Data visualization often references comics, film, and mythology for inspiration. The emotional and visual nature of entertainment media provide powerful lessons for us on how to better communicate complex information to a broader audience. But just as we benefit from Hollywood’s tips and tricks, feature films also take short-cuts from our world to weave audiences through its narratives.
Charts, maps, timelines and other diagrams have been used across the entire history of cinema for exposition (pausing to explain the backstory of the film’s universe or the plan for the next adventure) and mood creation (establishing a detailed and complex world such as the cockpit of a spacecraft or the detective’s mental map). Here’s some of the best of Hollywood dataViz:
My favorite Hollywood timeline is also a map. Apollo 13’s “failure is not an option” scene centers on Flight Director Gene Kranz’s chalkboard diagram. He uses it to explain to all of us in the audience that there is a big gap between when power runs out at 45 hours and SPLASH DOWN 143 hours after launch. This helps summarize what’s happened in the film so far and frames the high stakes and technical challenge that the next scenes will tackle:
Doc Brown’s use of a simple timeline to explain the alternate 1985 world of Back to the Future II is another excellent movie chalkboard diagram. Like Apollo 13, it helps orient us to what’s happening in this film’s universe and where the action is headed. Teaching on a chalkboard also reinforces Doc’s eccentric character:
Any conversation about classic movie timelines must include Al Gore’s scissor lift stunt from An Inconvenient Truth. It helped punctuate and take mainstream hard lessons from science about global warming: CO2 and temperature are correlated, and we have recently generated CO2 levels that are terrifyingly off the scale:
George Lucas is my favorite Hollywood cartographer. Indiana Jones films use maps extensively to boost the excitement of the adventures. Iconic travel montages help us understand where we’re transitioning to, build out Indy’s world by showing us the technology of the day (including how often you had to refuel), and pay homage to the 1930s serialized shorts that inspired the franchise:
Raiders of the Lost Ark features a Map Room where the location of the Ark is revealed, and Dr. Jones Sr.’s grail diary from The Last Crusadeis packed with beautiful hand drawn maps — making it perhaps the most delightful treasure map in movie history.
Lucas also uses maps throughout the Star Wars universe, perhaps most expertly in A New Hope as the Death Star slowly approaches and erases the Rebel base’s planetary shield. In addition to illustrating what’s going on, the map becomes the clock on a ticking time bomb and increases the sense of urgency for the Rebels to destroy the colossal weapon.
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