational strategies, and they continually had recourse to established visual iconography, but they also created novel visual paradigms and led to the creation of ambitious new film collections. Finally, the book discerns a transit between nonfictional and fictional modes, seeing affinities between popular-science films and certain aspects of fiction films, particularly Louis Feuillade’s crime melodramas. This kind of circulation is important for an understanding of the wider relevance of early popular-science films, which impacted the formation of the documentary, educational, and avant-garde cinemas.