Special guest stars
By Zhao Wei  ·  2024-05-06  ·   Source: NO.19 MAY 9, 2024
The CSTM's 4K ultra-high-definition fulldome film, The Real Stars in the Universe, has its international premiere at the 14th Beijing International Film Festival, which ran from April 18 to 26 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Inside the lecture hall of the China Science and Technology Museum (CSTM), film producer Li Ningyuan detailed a groundbreaking application of artificial intelligence (AI) in her latest documentary, Chen Ning Yang: The Chinese Century of a Nobelist. She explained how the voice of the 101-year-old recipient of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics had been not just preserved but also brought to life—throughout different periods of his storied career.

"After getting Yang's authorization, we captured his original voice and used AI technology to recreate it across different stages of his life, allowing him to personally narrate his own experiences," Li revealed.

She shared the innovative approach during her presentation at the Science Popularization and Special Effects Theater Industry High-Quality Development Forum on April 25. The event gathered a host of industry experts interested in the merging of science and cinematic storytelling.

As the central feature of the science and technology segment of the 14th Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF), which ran from April 18 to 26, the forum zeroed in on the advancement of the visual or special effects industry and science education. It explored innovative technologies and future trends, aiming to drive the evolution of science-themed cinema.

Microfilm to big picture 

Fang Heihu, executive curator of the archives and museum of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), also delivered a speech at the forum. He discussed how his university uses short films to delve into the essence of scientific exploration and what drives researchers to engage in this field.

Since 2019, the USTC, one of China's top-ranking universities for scientific research, has released six microfilms, each under 20 minutes, that depict the lives of six esteemed Chinese scientists. According to Fang, these films blend documentary and narrative storytelling techniques to celebrate the contributions these pioneering individuals have made to science.

The university's latest microfilm, The People's Mathematician, produced in 2023, chronicles the life of Hua Luogeng (1910-85). Serving as USTC's vice president and head of the mathematics department of the university during its foundational years, Hua carved a notable path in academic leadership. Financial difficulties had forced him to drop out of school after completing junior high education in 1925. But he went on to embark on a journey of self-study and eventually became a world-renowned mathematician.

Starting in the late 1950s, Hua applied mathematical methods to optimize national economic processes, with a particular focus on production efficiency and quality. He utilized techniques like the golden section search, a numerical method to optimize functions within a specified interval by identifying the minimum or maximum value, in the optimal selection method to obtain superior production parameters.

Hua's efforts demonstrated how mathematical theories could be used effectively in practical applications and underscored his commitment to integrating math with industrial and agricultural practices.

Hua's impact on math education was equally substantial. He championed an educational philosophy that viewed the world through a mathematical lens, stressing the importance of practicality and innovation. He saw mathematics not just as a science, but as a transformative tool that could alter people's understanding of the world and, in turn, drive global change.

"When we revisit the life stories of these scientists through microfilms today, we feel a supportive force. Our university has two fundamental missions:

teaching and scientific research. In keeping with our scientific ethos, this film is designed to inspire audiences to be the best they can be," Fang said. "Following its launch, the microfilm has become a significant teaching resource in schools and had a societal impact. The CSTM has been crucial in promoting it, securing ongoing screenings across science and technology museums in multiple provinces and cities."

The People's Mathematician won first prize in the short video category at the 14th BJIFF. Themed Life and Living in Short Videos, the category featured 5,185 entries from over 30 countries and regions.

Panelists speak at the Science Popularization and Special Effects Theater Industry High-Quality Development Forum at the China Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Beijing on April 25 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Tech giants 

Current science education films, utilizing special effects, are categorized based on screen types and viewing formats, including fulldome, 4D and giant screen.

With topics ranging from nature, growth and agriculture to space, the CSTM screened 10 fulldome films, where viewers are surrounded by video projections in a hemispherical angle of view, 25 giant-screen films and 12 4D films, during the festival. 3D cinema enhances visual depth, but 4D cinema elevates the movie-watching experience with sensory effects and physical sensations.

The CSTM's 4K ultra-high-definition fulldome film The Real Stars in the Universe, which celebrated its international premiere at the festival, explores the rules for naming stars and planets, incorporating China's traditional cultural views of the cosmos. It intends to encourage audiences to reflect on Chinese elements in the universe.

The 21-minute film uses a digital astronomical demonstration system to visually showcase the evolution from ancient Chinese celestial concepts to contemporary aerospace technology.

The concept of giant-screen film first appeared in the 1960s, with movies projected onto large, flat or slightly curved screens using 70-mm film.

According to the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA), based in North Carolina, the U.S., a screen must be at least 21.3 meters wide or cover an area of 228 square meters to qualify as a giant screen.

Giant-screen movies are ideal for science popularization courtesy of their immersive audio-visual experiences, enhanced expressiveness with special effects, realistic scene displays and interactive capabilities.

In the 1990s, Chinese filmmakers began experimenting with giant-screen movie production. A milestone was reached in 2016 when Mysteries of China, a science education movie about archaeology co-produced by China and international partners, was released.

The film was also screened at international science venues such as the Royal BC Museum in Canada, marking an important step for Chinese special-effects science films to reach a global audience.

Beyond cinema 

Unlike commercial films that prioritize economic returns, scientific films seek to have an educational impact.

The BJIFF's sci-tech segment is unique in China's science-themed film industry and serves as a platform for domestic and international exchange in this field.

And the international community keeps a close eye on its selections.

For instance, during the festival's 12th edition in August 2022, the GSCA highlighted on its official website the activities hosted by the CSTM in light of the film festival's sci-tech segment.

"Science and art are two avenues through which people perceive and understand the world. The fusion of science and art is a natural progression in the development of human civilization," Sun Chengjian, Deputy Director of the Film and Television Research Institute at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, said during the forum. He further emphasized the challenge of leveraging emotional, rational and computational thinking to ignite innovative and creative artistic expressions in scientific film creation.

Sun also observed that with the advent of new technologies, the science-themed movie genre is experiencing unprecedented change and growth.

As a vital component of global cinema, these films have multiple functions, not only in science education and popularization, but also in generating knowledge. Sun expressed his belief that the industry's development will continue to impact humankind's exploration of the unknown.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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