January 18, 2022

Defining Cinematic Research

By Hugh Hart

SCA’s research labs are innovating creative, multidisciplinary approaches to problem-solving societal issues.

Forging a stronger bond with your car. Figuring out what pancreatic cancer cells look like. Envisioning the office of the future. Mapping out future flow patterns for the Los Angeles River. Bringing Henry David Thoreau to grade school kids via video games. All these projects and many more fall within the parameters of cinematic experience as re-imagined by the teeming hive of inventors, thinkers, designers, and media makers supported by Andreas Kratky, Associate Dean of Research at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Research programs define the norm for engineering, medical, and biomedical departments at top-ranked universities, but people are often surprised to find out that the world’s best film school also has a robust research focus. In fact, SCA currently has eleven research institutes that work on innovative applications of cinematic media technologies. The investment of resources going toward SCA research sometimes yields benefits in the form of specific products or technologies, but more often than not, the goal is to leverage the means of cinematic media to solve other problems, such as enabling underrepresented communities to make their voices heard about the gentrification of LA neighborhoods or imagining the office of the future.

"Our projects don't necessarily generate a marketable product because we're not as application-oriented as corporate research might be. A lot of our work combines theory and practice in ways that have an impact on society as a community resource," says Kratky. "One thing that needs to be understood is why we conduct research in the first place. We don't just make things and conduct, let's say, an engineering-oriented investigation of new technologies. We also ask questions about their position in our culture."

Kratky, who arrived 16 years ago at SCA from Germany's Center for Art and Media and became Dean of Research in 2020, says the School's expertise in media making opens up non-traditional ways of framing inquiries from uniquely cinematic vantage points. "We're still finding out how to work with emerging media, which is not like dealing with traditional methods of shooting with cameras in the Hollywood realm. And the fascinating thing to me is that this research covers a really broad field with a lot of different disciplines, approaches, and methodologies that you might not expect."

Kratky himself is currently collaborating with landscape architect Alexander Robinson (USC School of Architecture) and environmental engineer Mitul Luhar (USC Viterbi School of Engineering) to model alternate futures for the Los Angeles River. "These kinds of projects don't exist in an isolated fashion," he notes. "As an artist myself, I've collaborated with engineers, scientists, and historians in my own work, so when I took on this administrative role, I was very invested in fostering research at SCA. There's a lot of cross-over because so many of our projects intersect and cross-fertilize each other."

Case in point: Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center, collaborates with experts like Maryalice Jordan-Marsh from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work's Department of Nursing, and biomedical engineer James Finley from USC's Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy. "When you solve complex problems, you need specialists and you need generalists," Gotsis says. "And then there are people who are bridge builders, which is what I'm good at—translating between disciplines. When you have a diversity of thinking and training, you can solve a lot of interesting problems."

Gotsis currently oversees The Future of Rehabilitation, a world-building exercise (where a fictional world is fully developed for the function of plausible storytelling) that is funded by USC's SMART VR Center. "We're looking to expand the concept of rehabilitation and disabilities in a primarily utopian future," she says. "Living in this pandemic world, people are coming to realize that long Covid syndrome is an example of a multi-system disorder that people suffer from in the form of short term, long term or permanent disabilities. How do you manage multi-systemic failure? We want to combine expert research and lay perspectives and present that to the public for inspiration." For this project, she convened an award-winning interdisciplinary team: Media Arts + Practice doctoral candidate Laura Cechanowicz, Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy student Julie Lutz, and animator and Division of Cinema & Media Studies alumna Elizabeth Hogenson.

One of SCA's most ambitious cross-disciplinary research efforts has taken root at the World Building Media Lab in partnership with USC's Bridge Institute, comprising faculty from SCA, Viterbi, the USC Dornsife College of Letters Arts and Sciences and the USC Keck School of Medicine. Entitled “World in a Cell,” the project is led by Alex McDowell, an SCA Production Designer who is known for world-building for movies like Minority Report, Upside Down, and Man of Steel. The project employs some 50 practitioners in everything from visual effects, virtual reality, and animation to sound design and origami arts. Their goal: construct a virtual world depicting a single pancreatic beta-cell modeled on the metaphor of a city's complex system. "Usually, scientists deal with these cells using microscopes and abstractions," Kratky observes. "What we've developed for ‘World in a Cell’ is a shared visual language that allows us to show how cells interact and develop. It's a real breakthrough because we're representing abstract data in a way that facilitates new insights and discoveries."

Still image from World in a Cell in which a virtual world is created inside a cell to mirror that of complex systems of actual cities. 

Games research at SCA, home to the nation's number one–ranked USC Games, a joint program between SCA’s Interactive Media & Games Division and Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science, often tackles topics that exist well outside the constraints of commercial game design. Kratky observes, "Big publishers in games like Electronic Arts and Sony are similar to big film studios in that they don't want to make something that speaks only to a small audience. But gaming now is such a broad landscape in which artists can put out something that may reach just a few people but can still be very successful artistically.” In that spirit, SCA’s Game Innovation Lab develops experimental games as a culturally engaged art form. Lab Director Tracy Fullerton says, "Our mission is to push the boundaries of what games are. How are games seen and played and used in different areas of culture? We address those questions by designing games that explore education, politics, interventions in behavior and health, and more."

Meet the developers behind the world of Walden, a Game. 

Fullerton and her team are currently expanding their award-winning Walden, a game for classroom use by middle and high school students. Introduced in 2017, the game is a dynamic simulation of the woods of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, exploring the ideas of Henry David Thoreau's classic book about living simply in nature. Players take on the role of Thoreau, making choices about how to live in the changing seasons and find inspiration in nature. Backed by a 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the Game Innovation Lab conducted workshops with teachers, then used that research to re-design its six-hour game into five shorter modules organized around such themes as self-reliance, social and emotional learning, and civil disobedience. The first three modules have been used and evaluated by over 6,000 teachers and 200,000 students to great success. Fullerton notes, "Universities often only recognize traditional forms of research like science or engineering, but in the arts, we also ask questions about the world and produce design-based answers to those questions. This is research and should be understood as such."

Holly Willis, who chairs the School of Cinematic Arts’ Media Arts + Practice, champions research through the cultivation of what she calls "scholar-practitioners." She explains, "Our Interdisciplinary Media Arts and Practices Ph.D. program is dedicated to creating research by hybrid scholar-practitioners who are able both to create works of media art and to contextualize them within the broader histories and theories of contemporary scholarship.”

Recent graduate Aroussiak Gabrielian's project Posthuman Habitats is a speculative design project representing the scholar-practitioner approach at its most inventive. "It's a design fiction which imagines the possibility of growing your own ‘cape’ as a living ecosystem that feeds birds while your bodily fluids would also be feeding this habitat,” Willis explains. “Aroussiak uses the elements of storytelling to imagine a possible future that seems in some ways outlandish, but her work gets you thinking about the ways in which the human, nonhuman, and the world inter-connect."

Illustration of Aroussiak's wearable landscape system, which explores the blurred distinctions between nature-culture, human-machine, and celebrates hybrid ecologies and synthetic forms of nature that are representative of our technologically mediated experience.

While interdisciplinary concepts drive many SCA endeavors, partnerships with tech companies, including Intel, Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft, also constitute a significant stream of research. "Steelcase asked us to envision the office of the future," Kratky says. "BMW worked with the Mobile and Environmental Media Lab led by professor Scott Fisher to develop an ambient storytelling project centered on vehicle-driver interaction about what kind of relationship you have with your car. You could call that a storytelling question because it's all about character development. These are the kinds of questions companies ask when they come to SCA for help."

Willis adds, “Companies often have a new technology but they’re not sure exactly what it can be used for, so they want a bunch of young people to push it to its limits: 'We've got this tool, what would you do with it?' We see that all the time."

SCA has attracted attention from corporations, grant-makers, and outside scholars on the strength of its work in augmented and virtual reality. In 2012, MxR Lab Founder Mark Bolas, an associate professor at SCA's Interactive Media & Games Division and currently director for Mixed Reality Research at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, developed a smartphone-based cardboard virtual reality viewer with Perry Hoberman, a research professor in Media Arts + Practice, two years before the similar Google Cardboard came to market.

While working at Bolas' MxR Lab, Nonny de la Peña pioneered VR storytelling with an empathy-inducing installation titled Hunger in Los Angeles that immersed viewers in a 3D environment of a man suffering diabetic shock at a food bank. De La Peña's then-production assistant Palmer Luckey started developing what would become the Oculus Rift virtual reality viewing device at SCA.

A VR Interview with Nonny de la Peña discussing Immersive Journalism

More recently, Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center mentee Max Orozco, who graduated from USC Iovine and Young Academy in 2020, invented Ready Teddy, a plug-and-play VR "pre-flight" program designed to lessen anxiety in sick kids by exposing them to the sights and sounds of an MRI machine before they undergo an actual radiology examination.

The School of Cinematic Arts also has a direct conduit to industry through its Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), a think tank that counts some of the biggest entertainment, technology, and consumer electronics companies as board members. Founded to facilitate conversations and collaboration around the industry conversion from analogue to digital, ETC now facilitates proof-of-concept projects around innovations like VR/AR, cloud computing, and virtual production, recently producing a white paper about best production practices that emerged from creating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building on a legacy that encompasses pure theoretical research as well as the development of market-ready products, SCA initiatives continue to expand the contours of cinematic experiences. Willis, who helped create the Media Arts + Practice Division in 2011, says, "The unique thing about our research agenda is that it's cinematic. We're exploring what cinema can do in terms of storytelling, in terms of modeling, in terms of representation, and in terms of creating prototypes for possible worlds. All of these things expand well beyond (the definition of) cinema as something you see in a movie theater. And we're very lucky to have facilities here that enable us to take what we know about cinema and turn it toward new ways of thinking and knowing the real world."

As Andreas Kratky surveys SCA's ongoing investment in research, he believes the ability to pursue smart questions will become an increasingly essential skill set for the well-rounded media maker. "We need to have an even stronger integration between research and education," Kratky says. "How do we understand the cinema experience from a design perspective and construct methodical research around that? We need to cultivate these skills in our students because I believe they're going to be extremely relevant in the future."

Check out this video about research at the School of Cinematic Arts.