Collapse – Imagining the Future

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by Quinn Kanaly and Noel Dockstader

In making the film Collapse, we took a giant leap into the year 2210 to depict scientists studying the ruins of our fallen civilization. It was a daunting challenge. We often dramatically recreate scenes from the past, but at least we have history as a guide. Imagining the future is a whole new ballgame. You have to make it up, but of course have some scientific logic for what you are creating. What would the future look like? How would the environment change? What would the next civilization be like? What would people wear, what tools and computers would the scientists use? How would they get around? This is the stuff that kept us up at night.

Future wheels — Our scientists would have to cover some serious terrain, so we started with the car. In the event of a collapse, experts point out that society would take a serious step back – just think of the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages that followed. There would be no money, manpower, or big governments to build and maintain freeways. The car would have to be built for some serious off-road. Forget about gas, because there isn’t any. We ruled out anything made in an assembly line because big factories wouldn’t exist. It would have to be built from scrap. After weeks of searching for a suitable ride, we settled on this custom built sand car owned by Paul Chamberlain of Fresno, CA…

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It’s lightweight, can climb near vertical dunes, and skip over rocky terrain without missing a beat. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, and has a top speed of 150 mph (115 mph in sand). Of course that’s with a V8, fuel injected, 600 horsepower gas engine, which would be useless in 2210. But you’ll see in a few of the shots in the film that our future car was modified for appearances with solar panels on the roof. The way global warming is going, one source of energy we may have too much of is the sun.

Future computer — In 2210, it’s safe to say all our computers will be obsolete (yes, even the iPad), so we came up with the idea of transparent, solar computers. These were filmed with clear blank screens, and in post-production, we inserted computer animation of all the spinning windmills, city ruins, and other objects of scientific curiosity. These future computers, which we nicknamed the “Mac Clear”, were inspired by the film Avatar. The animation team at Spypost in San Francisco, who did all of our animations, also worked on the screens for Avatar. But where did we find the prop to serve as our clear glass computer? It’s a $10 picture frame from Walgreen’s drugstore.

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Future Ocean — But not every future scene had to be conjured up out of thin air. One of our favorite moments in the film is the very last, when the diver-scientists are swimming with the whale sharks, and we needed some luck to get it. All of our underwater sequences were filmed off the coast of Cancun, which we chose as a location at the suggestion of our diving marine biologists (all of the future scientists in our film are scientists in real life too). Every summer, in the deep ocean off the coast, the largest sharks in existence stop by for several weeks to feed in the plankton rich waters. But it’s a big ocean, and we spent two hours searching before we finally found them – a group of about twenty sharks scraping along the ocean surface with their gaping mouths. Why would our future scientists-divers come across the whale sharks? Because our marine biologists point out that if the planet and oceans continue to warm, many ocean species could die out, but plankton will bloom. Unlike most sharks, the giant whale sharks, which can grow to 30 or 40 feet in length, are plankton eaters. Of all the large beasts in the ocean, whale sharks may be among the survivors.

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Heat Wave — Collapse or no collapse, one thing most scientists are becoming convinced of is that the future will be warmer. Filming scenes in the desert on the outskirts of Phoenix in the dead heat of summer, it seemed 2210 had already arrived. We didn’t have to invent it. We started at first light, but by 10 am the temperature had already hit 118º degrees Fahrenheit . We wanted to capture what the future might really be like, and got more than we bargained for. We had hiked down a canyon, and were only about 10 minutes from the road. In spite of guzzling water, and standing under umbrellas, our brains were starting to boil. In those temperatures, the body is on the edge. We got our shots of the scientists surveying the ruins of Phoenix, and quickly packed up and headed back to the safety of air conditioning. One of our scientists threw up. In that heat, a half-hour too much exposure can make the difference between living and dying. Two hundred years from now, the mid-summer temperature in Phoenix could be 10º degrees hotter. After our experience, I can tell you, that future really is frightening.

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Video Preview: “Living in Our Own Waste” — We use and abandon technologies of the past at record pace, will humans live in a future full of tech-trash?

Don’t missCollapse based on the book by Jared Diamond, premiering September 18th at 8P et/pt.


  1. Joe2141
    September 19, 2010, 5:15 am

    Since much of the global warning is often attributed to "holes" in the atmosphere, why do we continue with the space program? The economy is in such bad shape, and yet we keep spending billions of dollars sending our world in the downward spiral discussed on "Collapse." Where are our priorities?