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Geospatial and Hollywood

It turns out, Hollywood Hills is not the only interesting landscape in Tinsel Town.

With geospatial science becoming more and more mainstream, and the world increasingly revolving around geo information, it was only a matter of time before we could see its impact on the biggest of cultural conversation pieces: movies.

Cinema has long been used to comment on and map our relationship with our world. But the ways that Hollywood has approached geospatial science in movies hasn’t always been entirely true to life…

Geospatial science in movies

One of the more famously over-the-top attempts by Hollywood to demonstrate the power of remote sensing and satellites is the 1998 Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State. This surveillance police state thriller is crammed with scenes of satellite imagery tracking fugitives across the United States. This movie is the granddaddy of thrillers and cop shows in which the law enforcement official gruffly asks the technician to “enhance!” all manner of grainy footage.

Other examples of geospatial science in movies have been found over the years. In the 1997 disaster flick Volcano, Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche relied on GIS data to determine which direction the eponymous volcano’s destructive lava will flow. Jumping forward over a decade, the Alien prequel Prometheus featured extended scenes of drone-like equipment using remote sensing and radar to map underground cave networks. For some reason however the drones space scientists decide to utilise are – with the exception of the longer battery life and the hover capabilities – of a quality below that of the market standard in the year that the film came out; hardly fit material for a reccie nearly a century into the future. Why the crew are walking through the cave networks with the drones is another question mark; surely the point of a remote survey is to survey the caves, well… remotely?

The movie-GEOing experience

Of course, GIS and spatial data don’t just turn up in the movies – in the modern world, it actually helps inform what movies get made.

Movie studios spend a lot of money on their output, so they quite reasonably want to feel confident that not only will they recoup their outlay, but also make a healthy profit. Cinema and audience research is therefore a significant measurement tool which can on occasion help determine which films get the financial backing. GIS can be utilised to demonstrate what type of films are resonating with specific audiences.

It is also helpful to ascertaining what types of films are successful where. For example, if studio executives can feel confident that a particular film will be popular in a lucrative market like China, there’s all the more reason to fund that movie.

Mapping out big budget effects

And of course, there is a third way that geo data has influenced the world of movies, and that’s by helping create them.

How many films have to seen that showcase the wanton destruction of a major city? From disaster pictures to tales of space invaders, the modern Hollywood blockbuster will turn to specialists with a geodata skills set.

Utilising technology like Esri’s 3D modeling software CityEngine, visual effects experts can recreate digital twins of real life cities inside their computers. Sometimes this can be built in as little as two or three days! Then it is a matter of combining the twins with a suit of additional visual effects. With supplemental support from model work and animation teams, the results can be scarily realistic.

It’s not just CGI city destruction that geo information and digital mapping has helped Hollywood with. Sometimes it proves cheaper to build a city in a computer than to fly a film crew out to film it. Modern TV shows and films will often transport you to foriegn countries, cities and landscapes without anyone from the crew having been there themselves.

Straight out of Hollywood

It turns out there is a long history of geospatial science in movies. To learn more about the capabilities of geo data in the modern world, you can explore this website, starting with some of the other applications of this important field.

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