Interview with Alberta Chu of AskLabs

Innovative, engaging, entrepreneurial…. cool… these are the words that ran through my head as I settled down at a table in Flour in the South End with Alberta Chu, on a wet Thursday afternoon.   Alberta Chu is the Producer, Writer and founder of Asklabs, a documentary film company based out of Boston’s South End that produces science programs and films.  The tea was hot and the conversation was scintillating as Chu, who presented at Nerd Nite last September, talked me through some of the finer points of  everything from #SciArt to education to social media. (edited for length… sort of)

JS: People have this idea that you can either be a scientist or an artist and I feel like that’s kind of frustrating because there is a disconnect when you start isolating things like that.
AC:Yea, well today people really have to specialize in things.  Like, if you’re an artist you’re over here with the artists.  Even if you’re a scientist there are all these different fields, everything is a specific subset within a field. There is a disconnect, but I think there is a bridge of intersection. Like, there are some scientists and some artists who kind of don’t see the boundaries.  It’s really all about creativity and innovation, and there is a place in human nature that is you want to try something new and explore something new and discover something or explore something, and that’s really where the intersection is.  Like scientists artists are, a lot of times, using the same process to make something or figure out how to make something or to investigate something but in a more philosophical way, and they kind of can feed off of each other.

JS:So would you say there are a lot of similarities between the creative and scientific process.
AC: Yea, a lot of the best scientists are really creative, they are creative like an architect.  They are kind of creative within their field and they have to think out of the box.

JS:When we talk about this intersection I feel like we are talking about a lot of different things and lately i’m coming across the term “SciArt” a lot.  Can you talk a little bit about exactly what “SciArt”is?

AC:Well there is a whole field of scientific illustrators, people who draw, medical illustrations, animals and dinosaurs, and there is a big group on G+. Then there is another kind of area that I would call “Science and art collaborations.” Like, let’s say Harvard medical school has a residency for an artist.  So they have a full time artist there who spends time with all the scientists and all the doctors and then synthesizes the knowledge that they get from being around medicine and science and create thought provoking art works about science.  So that is kind of like an artist that is more like a philosopher, but also an artist can inspire these scientists and doctors to try something new.  You know, when you’re having the kind of brainstorming that is cross disciplinary, that is always beneficial.  So then there is another area that is scientists that are studying creativity in artists, so that’s kind of psychology and how the brain works and creativity. So, that’s one area.  But then there is another area, what i’m doing, where you use film to communicate about science and engage the public.

JS: So you started out as a Biologist, and then you moved into working in movies?

AC: Yes, I did science consulting for science fiction movies and then I started working in documentaries after that.

JS: What kind of science fiction?

AC: X-Men and Alien Nation, science fiction.  I would meet with the screenwriters and help with research and come up with ideas that kind of thing.

JS: So they aren’t using just made up pseudoscience?
AC: Well they are, but the best science fiction is always plausible… so the best science fiction is based on fact… So I would meet with them on that.

JS: So, How long did you do that for?
AC: Oh I don’t know, a couple of years?

JS: …and then you decided to move to Boston?
AC: No, then I worked in Television in LA, in documentaries.  I wanted to make Science Documentaries.  Actually at Nerd Nite someone asked me why I stopped doing science fiction, and I just thought it was more interesting for me to really tell these true stories about science rather than science fiction.  But science and science fiction kind of help each other.  It’s an interesting relationship.  I posted something on my blog about the fiction of science fiction….I mean the really good science fiction from a long time ago, like the 60’s, is now becoming kind of true.   A friend of mine works at Google, and he works at the creative Labs.  When they first came out with the Google Glass they brought it too their department and they made a movie, totally fiction about what they imagined something like Google glass would be able to do.  They they showed it to the heads of Google and they were like, we can make it do that.  They were giving them ideas and it made a total loop.

JS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that Star Trek really inspired them to learn about science and I feel like that’s exactly what it should do especially good science fiction.. at the very least it makes you think maybe the impossible really is possible.
AC: I know, it can just really open your mind.  I mean that’s what art and science can both do that is similar.  They expand our thinking, they make us wonder, they open our minds to what could be possible.

JS: Why do you think we separated it for so long?
AC: Well, the history of it I guess, is with Descartes the french philosopher.  In defining what science was they had to push against something, that was art.  So, that’s when it started to become something separate.

JS: I love that it’s sort of all coming back together, I just wish that this had happened when I was back in elementary school.
AC: Yea, but now their doing this whole STEM to STEAM education that’s real neat.

JS: I know of that, but maybe you can explain some of the details.
AC: It’s a way to describe K-12 curriculum in schools.  STEM is Science Technology Engineering and Math and STEAM is putting the “A” for Art and Design into the equation too.  So integrating arts into the STEM curriculum.  So, it’s a big movement right now that’s gaining popularity.  Someone who’s really pushing for it in legislation is John Maeda who used to be at MIT media Lab and now is the head of RISD.  So there are like people and activists groups pushing for it.

JS: That sounds awesome.
AC: You know all the budgets cuts at all the schools, they cut out is art and music! Oh my god. There is an article in the NEA…I can send you a link it’s about does art help scientists be more creative.  So, there is a professor in New Mexico he researches how creativity changes the brain, how art changes the brain….He is saying that things like paper folding and being able to envision things, (have you ever heard the stories about Nichola Tesla, you know he’s the father of electricity, he invented the internal combustion engine… but he would imagine the machine in his head and then build it… ) The ability to envision things like paper folding, music, those are things are going to help people really understand math and science and engineering.

JS: So, to backtrack for a second, you moved here in?
AC: I moved here in 2003

JS: What initially drew you to the arts?
AC: Gee, I don’t know….  I’m Chinese, I was born in LA and I was always a really good student. I was always really good at Math and Science, so it was kind of like I was born to become a doctor or an engineer, that was the thinking of my parents.  I don’t think I ever went to any art museums or galleries as a kid.   I think I took a humanities class when I was in Junior High and I LOVED it.  Then I minored in Art History in college.  But, I love art, I mean… I just love art.

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Alberta Chu spoke at Nerd Nite this past September. Photography ©Geoff Hargadon, 2013

JS: Now other than the filmmaking have you tried any more traditional art like painting or sculpting.
AC: No, well.. I did when I was a kid, but no I never have.  think I probably don’t think I can do that but I think that maybe I should try it some day.  I guess I just really like art, and think of it as an expression of human creativity and think of it as something we can do and machines can’t.

JS: So, who are some of your favourite artists?
AC: Hmm.. I like modern art.   James Terrell.  Gee, I don’t know… favourite artists.  Richard Serra.   Yea… I really like a lot of that minimal art, but I really love all art.  Let me come back to that, I’ll think of something good.

JS: So, I watched some of your clips online, and I loved the one about the wall sculpture, AC: “Seeing the Landscape“. What was it like working on that?
AC: I went to New Zealand I think two times, to shoot that.  I wasn’t there when they were drilling the foundations but they shot that, so I could have it as part of the film.  I was there when they were delivering the plates, so I did a week of shooting them.  I had someone shoot time-lapse stuff all year and then when it was done there was a big dedication party and I went back to shoot the finished sculpture and it was so beautiful when it was all done.

JS: How long does it take you to develop that idea? and how do you decide who you’re going to focus on?
AC: That was the museum in New Zealand that invited me to make the film, so that was a commission.  Right now i’m making a film about coral conservation and i’m making a film about genomics.  Those are films that are ideas that came from me, films I want to make but I don’t have anyone giving me the money so I have to raise the money to make them.  Another way to do it is, if you have an idea is to pitch them to a TV network and then if they want to do it they’ll give you half the budget or most of the budget but, then that means you have to make it the way they want it.   Where if you do it independently you get to make it just the way you want it but then you don’t get any money from anyone.  But you can also raise money from independent sources like foundations, crowdfunding, Kickstarter…

JS: So from that point to shooting how much pre production would you say you did.
AC: The first time I went I had a cinematographer who was local and I had a shot list and my interview questions and then I had a year in-between to plan for the next shoot, so I worked on other things in between.

JS: So the actual pre-production isn’t too lengthy.
AC: I can be, it depends on the project.  This was pretty laid out.  The plates were there.  It was happening… there wasn’t any chance it would fall through.  I worked on it, on and off for two years.  Then after I came back after the second shoot, I was editing it for almost three months.

JS: Then what happened to it after you’re done with it?
AC: It’s part of their exhibit.  It’s on their website.  I had a premier screening at the MFA here, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  I didn’t do film festivals with that one because it wasn’t an independent film technically.  Even though it was because they didn’t tell me what to do.

JS: How are the self initiated ones different?
AC: Well, it takes a long time to raise money for films.  But, now we have kickstarter… so that’s different. For the independently funded films raising the money is a big part of it.

JS: Will this change your process?
AC: No, because for instance when you’re writing your proposal for money, you still have to write a treatment for your film, which is actually what you have to do anyways when you’re planning your shoot.   When you’re writing all your proposals for money that’s just time you’re not getting paid for so there is other work you do for the cash flow like corporate videos or other small things that come along.

JS: So what do you do in your “down time”?
AC: I don’t do a lot of corporate videos but I do a lot of science communication videos and i’ve been working on building my social media network.

JS: Well, I really enjoy following your twitter feed.  You have a lot of good posts.
AC: Oh thanks! I try to keep it interesting.  I try to post stuff that i’m interested in and we are interested in the same things.

JS: Can we talk a little bit about the video “Putting it Together,” because I watched it and absolutely loved it?
AC: I did that with MIT.  It was a student group at MIT and they have these really big ideas and they can really make a difference.  When you can crowd source innovation with a reward, or something, you can really get things going.  I think that’s a really interesting thing that the internet has brought.

JS: I was totally blown away by their idea.
AC: Yea! That was a cool video.

JS: So, they found you or your found them?
AC: I found them.  I was actually making a film for this films about innovation contest, but yea. I found them I thought they were great and young, and they were all so articulate.

JS: So, for some projects you work as a freelancer, some you work for someone, some you work on commission and some are totally independent. What would you say is the most challenging thing about working in so many different capacities.
AC: The hardest thing is really to know when to take a break.  Because you’re always juggling so many different balls and phases.  But, I guess I have to make myself take time out and be inspired and remember why this is so important.

JS: I’ll be honest, the hardest thing for me to do is take breaks too.  I can get really into it.
AC: I know, because we’re all living inside our computers right now. … actually, I started doing this “unplug” weekend.  It used to be I’m on my computer to edit something, or to write something or to work.  Now i’m on my computer to socialize like, Facebook is a party… and sometimes I have to turn it off.

JS: Finally, I know you were named one of the Best Dressed people in Boston 2013.  How did that come about?
AC: [pause for laughter] I don’t really know.  Writers contribute a list of people and then the editors chose.  They had a diverse list… over the years they have been making a conscious effort to show the new Boston.

JS: That’s pretty awesome. I assume I will make it onto the list some year. (that’s a joke)
AC: Yea!

JS: So, they went and photographed you.
AC: Yea. I did a blog post about this.  I set up my shoot at the Edgerton Center at MIT, because it’s like art and science.  There was a photographer and I pretended I was a runway model for an afternoon and he took pictures, he was really fun.

JS: Did you pick out what you wore?
AC: Yea, I had like, five outfits and then we decided which ones we thought would photograph the best and then the interview was just on the phone, separate on an other day.

JS: That must have been fun!
AC: Yea, it was fun, it was really fun.  But I’m not that stylish.

A woman of many talents; a filmmaker, writer, social media maven, mom and burgeoning fashionista, with no shortage of ideas by the end of our conversation I was feeling very inspired and although there is something irreplaceable about the Nerd Nite experience, I was feeling much less disappointed about not being able to attend her presentation.   It is edifying to talk to someone who continues to explore the innovation around us and I am excited to continue our conversation sometime.

Alberta Chu and AskLabs can be found online on their website, Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Vimeo channels.