Rensselaer Previews New IMAX Movie, "Molecules to the MAX"

February 27, 2009

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Watch the movie trailer!

Movie unveiled for campus community, set for global release in 2009

Students, faculty, and staff at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today saw a sneak preview of the new Molecularium IMAX production, Molecules to the MAX.

The animated 40-minute movie, set for worldwide distribution later this year, follows the adventures of Oxy, Hydro, Hydra, and Carbón as they navigate the nanoscale landscapes of everyday items including snowflakes, coins, and plastic toys. Produced by Rensselaer, funded by Trustee Curtis Priem ’82, and supported in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Molecules to the MAX aims to boost national and global science literacy through the use of story, song, subtlety, and fun.

The movie will be released in 2009 to IMAX, IMAX 3-D, and other giant-screen theaters. Plans are under way for national and Capital Region premieres later this year.

“To better prepare the next generation of innovators to face myriad looming global challenges, it is imperative that we encourage young people to pursue careers in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “Championed by the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center and Trustee Curtis Priem, the Molecularium project and this new movie are powerful platforms through which we can instill a healthy scientific curiosity in people of all ages.”

“The goal of Molecularium and Molecules to the MAX is to make technology fun at the very youngest ages,” said Priem, co-founder of leading visual computing technologies company NVIDIA, who made possible Molecules to the MAX through a generous gift. “We want to see elementary school children pull the education system along by asking their teachers about nanotechnology and string theory, instead of those students having to wait until college to learn about such topics.” 

“Molecularium has the ability to introduce children to the nanoscale concepts at the atomic and molecular levels through exciting films and music while using rigorous concepts and molecular modeling simulations,” said Mihail C. Roco, NSF Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology and director of the NSF National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). “Making these relatively complex concepts accessible and fun encourages children to explore and continue to learn about amazing discoveries at the nanoscale, and what engineers may do with them. Easy conversations open a window to a scientific curiosity that may last for a life.”

Rensselaer professors Richard W. Siegel, Linda Schadler, and Shekhar Garde are executive producers of Molecules to the MAX. Toronto-based SK Films is distributing the film. The production studio behind the movie is Nanotoon Entertainment, which is currently located on Rensselaer’s campus. Nanotoon’s V. Owen Bush is writer/director of Molecules to the MAX, and Kurt Przybilla is the film’s writer/producer. Chris Harvey is the movie’s art director/production designer. Many current and former Nanotoon employees are students and graduates of Rensselaer.

“The sneak preview was a way for us to say ‘Thank you’ to everyone at Rensselaer who, directly or indirectly, has worked on or supported the making of Molecules to the MAX,” said Siegel, who leads the effort and is director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center. “This exciting new movie, made right here on campus with valuable contributions from many different students, faculty, and staff, will be shown all over the world with Rensselaer’s name on it. That’s something of which we should all be proud.”

“The engineers and scientists at Rensselaer had an uncanny ability to communicate with the creative professionals from Nanotoon Entertainment,” said Nanotoon CEO Bush. “We asked something very unusual of them, which was to create scientifically accurate, massive molecular simulations that also carried a narrative and emotional resonance within the world of the story.  The work that we collaborated on was not only to create an unparalleled view into the nanoscale world, but to use the simulations to create a visceral thrill-ride through the twists and turns of Molecules to the MAX.” 

The background animations of Molecules to the MAX are based on scientifically accurate molecular modeling simulations provided by Garde, head of Rensselaer’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.  Some of these simulations are among the most complex ever attempted, and it took massive computational power to both perform the experiments and translate the results into a format useable by Nanotoon’s animators. 

“When you watch a modern animated movie like Shrek, and you see the fabric of the princess’ dress move, it looks quite natural because animators have taken great pains to make those movements as physically realistic as possible,” Garde said. “In Molecules to the MAX, we’ve tried to push that accuracy all the way down to the level of atoms and molecules.”

For Molecules to the MAX, it took up to five computer-processing hours to render a single frame in normal resolution — and each second of the 40-minute IMAX movie is composed of 24 such frames. Both Garde’s research team and Nanotoon employed Rensselaer’s supercomputer, the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI), to work on simulations and animation for the movie. 

The original idea for Molecularium was developed in 2001 by Schadler, professor of materials science and engineering, with the goal of boosting global science literacy and energizing more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering. By carefully engineering the characters, plot, look, and feel of a fun family movie, Schadler sought to create an experience where viewers would get swept up in the storyline and learn or re-learn plenty of important science — without even trying. 

The first Molecularium movie, Riding Snowflakes, released in 2004, funded by the NSF, and formatted to be shown in planetarium domes, is in worldwide distribution and currently being translated into several different languages. Prior to the release Riding Snowflakes, Schadler and the Molecularium team commissioned an independent study to test groups of children, teenagers, and adults before and after watching the movie.

“Results of the tests were crystal clear: children had a fundamentally better understanding of atoms, molecules, and polymers coming out of the movie than they did going in,” Schadler said. “The teens and adults did better, too. Viewers learn without even trying — that’s why we say Molecules to the MAX is a ‘stealth education’ movie.” 

An early digital version of Molecules to the MAX was screened last autumn in New York at an industry convention, and the full IMAX version will be shown to theater owners and potential film buyers in California in March at the Giant Screen Cinema Association 2009 Film Expo. The Molecularium team and distributor SK Films are working to build up a buzz and land deals to show the film in IMAX theaters across the country and around the world. Planning for a national public premiere later in the year is still under way. 

SK Films is a Giant Screen industry leader, founded by veteran executive Jonathan Barker and Robert Kerr, a co-founder and retired CEO of Imax Corp. Amongst other films, SK has been responsible for one of the most successful and award-winning Giant Screen films of recent years, Bugs!, for which it won the industry’s most prestigious award for distribution and marketing.

The Molecularium team is also looking to bring Oxy, Hydra, and Hydro to the small screen. The group is actively investigating the possibility of creating Molecularium shows for television and releasing Molecularium content on DVD.

Molecularium is the flagship educational outreach project of Rensselaer’s NSF-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures.

For more information on Molecules to the MAX and the Molecularium project, visit:

For more information on Rensselaer’s NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures, visit:

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161

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