A Scientist Goes to the Movies

Creating 400,000 Greek warriors on screen from only seven "real" men, as I did for the movie Troy, seems light-years away from the work of a scientist, and persuading animals, real and virtual, to perform in productions such as King Arthur, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven is no closer to a typical scientist's workday. And indeed, although I've always loved films, and in particular special effects, I never set out to become a visual effects consultant, and I never expected my research training to bring me there.

Finding the Right Degree Course

My journey through academia hasn't always been smooth. More than 10 years ago, I walked out of my first degree in mathematics at University College London in the first year, announcing that I was too bored to carry on and was going back to show jumping--the kind you do with horses--where I'd already shown the potential for a promising career. My trainer suggested that I might find a middle ground in equine science, a course of study that covers biomedical areas such as anatomical science, exercise physiology, and biochemistry, and also includes short units on subjects such as equine husbandry.

So I transferred to this degree course at Bristol University, and by the end of it, I had developed a passion for anatomy, biomechanics, and (what comes along with any thorough scientific training) problem-solving. I had also gained a first class bachelor's degree and was on the road to becoming an academic.

I was then accepted at the University of Oxford as a Medical Engineering D.Phil. (Ph.D.) candidate in 1999, despite having no master's degree and no previous engineering experience. I did not respond to an advert; rather, I directly approached the supervisor whose work I was personally interested in, and I think that made all the difference. I was given a job tutoring undergraduates in engineering so that I could get up to speed on the engineering side, and I also tutored privately in math and physics.

For my thesis, I worked on a method for assessing walking problems in children with cerebral palsy, with the view to planning corrective surgery. This may seem far from equine science, but I had studied comparative anatomy and physiology, including human, and the principles involved in movement in a wide range of species, including humans. I used magnetic resonance imaging scans to make accurate physical and theoretical models of children's muscles and bones and the way they developed, and I used these models to adapt existing adult assessment techniques to children.

I also gained a lot of experience using the technique of "motion capture." Motion capture, as the name suggests, refers to the process of recording movement for later analysis. To do this, reflective markers are placed on the subject and are then tracked by infrared cameras to provide movement data. My Ph.D. involved working with humans, but I had previously worked with other species such as horses, dogs, and lizards. Mathematical models are then applied to provide information that can be used to analyse existing academic theories and to plan and assess clinical treatments, such as orthotic braces, pharmaceutical interventions, or, most commonly, surgery. With this research background, I would now describe myself as a biomechanist.

Back in those days, I held an absolute conviction that I wanted to be an academic. When my Ph.D. grant ran out, I accepted my first postdoc position--that project was on using biomechanics to help plan therapies for stroke patients--and decided to write up my Ph.D. thesis in the evenings and weekends. I found myself in a new lab as a clinical research fellow in biomechanics, with a surprisingly good postdoc salary.

But the job and the lab turned out to be, by my standards, awful. I felt unappreciated, unsupported, overworked, and underfunded. Added to this was the move back to London, workplace bullies, and the pressure of writing up my thesis. It certainly was a bad year for me, and privately too; I had buried four friends, two of them under 30, all of them people I felt I had neglected as I pursued my studies, and the world no longer shone like it used to. When I discovered I was pregnant, I dug my heels in, submitted the thesis, and, in sheer exhaustion, decided I needed to get out. I had found clinical academia grim and self-righteous. I had begun to think about what I could do next.

I knew that motion capture is used not just in the academic and clinical worlds but also in the entertainment industry to add realism to the digital characters now common in films and games. With nothing to lose, I started to fire off CVs extolling the virtues of my biomechanics background. I had no industry exposure but had the technical know-how and a demonstrated ability to apply my knowledge to a variety of problems, both human and animal. I discovered that a doctorate from Oxford really does impress people outside academia, although I'd be hard pushed to say whether that's down to the doctorate or the name Oxford. I also discovered that outside academia, people can very quickly label you as overqualified for anything other than research and development. I found it hard to persuade employers to have a flexible outlook on what a Ph.D. graduate is capable of or can stoop to!

Life as Token Scientist on the Set

But I was lucky and almost immediately landed a job at a movie special effects company as Chief Biomechanist--or "token scientist" if you will--taking my motion-capture experience out of a clinical setting and using it instead in an entertainment one. This is how I got to work on Troy and other movies. Was it exciting and glamorous? Well, most days were actually very much as I had hoped my academic life would be. I'd wander into the office (no clock watching) and spend the day trying to solve problems or debating technical theories at the white board.

For example, people would come to me with a current animation figure that needed to be changed somehow: into a different proportion or even a different species! My presence was also required on the set when we were filming scenes that included animals, a process that can lead to long and surprisingly physical days. I even survived the temperaments of a number of different film types, including actors, stuntpeople, directors, producers, animators, and PR people.

But after the announcement of my pregnancy, my company hastily revised the permanent contract they had offered me to a 6-month one. The week after the contract finished, I gave birth and went freelance. Since then, trading under the name Equine Mechanics, I've worked as a consultant on a number of films and am now producing a motion-simulation software tool that could replace the use of live horses altogether.

My expertise (scientific and practical) in working with horses now gives me great job opportunities and makes for a highly employable niche. I am registered with the Home Office to supervise the filming of animal performances and hold the only U.K. license for supervising animal performances on a treadmill. I also do biomechanical performance assessments for horses and riders to identify problems in symmetry, carriage, impulsion, or limb placement, for example, so that they can be addressed in training, or in order to help to predict future performance potential. I have also set up an agency sourcing animals for film shoots. I've even recently started looking into forensic biomechanics (a branch of forensics that concentrates on accident reconstruction, understanding who would have been in the driving seat, whether Humpty was pushed, and so on), in which I would again specialise in horses.

I've noticed a lot of people are taking this sort of portfolio career approach. I think that to be a scientific consultant, in films or anywhere, you have to keep evolving. But saying that, I try not to overdiversify myself; I just find new markets for my existing strengths.

I have a son and a husband, and these days money matters a lot more to me than it used to. Certainly this is a well-paid role, but it's not a financially secure one. And self-employment comes with no maternity leave or health insurance. I move from contract to contract, and as each one ends, I get that familiar aching fear that I may never work again. This is another reason why I pursue so many projects at once.

Balancing Family, Business, and Academia

As a consultant I get to work from home most of the time, and I have the flexibility to spend time with my family. I'm lucky that my husband now works with me full-time, so when I go on location, we all go, baby included. The lifestyle suits me. And although I don't naturally like long-term projects (my Ph.D. was quite an effort!), interestingly, these days, with so many things on the go, I can pull off long projects without ever hitting boredom. Still, the job isn't for everyone, and more to the point, there aren't that many opportunities in the sector. Last year a magazine called me the only scientist working full-time in the film industry, and as far as I know it's still true. Undoubtedly, I was lucky.

I have decided to try my luck again with academia while continuing my consultancy work. I am currently halfway through a 6-month postdoc, in an equine biomechanics research group near Paris, where we have relocated. This postdoc started in the same way as every other, with a speculative application, and may or may not become a longer term project. I'm ostensibly here to keep up my publication record and consolidate my position as an animal biomechanics specialist. But I'm really here because I have always admired this research group, and I had to know, bad experiences aside, am I still an academic at heart? If academia, a sector I had spent nearly a decade training for, was ever going to work for me, then it was in this setting and subject.

But even though I'm thoroughly enjoying the postdoc, this doesn't mean I can see myself making a permanent, full-time return to academia. The frustrations and the lack of status and money come flooding back too quickly. And I think universities would be wary of offering me anything full-time or permanent whilst my consultancy practice exists. And let's face it, using motion capture to simulate 400,000 Greek warriors and to minimise the danger stuntpeople or animals are exposed to is pretty rewarding and fun.

I think that the key to landing your dream job, for all your years of dutiful toil, is the fact that you have experience in what you're really interested in. I love biomechanics, but I also love animals. For now at least, my job will remain my guilty pleasure and academia my sabbatical.

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