A Foundation’s Edge in Science

Movies Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Every four years, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation hosts a Summit to celebrate its influence in the convergence of science and film. This past weekend at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, the Sloan Foundation partnered with Film Independent to bring together scientists, artists, producers and leading representatives from film associations and schools. Paste had a chance to attend the Summit, participating in screenings, Q&As and getting to chat with physicists and filmmakers.

The Sloan Film program, launched in 1997 as part of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has gifted over $4 million in grants to students in film and continues to cultivate projects through partnerships with USC, AFI, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia and UCLA. Through development collaborations with Sundance, Tribeca, Film Independent and Hamptons, the foundation also aids feature-length screenplays and already completed features in distribution and post-production processes.

Most recently, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game represent the type of films Sloan supports, exploring science through the cinema medium. Both had screenings at the Summit this weekend with The Imitation Game already receiving two Sloan awards this year. But the Sloan foundation is not only influential in larger films that are already completed. At the Summit, Paste caught up with Musa Syeed whose film Valley of Saints experienced support from Sloan through the initial stages of development.

While at NYU, Syeed received a $100k Sloan production grant and began baking science into his script from the beginning. The story explores Gulzar, a tourist boatman living in the poverty-stricken Kashmir. He plans to escape with his best friend, but when they meet a woman researching the dying lake in the city, Gulzar must choose between friendship and a budding love affair. Syeed was passionate about Kashmir, since his parents are from the town, but through his grant from Sloan, realized “there was a different window into this place and that was through the environment. The science became very integral to it.”

The catch for the grant was that the filmmakers had to shoot their film within 18 months of getting funding. “A lot of previous films got in the trap of development and raising something in the millions.” Syeed, with advising from Doron Weber, Sloan’s vice president, went ahead and shot the feature, combining his background in documentary filmmaking with a narrative indie time frame. Even after filming, Valley of Saints received another $25k for post-production after participating in their producers lab and went on to win the Alfred P. Sloan award at Sundance in 2012. When Syeed attended the Summit in 2011, he was introduced to a number of other artists. “[Sloan] set up industry meetings for us with distributors and sales agents; that was something I previously didn’t have experience with.” Meeting with industry people, especially that early in the process, was incredibly helpful to Syeed.

He admits, “I think when people first hear [about] science and technology in film, it might seem like a weird focus to have and so people don’t even want to try. To Doron’s credit, they really have a wider perspective on how to incorporate science into film.” Syeed’s current project is in development with Sloan through Tribeca.

At the Summit, it was apparent that indeed Sloan was creative with incorporating science in art. On Saturday night at The Grammy Museum, they hosted the “Science & Entertainment Exchange,” where industry professionals were paired with top scientists and engineers to create three original works. Highlights included a short film by Casey Cooper Johnson that explored brain implants and their potential to be hacked. While collaborating with hacker Ralph Echemendia, Johnson illustrated a world where mental illness is treated with an implant, a mechanism that can easily be tapped by the government and manipulated. There was also an original music work by Dr. Spiros Michalkis and award winning composer, Matt Schatz. The piece explored the science behind dating, phone apps and emotional chemistry.

Catching a Fever


Perhaps one of the most exciting culminations of science and art was David Kaplan’s Particle Fever. Paste had a chance to talk with Kaplan before the documentary screening and Q&A on Friday evening. A successful physicist, Kaplan produced the film that premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2013. Back in 2006, Kaplan has begun to share with friends and family exciting new developments in his field. He decided to document the progress through the film, which explores the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider up until the 2012 identification of the Higgs Boson. “We’re really trying to understand if there’s a coherent set of rules the whole universe operates on. What is the nature of physical reality? I wanted people to get a taste of what that is.” The film was shot over a period of seven years and follows a team of physicists, giving the audience an intimate look at their journey.

Getting Sloan involved wasn’t an easy task for Kaplan, unlike Syeed who was connected with them through his time at NYU. “I would try to figure out how to contact Doron Weber, and every year he would say, ‘We don’t do feature documentaries.’”Kaplan was able to get some executive producers on board who then invited Doron to the Particle Fever New York City premiere. Eventually, Doron decided Sloan should make an exception, and they went on to support the film’s theatrical distribution and an educational version of the film.

Paste was curious how Kaplan, both a film enthusiast and a physicist, draws parallels between the two crafts. We asked if the illogical nature of art can exist within physics and if the logical foundation of physics is applicable in art. “I think in both cases the day-to-day grunt work is obviously completely and totally different. In both cases, there’s a sense of thinking outside the box. A need for creativity lives in both worlds. At the very top of the game in physics, there’s an artistic component.” Kaplan admits he hasn’t been an artist long enough to go into depth about the lifestyle, though he did grow up around music, his dad a choral music director at Julliard. He offers this a metaphor for art in his field of physics: “Once you play piano, you don’t have to think about playing it. You look at the sheet of music once; you know what the piece is. Asking where the piece can go is the mastery part, exploring at the edge of the frontier.”

After spending a weekend surrounded by scientists and artists alike, it’s clear there isn’t a massive separation between the two like one might think. Sloan finds the similarities, differences, flaws and successes and weaves them together to produce innovative cinema. During the Summit, a multitude of opportunities for funding and collaboration were showcased, for both budding and experienced filmmakers alike. Kaplan points out that physics is all about “jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm.” He sees this as a positive thing, “because it means you’ve learned something.” The same could be said about making movies.


Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.

Also in Movies