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Q & A With The Man Who Puts The Science In 'Defiance'

Q & A With The Man Who Puts The Science In 'Defiance'

Kevin Grazier is a planetary physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Image credits:

Image Courtesy of Kevin Grazier

Monday, April 15, 2013 - 17:00

Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

Kevin Grazier is a planetary physicist who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Cassini/Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan, and is currently conducting research on long-term, large-scale computational simulations of Solar System dynamics and evolution. Grazier has also been a science advisor for numerous television shows such as "Eureka," "Battlestar Galactica," and the new SyFy show "Defiance."  "Defiance" pairs the realism of a television show with the interactivity of a massively multiplayer online game that will parallel and sometimes intersect with the show's story line to give fans a unique experience.   

Inside Science: What is the TV show "Defiance" about?

Kevin Grazier: Decades after a catastrophic event radically alters the face of planet Earth, human and alien survivors work to create new lives for themselves out of what remains. The town of Defiance (the former St. Louis, Mo.) is a melting pot where humans, as well as individuals from seven alien races, cooperate to make lives for themselves on a planet that is home to none of them. It’s not "Humans vs. Aliens," this series is more “Humans and Aliens vs. the Elements.” 

Although, superficially, the show appears rather dark--Defiance is a dangerous place and our characters do go through some very rough patches--the show is actually intended to show a positive view of the future, rather than a gloomy and dystopian one.

IS: "Defiance" is scheduled to premiere on the SyFy channel on April 15th.  Is there any special connection to tax day?

KG: Can you think of a more perfect day where people will be looking to be thoroughly distracted?

IS: What inspires you about being a science advisor?

KG: What little kid doesn’t dream of working in "show business?"

I like the fact that I get to exercise my creative right-brain side in concert with my analytic left brain, and how work in each industry helps to enable the other. The entertainment work helps me be creative in my research. For my research I do a lot of programming, and to solve a programming task you keep asking yourself, "What do I need to do?" and "What tools do I have at my disposal?" 

Finally, it’s true that the science in our shows isn’t always perfect. Working on a popular television series, though, gives me many opportunities to both write and speak to different kinds of audiences about the real science behind the science fiction.

IS: What is your typical day like? 

KG: Two concepts that don’t belong in the same sentence are "typical" and "my day." I have so many projects ongoing, and so many different types of projects, that each morning my day starts with an optimization problem prioritizing my "To do" list.

My interaction with the writers and producers depends upon the show, and for each episode it frequently depends upon the writer. Some shows ("Eureka," "Falling Skies") have brought me in prior to the beginning of a season to recommend technology or elaborate on scientific concepts for the upcoming season. Some writers will have an idea for a story, and will chat with me before they even start writing. Sometimes writers solicit input at the story outline stage, sometimes at the first draft stage. Sometimes, on the less tech-heavy stories, I have no interaction until there is a completed script, and then I weigh in with my notes. 

On a few occasions I’ve been called into the writers’ room to do a presentation when we’re planning a particularly big or blockbuster season finale. Sometimes I get called to help with the visual effects. That happened a lot on Eureka.

For two episodes of Eureka, I was even asked to write a several pages of book chapters. In these episodes characters opened books and, since we shot in high-definition, fans could freeze the frame and read the text – so the text had to be original, not copyrighted, and, most importantly, correct.

On Defiance, I’ve had more telecons than I’ve had on previous series, primarily because our game designer, Trion Worlds, is located in San Diego. I’ve also been editing a lot of online content, which I’ve never got to do before. As I said, nothing is "typical."

IS: How much time do you spend on your own research versus science consulting?

KG: That entirely depends upon the week. Actually it depends upon the day. The past few weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on "Defiance" as well as a disaster movie on which I’m working. Keeping the science at a high level in a Roland-Emmerich-like disaster film has proven quite challenging and time-consuming, but I think we did a pretty good job. 

Some weeks I work on science far more than entertainment and with "Defiance" premiering soon, and the first draft of the disaster movie script turned in, I foresee a return to coding, data analysis, and paper writing in a couple weeks.

IS: What do like best about working on "Defiance"?

KG: Watch a few episodes, and it will become pretty apparent. With the game tie-in, I honestly think that this huge science fiction epic is the most ambitious series in television history—what an honor to be a part of that! The world we are creating has such an extensive and rich mythology, and I get to work with some amazingly talented and creative people to build a world that, hopefully, a lot of people are going to enjoy.

IS: Can you give me an example of a time you suggested something that ended up on screen that you were proud of?

KG: Let me start by saying that it takes a village to make a show like "Defiance" and many voices are allowed to give input into different aspects of the show.

There was one episode this season where the story was hung up on a technical plot issue. I kept saying, "Nope, can’t do that." "Can’t do that either." "Well that would kill everybody in Defiance." I felt that my showrunner, also a Kevin, was getting frustrated with me, continually nixing new ideas. To his credit, though, although he could have said, “Deal with it, Grazier, we’re going with plan A,” we kept searching for alternate solutions.

Eventually there comes a point with every script where, ready or not, this thing has to be shot, and we still had issues. So Kevin said, "Look, we’re having a telecon today at 2:00, and we’re leaving that telecon with this settled." I felt that I knew how we could make this work, and sell the technical details as well, so before that telecon, I banged out a mini treatment describing how I thought we could make the episode work…

…and then started to worry when I heard nothing back.

When the telecon started, though, Kevin said, "OK, in the writers’ room here, we have a solution that we think works, and it’s basically what Kevin Grazier sent out a couple hours ago." So I’m thrilled that I was able to contribute at that level, and that I was allowed to provide input that strayed pretty significantly out of the realm of the purely technical. I’m also happy to report that the "Making of…" video--where all the writers and directors talk about how it "takes a village" to make our show—is genuine. Things really do work like that on "Defiance."

IS: What advice do you have for scientists who want to work as a science advisor?

KG: It’s actually a lot easier to break in these days than it was when I started. There is an organization, program of the National Academy of Sciences, called The Science and Entertainment Exchange. They pair up scientists as consultants to the productions that need expertise. If you’re a scientist, and are interested in consulting (usually non-paid, at least at first), they maintain a database of scientists and their areas of expertise. If science consulting is something that interests you, start there. 

One of the most important recommendations I could offer is that to do the job well, to be able to relate to the writers with whom you’re working, it really pays to have taken a screenwriting class or three. When it was obvious that I was going to get continued work in the industry, I went to UCLA Extension and earned a certificate in television writing. That’s been supremely helpful. 

When you have an inkling of how difficult it is to tell a story in 42 minutes, with a beginning, middle, and end, along with five act breaks, you’re a much better advisor.

IS: Any final thoughts?  

KG: The fact that the shows on which I work even hire a science advisor, the fact that other television series and movies have science advisors, tells us that there is a dedication to getting science correct in science-themed television series and movies that’s unprecedented in the history of Hollywood. As a generality, the science in these types of productions is getting better rapidly. It’s not perfect, though, and not likely ever to be perfect. I’d just like the critics of the science in these types of productions to meet us halfway, and understand that we do the best we can given the incredible constraints of development time, budget, and increasingly limited running time. 

We all want to see science portrayed accurately, and the end of the day, we’re all on the same side.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.