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Seeing Through The Minds Eye for Minority Report

BLOG POST • April 21, 2017

Process / By Matt Checkowski

The idea of seeing through the “minds eye” is an approach that’s been back en vogue with many of our clients, probably thanks to the VR renaissance. While thinking on a new project, I dusted off some old inspiration in the science research that fueled our work on Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, and found some insight that still sticks.

The film’s dream sequences are all about putting the audience, and Tom Cruise’s sci-fi detective character, into the minds and visions of three clairvoyant witnesses. Our team, led by myself and Kurt Mattila at Imaginary Forces, worked with Spielberg and his incomparable team of geniuses to create these special sequences and a plausible future, based on real science research.

 
I re-read this great article on CNN Health “Trust your memory? Maybe you shouldn’t?” by Jacque Wilson, and pulled together five key examples of how we combined science, design and cinema to create the visual concepts that became the backbone for our dream sequences. I think when you see how the film and the dreams are still fresh, it’s in large part thanks to this multi-disciplinary approach (unlike the more recent tv show that seems to have just recycled old visual tricks.)

1/5 Cognitive Psychology for Eye Witnesses

We first needed to understand how a witness experiences a crime scene and quickly found out that the brain is a funny thing when it comes to the “facts” that materialize directly in front of you. (For more on that, here’s Jacque Wilson’s CNN article again.) If three people are standing on a street corner and all simultaneously witness a car crash, their individual testimonies on the details will be significantly different. What color was the car? What kind of jacket was the guy wearing? All of these kinds of “facts” can, through the mind’s eye, produce a wide range of answers that gets even wider with time. Crime scene investigators know this and adapt their questions and processes in order to work towards the most likely scenario.

 

For the film, there were three witness characters, each with a slightly different vision that changes over time, and the similarities only became apparent when Tom Cruise’s character overlaid them on top of each other.

 

A rendering from one of our early visualizations of the precog analysis scenes.

 

2/5 The Clues

How a witness witnesses has a lot to do with their past experiences, where they were immediately before the pivotal moment, but also the millions of influencing factors that descend upon them immediately after a traumatic event. Here’s an example:

“Even a seemingly less important word in the sentence can make a difference in an eyewitness account, Loftus found. In a subsequent study she asked people if they ‘saw A broken headlight’ or ‘THE broken headlight.’ Those who were asked about “the” broken headlight were more likely to remember seeing it, though it never existed.”

JACQUE WILSON, CNN HEALTH

The screenplay, character dialog, and the important clues from the five major crime scenes in the film, all inspired the ever-shifting detail in the final dream sequences. Our work needed to advance the plot of the film, but also tell a visual story that told the audience something about our three witnesses.

3/5 The Movement of Memories

The fluid nature of memory was a great thread to explore while attempting to create a new cinematic language for futuristic witnesses. “Precision” was our enemy when it came to the camera movement. We tossed out all the motion control rigs (a robot that moves the camera with perfect precision over an infinite amount of takes) and instead used a steadicam (a camera mounted on a guy.) We had him film the crime on the first take from a “witness” point of view, then directed him to recreate that same movement *exactly* in the following takes. As we know: that was never going to happen, but we were looking for those slight differences in movement to become our memory glitches. We did that three times for three different witnesses, altering the set each time to bring more variation into the memories. Remove a lamp here. Change a blanket color, there. We wanted the inconsistencies to show when we layered the visions on top of each other later in the process.

Here’s a great anecdote on how easily our own memories get kicked off-track:

“Loftus recruited 24 students and their close family members for her 1995 study ‘The Formation of False Memories.’ She asked each family member to provide her with three real childhood memories for their student, and then sent these memories in a packet, along with one false memory, to the study participants. The false memories were about getting lost on a shopping trip and included real details, such as the name of a store where they often shopped and siblings they were likely with.”

“The students were told all four memories were real and had been supplied by their family member. After receiving the packet, the students identified whether they remembered each event and how confident they were that it had happened to them. In follow-up interviews the researchers asked them to recall details from the events they remembered.”

“Seven of the 24 students ‘remembered’ the false event in their packets. Several recalled and added their own details to the memory.”

JACQUE WILSON, CNN HEALTH

That discovery alludes to one of the main reasons why we kept the camera handheld. We wanted to embrace the fluid nature of the memories.

 

4/5 The Minds Eye in Circles, Not Squares

It was important to toss-out any “framing”—aspect ratios and letter boxes— as dictated by our camera technology. Once we committed to settling the camera inside the mind of our witness, we traded hard edges and rectangles for soft edges and circles. It also took us dozens of camera tests to find a camera movement that worked with our new circular frame of mind: most of our early efforts felt either drunk, heavy or completely disconnected from the humanity we were trying to emphasize. We wanted constant movement but still needed to establish a visual hierarchy within the frame to guide the audience. It was about trying to develop a new way of seeing, evolved from the cinematic languages that already worked well, but a step closer to “experiential.”

5/5 Live Polaroids

In our first meeting with Steven he said “we don’t dream in cuts.” His vision for the sequences was a blending montage of images that felt as if it was evolving live, as we watched it. We began to refer to the style as “Live Polaroids” that developed in and out of resolution, and continued to work on new ways to transition from one thought to the next without using an edit. A lot of it took advantage of sliding the image around the frame, driven by the action in the footage, and we did introduce a filmic eye blink (from our witness) that disguised edits as needed for both story and tempo. This concept of “live polaroids” really brought together all of the elements of our research and provided a visual palette from which we could build a consistent look and feel across three character’s dreams.

 

Final Thought
I love Minority Report as a film and I think that one of the main reasons it still holds-up is how rigorous every individual department was in their attempt to project a plausible vision of future. There’s a truth to every element of the film that resonates with our humanity. Articles like this one on CNN Health really rattle the truth of science fiction: what was once cinema, is now our everyday life.

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