Roving Mars

So I finally saw Roving Mars, the Imax® film about the MER mission—those wee rovers on Mars that have currently enjoyed more than 1,000 sols (i.e., Martian days, which clock in about three percent longer than terrestrial days) of exploration on the Red Planet.

First off, the film tells its story brilliantly. From the human scientists to the anthropomorphized rovers, the characters play roles that win over the audience and keep the narrative moving. Furthermore, the movie manages to balance the engineering and the science, which has proven tricky in other documentaries I’ve seen, particularly when they came out early in the mission.

But what I find intriguing about the film is something that my coworker Carter Emmart mentioned right after he saw it—the incredibly blurred line between real and computer-generated imagery. Actual rover images segue seamlessly into animated shots, and it sometimes takes a moment (for an expert, if I may refer to myself thusly) to distinguish between the two. I even got into a discussion with a planetary geologist afterward about whether one of the scenes was computer-generated or shot on Earth!

This is more than a testament to software tools and technological acumen. It also raises questions about how audiences perceive science content. If we don’t let people know the source of the imagery we present, do they end up thinking more or less of the end product? I’d be curious to know when (or if) they perceive the shift from reality to animation. One would hope that people would recognize that no film crew followed the rocket into space and no aerial cameras exist to execute the fly-overs of the rovers on Mars, but… And conversely, do people realize how much even the computer-generated media is informed by the science? Does it matter?

In surveys conducted for the Cosmic Collisions show production at my home institution, we found that people placed great value on knowing that visuals were rooted in scientific visualization of real computational data—and they put even higher stock in imagery that came from spacecraft observations. Thus, an actual image of the Sun had greater cachet than a computer simulation, which in turn meant more to people than an artist’s rendition.

So is it important to make sure people know what they’re looking at? You certainly don’t want to disrupt the flow of the story, but Roving Mars chose, as most pieces do, not to address the issues at all. That makes me a little uncomfortable.

At the end of the day (or the sol), the film weaves an exciting, even touching narrative, and the detailed, highly accurate imagery serves the subject well. I certainly think that the richness of the data—of realism—infuses every frame of the film with greater impact than “mere artistry” could accomplish. When you look at the real stuff, you get a subliminal sense of the complexity that I think most people find satisfying.