Animating the Cells of Celluloid – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Animating the Cells of Celluloid

Microcinemtography Opens Spring Fisher Center Series

When we think of cells – from that of human blood to sea urchants to plants – most of us see them in motion and, more to the point, in film. Because of the history of scientific cinema, our memories are of motion when it comes to cellular activity: the animation that we’ve watched in films of cell behavior. But how have the two evolved as inter-animating beings that, perhaps, have affected one another’s trajectories in the process? To begin answering these questions, Hannah Landecker — University of California, Los Angeles, associate professor of sociology and of society and genetics – offered her views in the first spring 2009 Fisher Center Series lecture, titled Film, Biology and the Animation of Life.

“My research for this project started with a box of unlabeled films,” explained Landecker. “Filing through them, I asked myself, why did every tissue culture of the late 20th century use film. There was clearly a close connection between the science at work and early cinema, a connection that was more than a mere curiosity.”

Providing a context for her academic curiosity, Landecker gave a history of cellular biology in microcinematography, focusing on the 1910s, 1930s and 1960s and the research of Elizabeth Wilson and Donna Harroway.

With a historic thread binding the portions of talk together, Landecker provided a three-part model of film in relation to the science at hand “as a portal, apparatus or instrument.”

 “As a portal, film portrays life as another world that is always and only accessed through the mediation of some technological door. As an apparatus, life in vitro, life in glass is represented and immediately reflected back by way of the apparatus. Lastly, as an instrument, film becomes a means for analysis, moving as life does.”

In addition to focusing on the work of early 20th century Biologist and Microcinematographer Jean Comandon, 1930’s Biologist Warren Lewis and 1960’s Biologist Marcelle Bassis, Landecker also brought her audience into 21st century filmographic representations of biology with a film produced by Harvard University that, according to Landecker, “is an animation of legitimate biological data portrayed with a Hollywood aesthetic. It’s another instance of the recreation of biology and the interaction between the static and the animate.”

To further “probe” that relationship, HWS professors, students and guests engaged with Landecker, asking questions based on their expertise and experiences. Pre-med student Rafeek Mohamed ’09 asked if Landecker thought that pedagogy was in a way following cinematography. Mohamed’s question and those of the rest of the audience put even more subject matter under a number of different “microscopes.”

After the lecture, senior Trista Harris explained that, “The discussion was especially engaging for me; it helped to clarify many of the ideas from her presentation and added a lot of different perspectives to the topics that she discussed.”

“I was pleasantly surprised by Professor Landecker’s talk,” explained Christina Kinnevey ’09, also a pre-med student. “A lot of the topics that she discussed I’ve dealt with in the classroom and in my studies; many of the videos of cells were familiar, but the focus of the talk was different. It was centered more on the cinematographic tools, their history and the interaction of the two-none of which I had ever considered before.”