UPG Guestpert: Dano Johnson
Dano Johnson wrote and directed two animated films rooted in geometry.
Flatland, adapted from the 1884 novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, tells the story of creatures living in an oppressive two-dimensional world whose lives are changed through an encounter with the third dimension. The film explores (as does the novella) the ways in which people are often blind to potential scientific breakthroughs and our limited ability to see beyond what is right in front of us.
The novel Sphereland, a sequel to Flatland, which was written by Dutch scientist Dionys Burger in 1965, serves as the source material for Dano’s follow up film Sphereland, which explores the concept of dimensions beyond the third.
We sat down (OK emailed) with Dano to discuss these films, and about converting science and mathematical concepts into drama.
UPG: What gave you the idea to take the novel Flatland and adapt it into a film?
I think all three members of the Flatland team – Seth Caplan, Jeffrey Travis, and myself – read the book in high school geometry and it stuck with us as a unique experience. How often do you read a fiction book in math class? Never! When Seth graduated from AFI’s producing track he was looking through all the public domain books he’d read in school to get an idea for a project and he picked out the thinnest book in his stack – Flatland. He knew me from our days in the e-Learning business and he’d worked with Jeffrey on a TV pilot, so we all started talking about Flatland. There was a previous animated adaptation in the 1960s (starring a young Dudley Moore) but nothing since then. We knew there’d be big challenges to adapt such an ‘unfilmable’ novel but we thought the story was so unique it would connect with audiences and teachers.
In regards to Sphereland, when I first read Flatland in school our paperback copy included Sphereland too. There were a bunch of fun ideas in there that I wanted to explore so during the long hours of animating Flatland I slowly formed my idea for the sequel movie.
UPG: Is there a Flatland fan base? Do many people know about the novella?
DJ: There is a Flatland fan base of sorts. When we were first starting work on the movie we made a little teaser trailer and Seth went to a math teacher conference to present it. We assumed that every teacher would know about Flatland, but when we asked them less than half said they’d heard of it. One of the fun parts of independently marketing our film is when we visit math teacher conferences and interact with people who’ve never heard of Flatland. The minute you start explaining this strange little book their eyes light up and they want to hear more. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the film What the Bleep Do We Know have also popularized the story of Flatland, plus it recently got a nod on The Big Bang Theory. Many popular science programs and books that delve into string theory or higher dimensional physics use Flatland or similar analogies to explain the concept of dimensions. The great thing is that there is always someone learning about Flatland for the first time and if they’re seeking information they’ll run across info about our movie too.
UPG: You have a surprising number of “name” actors playing roles in these films: Martin Sheen, Kristen Bell, Michael York, and Kate Mulgrew to name a few. Was it difficult to attract them to this project? Did it take a while for them to “get” it?
DJ: We were extremely lucky to get the cast we did for both films. Once we were able to get through agents and managers, we usually got a quick yes or no response as to whether they wanted to do it. Martin Sheen was very enthusiastic to do it. He really appreciated the social satire part of the book and the script. He was the first actor we recorded and it was truly remarkable to hear him bring our scenes to life for the first time. We’d been working on the script for a year and had table reads and scratch tracks, but hearing his take on the lines made me realize the animation challenge I had to match the great voice acting. Many of the actors, especially Michael York and Danica McKellar, appreciated the educational aspect and wanted to be a part of the films. I’d say they all got it quickly – we always came overly-prepared with storyboards and animatics in case they wanted references but instead it was, “Let’s go in the booth and give it a shot.”
UPG: Flatland and Sphereland have had a lot of play in the educational market. Was that an original aim of the project? Did you have a mathematician or scientist consult on the script?
DJ: Yes, from the beginning we knew the films probably wouldn’t have a theatrical or broadcast release (although if anyone’s interested we’ll take your call!). Seth and I had some experience in the educational market and thought any school that read the book would want to show the movie. So when the first script came out to around 30-40 pages we realized that the movie could probably fit into one class period, something perfect for teachers. One problem we foresaw was that the concepts in Flatland don’t necessarily fit into a curriculum category (for teachers whose calendar is full of ‘teaching for the test’). So we partnered with a few education consultants and math teachers to develop worksheets and activities to go with the movie. We were very lucky to work with Professor Thomas Banchoff of Brown University, who probably knows more about the novel Flatland and 4 dimensional geometry than anyone in the world (Tom also got to know Sphereland author Dionys Burger while he was still alive).
UPG: The two films have moments that rely on explaining mathematical concepts in order to solve problems the characters are facing. It must have been a challenge for you to take this material and dramatize it in a way that makes it both clear and exciting in the moment. Can you talk a bit about how you went about this process?
DJ: I think we learned a lot from doing the first movie where the math concepts are a bit easier (arithmetic dimensions can translate to geometric dimensions). Fortunately for us, the original novel treated this premise through the use of characters – we meet beings of 0, 1, 2, and 3 dimensions. So although we do have one ‘math lesson’ scene explaining dimensions, we then go on to see how these dimensions affect the creatures who are live in those dimensions. It’s a very important thing to understand since the whole novel and movie is in analogy for us to think about the 4th dimension and beyond! The math lesson scene is nonetheless important and through the animatic stage we were able to balance how much to tell and how much to show.
For Flatland 2: Sphereland we treated the math problems as puzzles and the only way to solve them is for the characters to imagine higher dimensions. It’s a bit more theoretical but as the characters work on the puzzles they see that they are all solved by one solution, so the math scenes build on one another and come to a nice, neat conclusion.
UPG: What is your background in math? Is it a subject that has always interested you?
DJ: I was always more of a science kid growing up (I think until middle school my career goal was to be a paleontologist). I had good math teachers and often excelled at it, but I felt science had a ‘story’ aspect to it that appealed to me (I always watched ‘Square One TV’ but really I was waiting for ‘3-2-1-Contact.’ PBS kids, am I right?). I definitely got more interested in math when I had a great class in college from Mike Starbird. His emphasis was less on ‘here’s how to solve this math problem’ and more ‘let’s build some problem-solving skills you will use throughout life via math even though eventually you’ll forget the math.’ I highly recommend his book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking whether you’re interested in math or just creative thinking.
UPG: What are some of the surprising or unexpected responses you’ve received from the film?
DJ: We always get lots of positive feedback from teachers when we meet them at math conferences. I’ve had teachers just walk up and give me a hi-five, saying “I play it every year!” I think the best response has been watching the sequel with a crowd. It has a bigger emotional climax, followed by a joke (sorry, no spoilers) that just brings out big laughs and I love getting that response each time. Also, sometimes it’s fun to search on twitter for ‘flatland’ or ‘math movie’ to see if any math classes are watching the movie. The funniest tweet so far: “hahahaha wtf were watching a math movie about like talking crackers in geometry.” I think somebody also tweeted that Sphereland made them cry, so mission accomplished!
UPG: What’s next? Any plans for Flatland 3-D?
DJ: There are no plans for a third Flatland movie, but I’m sure if we get a great idea we’ll consider revisiting. We have actually had interest in converting Flatland: The Movie for the 3D Imax format (yes, really) but as of now it doesn’t have a green light (or funding). But Seth and I are looking into a few other popular math and science-related novels to option. We’d love to hear anyone’s suggestions for educational novels to adapt – please reach out to us via the Sphereland Facebook & Twitter pages. We really believe that telling stories about math and science inspires young minds and we aim to keep making quality films towards that purpose.
Thank you Dano!