How do filmmakers put the “science” in Science Fiction? From the interplanetary botany of The Martian to the killer forensics of Criminal Minds or the speculative metaphysics of Doctor Strange, audiences are craving stories with science that appears theoretically possible. Rather than go back to school for a PhD, directors and screenwriters often turn to The Science and Entertainment Exchange, a collective of real-life experts across all kinds of surreal specialties.
Even with far-out scenarios like time travel, teleportation, and super-heroic powers, filmmakers often find themselves consulting these scientists, who speculate about the future and inform Hollywood narratives.
The Science and Entertainment Exchange, a subsidiary of the National Academy of Sciences, plays matchmaker between filmmakers and top scientific advisors. According to the Exchange, “the goal is to use the vehicle of popular entertainment media to deliver sometimes subtle, but nevertheless powerful, messages about science.” Or as some call it, “edutainment.”
The Exchange has worked on Hollywood projects as varied as Ant-Man, The Big Bang Theory, Ex-Machina, and the upcoming Doctor Strange, which can certainly make it seem out of reach to aspiring filmmakers. However, as a government agency, the resources of the Science and Entertainment Exchange are available to anyone who has committed themselves to a creative project. Connecting artists with expert volunteers from a variety of fields, the Exchange provides services as varied as a simple fact check to a full-fledged lecture on quantum physics.
To get your own consultation, you simply need to call the hotline number: 844-NEED-SCI. It’s best to come with questions that are well-researched and specific. For example, “I’m making a movie about diabolical, mutant sea cucumbers that were exposed to radiation and transformed into monsters. What can you tell me about the physiology of sea cucumbers and how radiation might alter their anatomy?”
A specific (and awesome) question like this will help the agents of the Exchange to narrow your search to a qualified professional.
Remember that the call center agents are not there to answer your questions directly, but rather to find the scientist or engineer that will best suit your needs as a filmmaker. As such, you should come to the hotline with patience. The Exchange is not designed to assist with homework the night before its deadline.
The scientific professionals that work with the Exchange often do so without any expectation of compensation. The service itself is absolutely free to the public. However, these volunteers are often busy individuals with intense teaching and research schedules—you will want to be respectful of their time. If you are going to require advisement for a lengthy period, you may want to consider paying them for their expertise. This is also an incentive to find the time to assist you. But if you are just starting out or are working on a small, personal project, keep your questions brief and focused.
Filmmakers can call the Exchange during any part of the production process, from the brainstorming stage to the rigors of post-production. If the advice you’re seeking would have an impact on the story, it may be best to call as early into the project as possible. If your question has more to do with the realism of a specific special effect, you can probably wait until later.
The Science and Entertainment Exchange has consulted on more than 1,000 projects ranging from major blockbusters to tiny indies, yet they remain a fairly unknown resource to the creative community. As long as you present their experts with serious, compelling inquiries, they should be able to enhance your art and storytelling with legitimate science, perhaps even inspiring future projects. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, as your media could go on to motivate future generations of scientists and engineers, which our society desperately needs.

“Hollywood had a tremendous influence on me. It’s always certain people whose lectures I went to, individuals I met, and third, even more importantly, movies I saw.”

– V.S. Ramachandran, Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego

Call the Science and Entertainment Exchange at 844-NEED-SCI (844-633-3724) to find the right scientist for your project. You can also explore all kinds of otherworldly stock footage from our library to bring your film to life.

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(Lead photo courtesy Marvel Studios)