Memory in the Movies

by Graham Edwards

The memory bubble sequence from "Brainstorm"

Memories. According to the song, they light the corners of your mind. From time to time, they also light up the silver screen, in such classic memory movies as Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento.

Many such films deal with the concept of memory manipulation, that well-worn science fiction trope in which heroes and villains alike try to record or otherwise meddle with human remembrances … often with disastrous consequences. Let’s just be grateful you can’t manipulate memories in real life.

Or can you?

Recent scientific research has started to unpick the mysteries of the human mind. Take the Lifenaut project, which is exploring the feasibility of storing and replicating human consciousness. Its researchers already claim the ability to scan your brain and record your memories – they’re even offering to beam the recordings into space for inquisitive aliens to decode.

Sounds fanciful? Not according to the website of MTT Neurotech, the company which supplies Lifenaut with those all-important brain scans:

“It is possible to record conscious thoughts as a stream of consciousness, and to store our recorded thoughts is a private manner for reconstruction and use in the future.”

There’s a catch, of course. It’s hidden in that phrase “for reconstruction and use in the future”. While the memory-scanning technology may be coming along nicely, the ability to play those memories back is still way beyond our reach. As Lifenaut points out:

“At the moment we do not have a “memory disc player” but MMT Neurotech expects that such a device will become a reality in the near future.”

If you’re impatient for that elusive “memory disc player” to appear on the market, you might be encouraged to learn that brain replication is in fact already possible. If you’re a worm.

OpenWorm is an open source project whose mission is to create an entirely digital worm. In a recent advance, researchers uploaded a simulated worm brain into, of all things, a Lego robot. Want to know what happened when they turned the worm on? Check out this video:

Of course, here at Cinefex, what we’re concerned with is movies and visual effects. Never mind whether or not memories can be manipulated. What does a memory actually look like?

Science can help us here too. Recently, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine used fluorescent markers to tag memory-making beta-actin mRNA molecules inside the brain of a live mouse. The results are visible in this short video, which effectively shows memories actually being made:

Let’s face it, the science behind the mouse-brain video may be mind-blowing (almost literally), but as entertainment it leaves a lot to be desired. Luckily for us, the subject of memory manipulation has already been explored by some of cinema’s greatest visual thinkers.

Foremost among these is Christopher Nolan, whose thematically connected trio of memory films comprises Memento, Inception and Interstellar.

In Memento, the short-term memory loss suffered by Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is the springboard for an on-screen narrative that plays out backwards. Light on visual effects, this early film of Nolan’s explores the workings of the human mind largely through editorial sleight of hand.

Ariadne experiments with gravity in one of the dream worlds of "Inception". For this composite shot, Double Negative rotoscoped actors Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio from the Paris background, then used photogrammetry to digitally re-create the environment.

Ariadne experiments with gravity in one of the dream worlds of “Inception”. For this composite shot, Double Negative rotoscoped actors Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio from the Paris background, then used photogrammetry to digitally re-create the environment.

For a more spectacular look at the workings of the human mind, we need to turn to Inception, which follows Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he plunges through nested layers of other people’s dreams … and into his own haunted past. Along the way, Nolan unleashes a dazzling series of startling visuals ranging from inverted gravity fields to folding cityscapes, all cunningly designed to demonstrate the power of his characters to manipulate the dreamscapes into which they’ve been plunged.

The Tesseract scenes in "Interstellar" were filmed on a stripped-down set with a plexiglass floor. Visual effects artists at Double Negative digitally replicated the Tesseract set up to 220,000 times to create the multi-dimensional environment seen at the climax of the film.

The Tesseract scenes in “Interstellar” were filmed on a stripped-down set with a plexiglass floor. Visual effects artists at Double Negative digitally replicated the Tesseract set up to 220,000 times to create the multi-dimensional environment seen at the climax of the film.

In Interstellar, Nolan goes a step further. When space pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) enters a black hole near the climax of the epic space adventure, he finds himself inside a hyper-dimensional construction called a “tesseract”, within which a kaleidoscopic array of memories has been laid out for him to explore.

Inside the tesseract, memories exist as captured moments of time, each one contained within the four walls of the bedroom of Cooper’s daughter, Murph. Each memory is thus a kind of bubble, so it’s no surprise that Interstellar carries visual echoes of another, earlier film in which memory bubbles play a crucial part.

That film is Brainstorm, the granddaddy of all memory movies. Released in 1983, and directed by VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull, Brainstorm chronicles the development of a memory-recording device by scientists Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken).

Partway through the film, Reynolds suffers a fatal heart attack, during which she has the presence of mind to don one of the experimental headsets and record her own final moments. The resulting “death tape” becomes the plot device about which the rest of the film revolves.

When scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) suffers a fatal heart attack, the experimental brain scanner to which she is attached records her experiences as she dies, as shown in this still from Douglas Trumbull's 1983 film "Brainstorm".

When scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) suffers a fatal heart attack, the experimental brain scanner to which she is attached records her experiences as she dies, as shown in this still from Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 film “Brainstorm”.

Rather than a series of rooms, Brainstorm imagines memory as an infinite array of bubbles, each containing a different scene from a person’s life. The dizzying sequences in which Trumbull’s camera plunges through three-dimensional gridworks of memory bubbles were achieved using a specialised horizontal animation stand called a Computerised Multiplane System – “Compsy”, for short.

Capable of moving multiple layers of artwork through up to twelve different axes, Compsy worked round the clock to create Brainstorm’s memory bubble scenes. Each individual bubble was built up from three separate pieces of film – one for the fisheye motion picture footage visible inside the transparent sphere, another for the reflection bubble shape, and a third for the matte, which would be used to mask the bubble from its neighbours.

Artist Carolyn Bates prepares the basic artwork used to generate distant arrays of memory bubbles for the death tape sequence in "Brainstorm". A 4x5 still camera, mounted on a curved track, would advance on the backlit bubble transparencies, making incremental exposures on to a single piece of film.

Artist Carolyn Bates prepares the basic artwork used to generate distant arrays of memory bubbles for the death tape sequence in “Brainstorm”. A 4×5 still camera, mounted on a curved track, would advance on the backlit bubble transparencies, making incremental exposures on to a single piece of film.

One look at a still from the memory bubble sequence – which features thousands upon thousands of such multi-layered orbs – should prove that the task of putting human thoughts on the silver screen is enough to make any visual effects artist’s brain explode.

Few other films present the mechanics of memory as audaciously – and successfully – as Brainstorm. Yet, despite the difficulties of visualising consciousness, the human mind remains a potent playground for ambitious filmmakers, ensuring that this peculiarly cerebral branch of moviemaking will continue to, well, stick in the mind.

Whatever your taste, there are plenty of memory movies to choose from. There’s the mind-trafficking nightmare of Strange Days, penned by James Cameron and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which posits not only a memory-recording device called a SQUID, but also the kind of playback apparatus those researchers at Lifenaut are working so hard to perfect.

Or maybe your tastes run to the Martian mysteries of the 1990 sci-fi hit Total Recall, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man who buys himself an artificial memory of a holiday on the red planet … and ends up fighting for his life?

Oh, and who could forget the innovative cranial screw-top surgery of Steve Martin, in his role as Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr in The Man with Two Brains?

Which memory movie do you remember most fondly?

Arnold Schwarzenegger in a memorable performance as Douglas Quaid in "Total Recall" (1990)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in a memorable performance as Douglas Quaid in “Total Recall” (1990)

“Brainstorm” photographs copyright © 1983 by MGM/UA Entertainment Company. “Inception” photograph copyright © 2010 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “Interstellar” photograph copyright © 2014 by Paramount Pictures. “Total Recall” photograph copyright © 1990 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures and via IMDb.

2 thoughts on “Memory in the Movies

  1. Not sure if this qualifies, but I was quite fond of “The Cell” (Cinefex 83). That was before my time at Cinefex, but I had the pleasure of covering the film for an online publication, and very much enjoyed delving into the imagination of visual effects supervisor Kevin Tod Haug, talking about all arts of freaky things that he got up to with Tarsem Singh and Jennifer Lopez. It’s been a while since I saw the film, but I recall some very effective transitions where characters slip in and out of dream states, and other peoples’ subconscious. In one scene, JLo is sitting up in bed, inebriated and half dozing while watching “Fantastic Planet” on TV, she stares at her bedsheets and, as the camera pans across the crumpled linen, the folds melt into the sand dunes of the Namibian desert where something peculiar occurs.

    David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” also is still very powerful (and gruesome) in the way it slides in and out into nightmare realms of body horror delusion. Not sure if that qualifies as ‘memory,’ because at one point it feels like the movie has permanently crosses into the main protagonist’s nightmare, and never returns.

    I am quite fond of “Brainstorm,” especially James Horner’s score and the ‘blow my socks off’ scenes. My prize for best of all of these Memory Movies goes to “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because that came the closest to what my own dreams and memories feel like. I had the honor of interviewing visual effects supervisor Louis Morin for that one, back when we were syndicating our online Cinefex Weekly Update, and I recall Louis mentioned I was interviewing the wrong person because ‘the real magician’ behind the film was director Michel Gondry. So far, I’ve never been able to nab monsieur Gondry for an interview, but I remain a fan. He and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman are an amazing team.

    • yeah the cell and Total Recall was another one. I liked how they in Total Recall they used minis for some scenes and little camaras in the train going by to the tell the story when Douglas Quaid / Hauser comes to Mars.

      Sadly you dont see the miniatures and CGI anymore. Hopefully they will blend it more and more

Comments are closed.