image title

ASU at Mesa City Center aims to be world-class hub for digital innovation

New ASU location in downtown Mesa will be a digital innovation hub.
February 5, 2019

New building will house media arts, gaming, film production programs; Innovation Studio will connect to the startup community

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

Arizona State University’s new location in downtown Mesa will train students in the transdisciplinary digital expertise that technology companies are now demanding, according to ASU President Michael Crow.

“This will be the place with everything digital you can possibly imagine, every level of creativity, every level of new company idea and spinout in science and technology and the arts,” Crow said Tuesday at the Mesa “State of the City” breakfast, sponsored by the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

“If you travel around the world, there are a few significant digital innovation centers that exist — in Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, New York City. We’re building one for the Western United States here in Mesa.”

The new ASU Mesa location — scheduled to open in fall 2021 — will house the ASU Creative Futures Laboratory, including academic programs offered by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts related to digital and sensory technology, experiential design, gaming, media arts, film production, and entrepreneurial development and support.

In his State of the City address, Mesa Mayor John Giles said the new economy needs technology jobs.

“I consistently hear the words ‘augmented reality, artificial intelligence, 3D design,’ ” he said. “Mesa is very excited about what is now the reality of ASU coming to our downtown Innovation District.”

Mesa Mayor John Giles and ASU President Michael Crow speak onstage

Mesa Mayor John Giles (left) and ASU President Michael Crow talk about the new ASU at Mesa City Center location at the mayor's "State of the City" breakfast Tuesday at the Mesa Convention Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Crow said the new location will prepare students to work in Mesa’s growing technology sector.

“The hottest thing right now that people are looking for is, ‘Show me a kid who is trained in the arts but also is digitally capable,’ ” he said.

“What we’re looking to do is have a creative center. High school kids, college students attending ASU, businesses in the community — everyone will be a part of this.”

The centerpiece of ASU's presence in downtown Mesa will be a five-story building to be constructed at Pepper Street and Centennial Way, which will draw more than 750 ASU students, faculty and staff to downtown Mesa. Last month, the Mesa City Council selected the architects to design the 118,000-square-foot academic building.

The ASU building is part of the city's efforts to build an Innovation District in downtown Mesa. The district will include The Plaza at Mesa City Center, a two- to three-acre gathering space just south of the building, with an open community space, water features and seasonal ice rink.

The ground floor of the new building will contain an exhibition gallery, screening theaters and a cafe. The upper floors will include production studios, fabrication labs, flexible classrooms and spaces for collaborations with community and industry. The building also will feature an enhanced-immersion studio where users can create augmented realities and map virtual spaces onto physical environments.

Faculty in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre already have been brainstorming with the architects on specifications for the new space, such as the best size for the production studios and whether to include a full-size kitchen, which would not only service students who will be using the space around the clock but also could be used as a set for filming.

Video by Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

ASU also will offer an Innovation Studio in downtown Mesa, run by Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU. The studio would offer a physical space for collaboration and also connect the startup community to the academic programs offered, according to Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU.

“It could be everything from an events space to community-facing workshops, seminars and boot camps on startup methodologies, to demo days or a food showcase,” Choi said.

ASU also is in talks to create a coworking space at the Innovation Studio, she said.

“It could be for one person who’s kind of dabbling with an idea, or it could be an existing company with one or two employees or part-time employees,” Choi said.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation wants to leverage the existing commitment to the arts in Mesa, she said.

“We can see having production-based companies that are in gaming and virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as film and storytelling because of the academic programs that will be there,” she said.

“We think there will be a center of gravity around arts entrepreneurship but not exclusive to that.”

ASU at Mesa City Center will be about seven miles from the Tempe campus (about a 20-minute ride on the light rail) and about 16 miles from the ASU Polytechnic campus in east Mesa, which offers programs in engineering and specialty degrees like air traffic management and professional flight.

The architects are Holly Street Studio, which designed the renovation of the old downtown Phoenix post office into the Student Center at the Post Office in 2013, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which has designed buildings at Disney's Creative Campus, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of California, San Diego. The design and construction team also features DPR Construction, whose projects include Pixar Animation Studio, as well as ASU Polytechnic and SkySong locations.

Top photo: An artist rendering of the proposed ASU at Mesa City Center building.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre launches digital fabrication summer workshop

January 30, 2019

The School of Film, Dance and Theatre in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts is launching a new summer workshop for costume makers, and registration is now open.

Digital fabrication is revolutionizing the approach to making costumes for theater, musical theater, opera, film, dance and even cosplay. But what is digital fabrication? When should it be used and how can it be integrated into producing costumes? Photo of Sarah Lankenau Moench Sarah Lankenau Moench, clinical assistant professor of costume technology in the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre, will lead the Introduction to Digital Fabrication for Costumes series of workshops. Download Full Image

Sarah Lankenau Moench, clinical assistant professor of costume technology, will lead the Introduction to Digital Fabrication for Costumes series of workshops, which will focus on the basics of the software required, how to access and operate the hardware and what types of projects are good candidates for digital fabrication. Workshops will cover how to make simple digital files for fabric printing, laser cutting and 3D printing. Instructors will lead participants through tutorials in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and Autodesk TinkerCad and Fusion 360.

Lankenau Moench’s interest in digital fabrication began during her graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, which led her to create a manual identifying the essential tools in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for use in pattern drafting and scaling and costume crafts. These same tools are now being used to develop coursework and implement the use of digital fabrication in the costume shop at ASU. Drawing on both her academic and professional work experiences, she seeks to find harmony between the analog and digital technologies available today to create exceptional costumes. She has served as staff draper at the University of Michigan, draper for Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin and costume shop manager for the Sarofim School of Fine Arts at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Additional professional credits include a 12-year working relationship with the Santa Fe Opera, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas, as well as contract work in commercials, television and film.

Register online

Dates and times:

• 1–5 p.m. June 6: Introduction to digital fabrication and fabric printing.

• 9 a.m.–5 p.m. June 7: Laser Cutting.

• 9 a.m.–5 p.m. June 8: 3D Printing.

Full workshop cost:

• $375 — Early registration (by March 15).

• $425 — Regular registration (March 15–April 12).

• $450 — Late registration (April 13–May 12).

• $25 – Materials fee 

Single day — Thursday:

• $85 — Early registration (by March 15).

• $95 — Regular registration (March 15–April 12).

• $115 — Late registration (April 13– May 12).

• $10 — Materials fee.

Single day — Friday and Saturday:

• $175  — Early registration (by March 15).

• $195 — Regular registration (March 15–April 12).

• $215 — Late registration (April 13–May 12).

• $15 — Materials fee.

Sarah A. McCarty

Marketing and communications coordinator, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


ASU screen-acting workshop offers students chance to learn from LA-based industry professionals

January 30, 2019

The School of Film, Dance and Theatre in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts is launching a new workshop this summer for screen actors. The Screen Acting Summer Intensive workshop will be held over two weekends in July at ASU Film Spark in Santa Monica at the ASU California Center and also will be available as an online workshop.

Students will participate in small workshops and learn about auditions, tools of the trade, monologues, improvised scenes, teleprompter techniques and voice-over. Photo of Gene Ganssle Gene Ganssle, a lecturer in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, will work with Los Angeles-based coaches to teach the Screen Acting Summer Intensive workshop. Download Full Image

Gene Ganssle, a lecturer in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, will work with Los Angeles-based coaches to bring students a dynamic live and online experience on the business of screen acting. Ganssle has been acting professionally on stage and screen for 30 years in the Phoenix area, with more than 500 films, radio and television commercials and industrial projects and dozens of stage roles to his credit. He has directed plays and feature films, runs his own video production company and has taught classes to thousands of students, including almost 10 years teaching acting and video production at ASU.

The continuing education workshop, which also features practical advice on the Los Angeles and Phoenix markets, is for actors of all skill levels, including community college, college and ASU alumni in the LA area. For students unable to attend in person, online enrollment is available at a dramatically reduced rate for online viewing of recorded workshops, submittal of questions and professional evaluation of self-recorded exercises.

The workshops are limited to 20 slots for the in-person workshop to ensure individual attention.

Register online.  

Dates and times: 

• Weekend 1: Friday, July 12–Sunday, July 14. Cold reads and improvised scene work, on-camera auditioning workshop with LA coach and ASU faculty, scene/monologue work with LA coach and ASU faculty, voiceover workshops with ASU faculty, shooting and review.

• Weekend 2: Friday, July 19–Sunday, July 21. Scene/monologue work and self-taping with ASU faculty, rehearsal and casting workshop with LA casting directors, prompter workshop with ASU faculty, scene shooting, final assessment.

• Classes run 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with a break for lunch.

Cost for in-person workshops in Santa Monica:

• $400 — Early registration (by March 15).

• $450 — Regular registration (March 15–April 30).

• $475 — Late registration (May 1–May 15).

• $250 — Single weekend.

Cost for online workshops:

• $200 — Early registration (by March 15).

• $225 — Regular registration (March 15–April 30).

• $250 — Late registration (May 1–May 15).

• $125 — Single weekend.

Sarah A. McCarty

Marketing and communications coordinator, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


ASU dance clinic features choreographer who has worked with Beyonce, Janelle Monae

January 29, 2019

Dancers from the greater Phoenix area will have the chance to learn from Los Angeles dance industry professionals during a two-day clinic at the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in Arizona State Univeristy’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Developed by Assistant Professor Marcus White, “Industry/Motion” is a clinic that includes master classes, professional development seminars and practical, real-world advice for emerging professionals.   Photo of James Alsop Celebrity choreographer James Alsop will be one of the featured instructors during a two-day clinic at the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre. Courtesy photo. Download Full Image

The featured instructors include James Alsop, YNOT and Chisa Yamaguchi.

Alsop has worked with artists such as Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Kelly Rowland, Janelle Monae and Wayne Brady. In 2011, Alsop won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Choreography as part of the choreography team for Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls)” music video. Alsop works in film and television, has been recognized at numerous competitions and conventions and has performed with off-Broadway productions. In one of her latest projects, she put together a dance video featuring 130 students sharing an anti-gun violence message.

Anthony Denaro, aka YNOT, is senior vice president of the legendary Rock Steady Crew. As a B-boy, he works internationally at judging battles and teaching workshops. YNOT explores the design, sustainability, history and community of hip hop, and his work manifests in architecture, typography, dance and moving image. Alongside his dancing and teaching, YNOT creates two- and three-dimensional visual works that construct the future of the hip-hop aesthetic.

Chisa Yamaguchi is the associate manager for Sozo Artists Inc., an international creative arts agency that features artists such as Wendy Whelan, Lil Buck and Daniel Bernard Roumain. She has worked with renowned Los Angeles-based dance company DIAVOLO for the past 10 years as a touring performing artist, education director, institute director and marketing director. She is a Master Teacher through the Music Center of Los Angeles and has myriad teaching credits that include both national and international teaching residencies and custom-designed lectures.

The dance clinic, which will be held at ASU’s Tempe campus, is open to high school, college and professional dancers who are 16 and older.  

Register online.

Dates and times:

• May 24-25 at ASU’s Tempe campus.

• 9 a.m.-5 p.m. with break for lunch. Four classes per day: two in the morning and two in the afternoon.


• $125 — Early registration (by March 15).

• $200 — Regular registration (March 15-April 12).

• $250 — Late registration (April 13-May 12).

Sarah A. McCarty

Marketing and communications coordinator, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


image title

ASU doctoral student: Use your voice to help those who are struggling

January 24, 2019

Annual MLK celebration honors community members from ASU and around the state who are committed to servant leadership

A person’s voice is their identity — and that can be expressed more profoundly through actions than words, according to an Arizona State University student who has dedicated his career to helping young people find their voices.

“It is important to find your voice because your voice is like your fingerprint — it identifies who you are and what you’re about,” said Dontá McGilvery, a doctoral student in the theater for youth program in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“You may be unable to speak a single word, but if you stand for what is right, you’ve actually said much more than the person who has said many words but done nothing,” he said.

McGilvery addressed a room full of young people at the 34th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus on Thursday morning. He is the winner of the 2019 Student Servant-Leadership Award.

McGilvery, the founder of the nonprofit Sleeveless Acts Drama Company in Phoenix, told the crowd to use their voices to help those who are struggling. As an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, he lived on the streets of Dallas for a year to research homelessness.

“As an artist, I use my voice as a way to protest and for creating space for people of color who are heavily misrepresented and underrepresented across the board, but especially in theater,” he said. “I use my artistic voice so that others can use their voice to stage their own stories rather than having others appropriate their culture.”

McGilvery also is the director of drama ministry at the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix.

“My voice and my work is located at the intersection of body and soul, community and university, church and community,” he said.

The breakfast celebration was just one of several events sponsored by the MLK Committee at ASU, according to Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, vice president of cultural affairs at ASU who served as the emcee of the event. The celebration included the winners of the statewide poster and essay contests for K–12 students, several of whom read their essays.

“ASU’s celebration is built around Dr. King’s example of servant leadership,” she said. “Making the world better through large and small acts of service is what we strive to do at ASU.”

On Wednesday, thousands of young people participated in the “MLK March on West” at ASU’s West campus — a tradition that dates to 1991 — that concluded with a reading of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Throughout January, hundreds of ASU students participated in service projects on and off campus with partners including the Borderlands Produce Rescue food bank, the city of Mesa and the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, Jennings-Roggensack said.

St. Mary’s Food Bank is the winner of the 2019 Community Servant-Leadership Award for its work distributing food to nonprofit partners, fighting hunger in schoolchildren and helping to train people for employment in the food-service industry.

Tom Kertis, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, said that the organization’s clients are mostly the working poor.

“They have jobs, but they just can’t make ends meet,” he said. “Sometimes they’re federal workers who have gone without paychecks.”

He compared John van Hengel, the man who founded St. Mary’s Food Bank in 1967 and went on to found many other food banks around the world, to Martin Luther King Jr.

“Servant leaders change the world,” he said. “They forget about themselves and only care about everyone else.”

Top photo: ASU doctoral candidate Dontá McGilvery speaks at the 34th annual MLK Jr. Breakfast Celebration to honor the commitment to servant leadership within the university and Valley on Thursday morning. McGilvery and St. Mary’s Food Bank received the 2019 awards along with two dozen K–12 students whose artwork and prose illuminated their inspiration for servant leaders. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

image title
January 15, 2019

Researchers across ASU are helping people, robots and artificial intelligence collaborate more effectively, safely and ethically

When we think about robots, it’s usually in the context of their relationships with humans. Some are friendly, like Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons” — a bizarre juxtaposition of futuristic technology and 1950s gender roles. Then there’s R2D2, whose impressive skills are punctuated with adorable beeps and chirps.

Some robots are destructive — like the Terminator, programmed to go back in time to kill. Or the Cylons from “Battlestar Galactica,” cybernetic beings that try to wipe out the entire human race.

It makes sense to consider robots in relation to humans, because robots are created by people, for people. Yet outside of movies and books, it’s easy to get caught up in advancing the technological prowess of robots without thinking about the human element. We need them to work with us, not against us, or even simply apart from us.

“Often when you start thinking about these technologies, the human kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” said Nancy Cooke, a professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School. “People need to be able to coexist with this technology.”

Helping people and technology collaborate well is no easy feat. That’s why researchers across ASU are teaming up to help people, robots and artificial intelligence work together seamlessly. 

Three people, in a lab, peer at a row of monitors. The caption reads: Nancy Cooke works with Aaron Bradbury (left) and Mustafa Demir on the Synthetic Teammate project. Photo courtesy of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Nancy Cooke works with Aaron Bradbury (left) and Mustafa Demir on the Synthetic Teammate project. Photo courtesy of Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

“One of the first things you worry about is team composition. I think it’s an important question to consider who’s doing what on the team,” Cooke said. “We need to make sure the robots are doing what they’re best suited for and the humans are doing what they’re best suited for. You have (robots) doing tasks that either the human doesn’t want to do, it’s too dangerous for the human to do, or that the AI or robot is more capable of doing.”

Cooke is a cognitive psychologist by training. She has spent years working to understand human teamwork and decision-making. Now she applies this expertise to human-technology teams as director of ASU’s Center for Human, Artificial Intelligence, and Robot Teaming (CHART), a unit of the Global Security Initiative.

CHART is providing much-needed research on coordinating teams of humans and synthetic agents. Their work involves everything from how these teams communicate verbally and nonverbally, to how to coordinate swarms of robots, to the legal and ethical implications of increasingly autonomous technology. To accomplish this, robotics engineers and computer scientists work closely with researchers from social sciences, law and even the arts.

What can human-robot teams do? There are lots of applications. Scientists can explore other planets through rovers that don’t need air and water to survive. Swarms of drones could carry out search-and-rescue missions in dangerous locations. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can assist human employees in automated warehouses, on construction sites or even in surgical suites.

Teaching teamwork

“One of the key aspects of being on a team is interacting with team members, and a lot of that on human teams happens by communicating in natural language, which is a bit of a sticking point for AI and robots,” Cooke said.

She is working on a study called the “synthetic teammate project,” in which AI (the synthetic teammate) works with two people to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle. The AI is the pilot, while the people serve as a sensor operator and navigator.

The AI, developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, communicates with the people via text chat.

Two men operate a drone simulator in a lab. The caption reads: Mustafa Demir (left) and Aaron Bradbury fly a drone with assistance from a synthetic teammate in Nancy Cooke's lab. Photo courtesy of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Mustafa Demir (left) and Aaron Bradbury fly a drone with assistance from a synthetic teammate in Nancy Cooke's lab. Photo courtesy of Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“So far, the agent is doing better than I ever thought it would,” Cooke said. “The team can function pretty well with the agent as long as nothing goes wrong. As soon as things get tough or the team has to be a little adaptive, things start falling apart, because the agent isn’t a very good team member.”

Why not? For one thing, the AI doesn’t anticipate its teammates’ needs the way humans do. As a result, it doesn’t provide critical information until asked — it doesn’t give a “heads up.”

“The whole team kind of falls apart,” Cooke said. “The humans say, ‘OK, you aren’t going to give me any information proactively, I’m not going to give you any either.’ It’s everybody for themselves.”

A need for information is not the only thing people figure out intuitively. Imagine that you are encountering a new person. The person approaches you, looks you in the eye and reaches out his right hand.

Your brain interprets these actions as “handshake,” and you reach out your own arm in response. You do this without even thinking about it, but could you teach a robot to do it?

Heni Ben Amor, an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, is trying to do just that. He teaches robots how to interact with people physically by using machine learning. Machine learning is how computers and AI learn from data without being programmed.

“It’s really about understanding the other and their needs, maybe even before they are uttering them. For example, if my coworker needs a screwdriver, then I would probably pre-emptively pick one up and hand it over, especially if I see that it’s out of their range,” Ben Amor said.

Three men in a lab crowd around a robot clutching a ball. The caption reads: "I’m always having a blast with my students, coming up with crazy ideas,” says Heni Ben Amor (center), shown here with Yash Rathore (left) and Kevin Luck.

"I’m always having a blast with my students, coming up with crazy ideas,” says Heni Ben Amor (center), shown here with Yash Rathore (left) and Kevin Luck teaching a robot to throw a ball. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

His team uses motion-capture cameras, like the one in an Xbox Kinect. It’s an inexpensive way to let the robot “see” the world. The robot observes two humans interacting with each other, playing table tennis or assembling a set of shelves, for instance. From this, it learns how to take on the role of one of the people — returning a serve or handing a screw to its partner.

“The interesting part is that no programming was involved in this,” Ben Amor noted. “All of it came from the data. If we wanted the robot to do something else, the only thing we need to do is go in there again and demonstrate something else. Instead of getting a PhD in robotics and learning programming, you can just show the movement and teach the robot.”

Designing droids

Lance Gharavi also works with the physical interactions between humans and robots, but he is not a roboticist. He is an experimental artist and professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. He has been integrating live performance and digital technologies since the early '90s.

Several years ago, Gharavi was asked to create a performance with a robot in collaboration with Srikanth Saripalli, a former professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I think one of my first questions was, ‘Can he juggle?’ And Sri said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Can he fail to juggle?’ And Sri said, ‘Yes, spectacularly!’ I said, ‘I can work with that,’” Gharavi said.

Gharavi’s team put together a piece called “YOU n.0,” which premiered at ASU’s Emerge event. Afterward, Saripalli told Gharavi that the collaboration had advanced his research and asked to continue the partnership.

“It was primarily about trying to understand the control structures and mechanisms for the Baxter robot platform,” explained Gharavi, referring to an industrial robot with an animated face created by Rethink Robotics. “They weren’t really sure how to work with it. My team created a means of interfacing with the robot so that we could operate it in a kind of improvisational environment and make it function.”

For example, the team created a system called “the mirror,” in which the robot would face a person and mirror that person’s movements.

“What we were interested in doing is creating a system where the robot could move like you, but not just mimicking you. So that you could potentially use the robot as, say, a dance partner,” Gharavi said.

His goal is to give robots some of the “movement grammar” that people have. Or to put it more simply, to make a robot move less robotically.

A portrait of a man, Lance Gharavi, lit dramatically.

“I have a pretty voracious curiosity. I’m interested in all kinds of things. I tend to like big ideas and big stories, which is one of the reasons I’m interested in science and religion and philosophy. Those are the places where we keep our biggest ideas and our biggest stories," Lance Gharavi said. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

“If we’re looking forward to a day when robots are ubiquitous, and interacting with robots is a common experience for us, what do we want those interactions to look like? That takes a degree of design,” he explained.

Such a future may also require people to adjust their perceptions and attitudes. Cooke’s team conducted an experiment in which they replaced the AI pilot with a person but told the other two teammates that they were working with a synthetic agent. She says they treated the pilot differently, giving more commands with less polite interaction.

“Everything we saw from how they were interacting indicated that they weren’t really ready to be on a team with a synthetic agent. They still wanted to control the computer, not work with it,” Cooke said.

In a twist on the experiment, the researchers inserted a human teamwork expert into the AI pilot role. This person subtly guided the other humans on the team, including asking for information if it wasn’t coming in at the right time. The collaboration was much more effective.

Cooke’s team continues to work with the Air Force Research Laboratory to improve the synthetic teammate and test it in increasingly difficult conditions. They want to explore everything from how a breakdown in comprehension affects team trust to what happens if the AI teammate gets hacked.

Assisting autonomy

Cooke is also collaborating with Spring Berman, associate director of CHART, on a small-scale autonomous vehicle test bed. As driverless-car technology advances, these vehicles will have to safely share the road with each other, human-driven cars, pedestrians and cyclists.

Some of the miniature robotic “cars” in the test bed will be remotely controlled by people, who will have a first-person view of what’s happening as if they are really driving a car. Other vehicles will operate autonomously. The team wants to explore a wide range of potential real-world scenarios.

A woman smiles, surrounded by small robots.

Spring Berman studies robot swarms. She often collaborates with scientists who study animals that work in groups, such as ants. In college she worked with a professor studying underwater glider vehicles. "She was looking at how fish school. I thought it was a really interesting concept to use principles from nature to design controllers for robots.” Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

“Autonomous vehicles will generally obey all the rules. Humans are a little more flexible. There’s also the issue of how do humans react to something that’s autonomous versus human-driven. How much do they trust the autonomous vehicle, and how does that vary across ages?” Berman asked.

She is an associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy who primarily studies robot swarms. She says that CHART allows her to consider her technical work in a broader context.

“You’re so focused on proving that the swarm is going to do something that you design it to do. In reality, the robots will be operating in an uncertain environment that’s changing. There are things you can’t control, and that’s very different from a simulation or lab environment. That’s been eye-opening for me, because you’re so used to testing robot swarms in controlled scenarios. And then you think, ‘Well, this might actually be operating out in the world. How will we keep people safe? How are they going to benefit from this? What are the legal issues?’” Berman asked.

According to Ben Amor, robots still have a long way to go before they operate truly autonomously in a safe way. Currently, machine learning is mostly used in domains where making a mistake is not costly or dangerous. An example is a website that recommends products to buy based on your past choices.

A man manually manipulated a robot's arm. The caption reads: Heni Ben Amor works with a Baxter robot in his lab. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter.

Heni Ben Amor works with a Baxter robot in his lab. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Ben Amor notes that robots aren’t good at executing a series of interdependent actions yet. For instance, if a car turns left, it is now on a new street. Any decision it makes now will be dependent on that last decision.

“If you’re learning, that means you have to explore new things. We need to allow the robot to try things it’s never done before. But if you do that, then you also run the risk of doing things that adversely affect the human,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest problem we have right now in robotics.”

In his research, he is exploring how to ensure that this continual learning process is actually safe before conducting those kinds of experiments.

What it means to be human

If the idea of robots continually learning and acting autonomously is a bit unnerving to you, you are not alone. That is why, as ASU researchers work on perfecting the technology of robots and AI, they collaborate with humanities scholars and artists like Gharavi.

“We can’t go blithely forward, just making and creating, without giving some thought to the implications and ramifications of what we’re doing,” Gharavi said. “That’s part of what humanities people do, is think about these sorts of things.”

Gharavi is collaborating with Cooke and Berman on the autonomous vehicle test bed. His role is to create the environment that the cars will operate in, a city for robots that he calls “Robotopolis.”

The autonomous vehicle testbed at ASU. Lance Gharavi and his team will design a city around the vehicles. Photo courtesy of the Autonomous Collective Systems Laboratory.

The autonomous vehicle test bed at ASU. Lance Gharavi and his team will design a city around the vehicles. Photo courtesy of the Autonomous Collective Systems Laboratory

“What I and some designers I’m working with are creating will be something on the order of a large art installation, that will at once be a laboratory for research and experiments in robotics and also an artistic experience for people that come into the space — an occasion for meditation on technology and the future, and also history,” he explained.

Gharavi says what fascinates him about working with robotics and AI is the way it forces us to explore what it really means to be human.

“We understand robots as kind of the ultimate ‘other.’ Whatever they are, they are the opposite of human. They are objects that specifically lack those qualities that make us as humans special. At least that’s the way we have framed them,” he said.

“Through that juxtaposition, it’s a way of engaging with what it means to be alive, what it means to be sentient, what it means to be human. What it means to be human has always been up for debate and negotiation. Significant portions of the population of this country were once not considered humans. So the meaning of human has changed historically,” he continued.

Scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences have a lot to offer scientists and engineers studying robotics. Cooke says ASU’s interdisciplinary approach to robotics and AI sets the university apart from others. It also brings its own set of challenges, just like human-robot collaboration.

“Again you have the communication problem. The language that people who do robotics speak is not necessarily the same kind of language that we speak when we’re talking about human interaction with the robots,” noted Cooke, who chaired a committee on the effectiveness of team science for a National Academies study.

“Multidisciplinary team science can be really challenging, but it also can be really rewarding,” she said about her work with CHART. “Now I feel like I’m living the dream.”

Written by Diane Boudreau. Top photo: A child interacts with a Baxter robot at ASU's Emerge festival. Photo by Tim Trumble

The Polytechnic School; the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering; and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy are among the six schools in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The School of Film, Dance and Theatre is a unit of the Herberger Institute for Design and the ArtsHuman-AI-robot teaming projects at ASU are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, Office of Naval Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Intel, Honda, Toyota and SRP.

Director , Knowledge Enterprise Development


image title

Letting in the light: ASU, artist James Turrell to partner on masterwork in the desert

January 14, 2019

Collaboration will make Roden Crater — a creation of light and perception inside a dormant volcano — accessible to many in the future, will add academic component

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

One of the most important large-scale artworks in the world sits in the desert of northern Arizona, where artist James Turrell has spent decades shaping the landscape into an immersive observatory.

His creation, Roden Crater, is a masterwork of light and perception inside a dormant volcano.

A new and innovative partnership between Turrell and Arizona State University will help complete the artist’s magnum opus on the edge of the Painted Desert, making it accessible to many more people in the future and developing an academic component for Turrell to share his artistic vision and inspire transdisciplinary approaches to creativity. The enterprise seeks to raise at least $200 million to preserve Turrell’s legacy by building infrastructure at the site, including a visitor center, and ensure conservation of one of the nation’s most renowned cultural assets.

ASU and the Skystone Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money and operates Roden Crater, are in the midst of a yearlong planning process, funded by an anonymous gift of $1.8 million, to determine the scope of the project and pilot academic programs. An online course is now being developed with Turrell, and four lab courses are under way this spring in which ASU students will visit the site.

Video by Klaus Obermeyer/

Turrell’s work at Roden Crater is a fusion of art, engineering, astronomy, architecture and neuroscience, and that approach is a natural fit with ASU, according to Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“This one project is one of the best examples of an interdisciplinary exploration that we have,” he said.

“It’s a remarkable artistic and aesthetic expression, a remarkable feat of engineering, a remarkably reflective and contemplative space in a world that seems to be very hurried. It takes you out of your normal routine and puts you into a transformational space to experience the world.”

Tepper, who is helping lead the yearlong planning process, said that when completed, the project will be the first significant academic enterprise built around a singular piece of art.

“We saw all the ways it could connect with so many of our disciplines: sustainability, archeology, geology, astronomy, tourism, landscape architecture,” he said.

The project evolved after Turrell invited ASU President Michael Crow to the site last year to discuss a partnership. Michael Govan, president of the Skystone Foundation, is the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Last year, ASU entered into a partnership with LACMA to increase diversity among museum professionals.

Tepper said that Turrell is interested in accelerating completion of his project, creating new opportunities for teaching and learning, and ensuring access for future generations of visitors. The goal is for the ASU Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising unit of ASU, to help raise at least $200 million to complete the artistic vision within the crater and to build the infrastructure to support visitors in the future. 

The site, which is about a half-hour drive from Flagstaff, is on a dirt road. Inside the crater, which is a volcanic cinder cone, one will have a chance to experience a number of tunnels, rooms and spaces that are mind-altering in their impact.

“It’s been designed to the quarter inch, with each of the 23 spaces envisioned with full awareness of how it’s physically oriented to the cosmos and what is trying to be captured,” Tepper said.

Turrell, 75, who was born in California, is a pilot. He spent years flying around the Southwest to find the perfect site for his project and bought the site in the volcanic field near Sunset Crater in the late 1970s. He has been working on it ever since.

One of the installations at Roden Crater is a 900-foot-long tunnel that acts as a pinhole camera that visitors walk through. The experience is “mind-bending,” according to Kelly Fielder, a master’s degree student in the youth theater program in the Herberger Institute. She was among a handful of students who visited the site last fall in the inaugural lab class.

“I wish more words existed so I could use them to convey what it’s like,” she said.

“You’re walking along this really long tunnel and finally you reach this moment when you realize that you’ve been looking at the sky the whole time but you didn’t understand that until you reach a certain point. For me, it was almost a spiritual experience.”

In another viewing experience, visitors lie down to view the rim of the crater and then gaze upward.

“And then, you start to perceive the sky the way it actually exists and not the way our mind interprets it and you realize the sky is really a big oval on top of you,” Fielder said.

The true experience of Roden Crater is not so much the earth, the structures or the architectural interventions James has created inside, according to Olga Viso, a senior adviser to Tepper who is the liaison between ASU and the Skystone Foundation. She is a renowned independent curator and arts consultant who has known Turrell for years.

“As James likes to say, the work is really about you seeing yourself seeing,” she said.

“He’s creating conditions that allow you to pause, to sense, to isolate specific experiences like understanding the amplification of your own voice or of tracing the path or arc of the sun or moon across the landscape.”

Viso said that one of the planned installations will be a spherical space that, at certain times of the day, will project the adjacent Painted Desert into the crater, bringing this breathtaking exterior landscape inside and into the viewer’s field of perception.

The course that Fielder took was called “Volcanic Arts and Sciences,” taught by Lance Gharavi, a professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and Ed Garnero, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“The class was all about finding the intersection between volcanic sciences and art and blending those to create a showcase performance that we will be performing in February,” Fielder said. “It was an interesting experience in combining different areas of art and science.”

That’s the kind of innovative collaboration that Roden Crater will inspire, Tepper said.

“That’s why James is interested in working with ASU — he wants this artwork to not be exclusive but to be generative of ideas and open to people who otherwise might not experience it, and open to people in other fields,” he said.

The academic work has been exciting for Turrell, Viso noted.

“He’s said it’s a fantastic learning experience ...” she said. “Working closely with an academic institution and with students is pushing him into areas of inquiry that he hadn’t anticipated.”

Viso is involved in working out details of what the site might look like, with a visitor and discovery center that educates participants on Turrell’s body of work as well as the volcanic, geologic and human history of the region. She said the hope is that Roden Crater will also boost tourism and provide economic development opportunities in the area, drawing visitors from around the world.

One of the field lab classes under way this semester is called “Indigenous Stories and Sky Science,” which is significant because the crater is located in the ancestral homelands of a variety of indigenous groups, including the Hopi and Navajo peoples. The course is taught by Wanda Dalla Costa, Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute, an architect and a member of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta, Canada.

“James Turrell is one of the masters who’s not an architect but is an influential figure in architecture because it’s all about the perception, which is what we’re aiming to create in the best-case scenario,” she said.

“He’s very interested in seeing where the synergies are between what he’s done with light and perception and land art and the indigenous worldview.”

Dalla Costa teaches through an indigenous lens, which means collaborating with people from the local community. Her course will include talks by a Navajo math professor who teaches about the Navajo science of astronomy and an archeologist who is from the Hopi reservation, among others.

“They will help us navigate and mediate those sensitive cultural-knowledge boundaries, because it’s really important for me to get this right,” she said.

“We’ll ask ourselves, ‘Whose story is this, and how do we make it have value for the community?’”

Like all the field labs, her class will visit Roden Crater, but to give context, she’ll take the class to other locations in the Navajo and Hopi communities as well. The work will culminate in an exhibition.

“A lot of what we’re studying is representation and how we’re doing a service to contemporary representation and how we can make that authentic,” she said. “I think our exhibition will be an exploration and communication on how we’ve had this science here for a long time.”

While completion of Roden Crater is likely several years away, Viso said that this is a good time for the ASU community to be reminded of the power of Turrell’s work by visiting “Air Apparent,” just northeast of Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 on the Tempe campus. The work, part of Turrell’s Skyspace series, was installed in 2012 and is open to the public 24 hours a day.

“Air Apparent” is best enjoyed at sunrise and sunset, when the changing effects of light can be observed over time, Viso said.

“James is trying to show us that the sky, the earth, humanity and everything around us are in a constant state of evolution and transformation.”

Top photo: Alpha (East) Tunnel looking toward the East Portal at Roden Crater. Copyright James Turrell/Photo by Klaus Obermeyer

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


St. Mary’s Food Bank and ASU PhD candidate selected as 2019 MLK Jr. Servant-Leadership awardees

January 2, 2019

Each year, Arizona State University honors leaders in the community for their commitment to servant leadership in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s admirable contributions to the world. From fighting to end hunger to encouraging representation in theater, this year’s awardees are exceptional examples of how voices can speak out to disrupt the noise and demand change.  

St. Mary’s is the world’s first food bank, and it tackles hunger in Arizona through distribution, children’s feeding programs and employment preparation. Meanwhile, Dontá McGilvery is an ASU Theatre for Youth PhD candidate who has devoted his life to serving marginalized communities and telling their stories.   Tom Kertis, president and CEO of St. Mary's Food Bank, will be accepting the 2019 ASU MLK Jr. Servant-Leadership award on behalf of the food bank. Download Full Image

The two recipients will be presented with their awards at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration on Jan. 24 to conclude a week of festivities honoring King.  

About St. Mary’s Food Bank, this year’s ASU MLK Jr. Servant-Leadership awardee  

St. Mary’s Food Bank is committed to serving the Arizona community through volunteerism by bettering the lives of Arizonans in need, one meal at a time. 

Tom Kertis, president and CEO of St. Mary’s, will be accepting the award on the organization’s behalf. Kertis began his involvement with St. Mary’s in 2003 as a donor and volunteer, joined the board of directors a decade later and became CEO in 2016.  

“We're here to fill a void in our community,” Kertis said. “We’re providing great food to help these people grow and develop, these children grow and develop, and so therefore we’re there to fill this basic human need.” 

The organization distributes food to almost 500 nonprofit partners including food pantries and homeless shelters that represent 13 of Arizona’s 15 counties. Beyond food distribution, St. Mary’s also oversees children’s feeding programs and a community kitchen.  

St. Mary’s hands-on approach to ending hunger includes not only distributing food, but also combating poverty through employment assistance at its community kitchen. Here, those who experience barriers to employment can learn food skills and receive food service training. The organization also offers job placement assistance and support to graduates of the program. 

“At St. Mary’s, we are very fortunate that we have a lot of people who volunteer to help make our community stronger, just like Dr. King engaged the community by rallying people toward a common goal,” Kertis said. “St. Mary's over the years continues to rally people to fight hunger in our community. I think there's some similarities, some parallels there.” 

Meet Dontá McGilvery, this year’s ASU MLK Jr. Student Servant-Leadership awardee 

As a pastor, student and changemaker, Dontá McGilvery takes initiative in marginalized communities to promote representation while simultaneously combating misrepresentation.  

McGilvery is a Theatre for Youth PhD candidate at ASU who hopes to amplify the voices of people of color using theater as a platform, especially for children 

Donta McGilvery

Dontá McGilvery, recipient of the 2019 ASU MLK Jr. Student Servant-Leadership Award, is the founder of Sleeveless Acts Drama Company, a Phoenix nonprofit that strives to combat systematic inequality in the drama industry by telling stories that otherwise might have been left unheard.

“We have to acknowledge a child’s education, and we have to value their education,” McGilvery said. “Not just by putting on cool productions, but by showing them that these productions they are involved in and they are creating themselves can also be a response to the deeper things of life that even adults don’t quite understand.” 

McGilvery is the founder of Sleeveless Acts Drama Company in Phoenix. Sleeveless Acts is a nonprofit that strives to combat systematic inequality in the drama industry by telling stories that otherwise might have been left unheard 

In the spring 2019 semester, he will teach a course he created at ASU titled African-American Theater that explores the work oAfrican-American playwrights. He also serves as the director of drama ministry at the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, where he oversees drama productions. 

“I would like to do this so I can inspire future theater artists to go into the world understanding that life is bigger than our own stories,” McGilvery said. I want to disrupt the curriculum we receive in most universities that’s very much dominated by a white narrative.  

As a student at Southern Methodist University, McGilvery studied social justice. This was an experience to which he credits becoming entirely aware of the systemic roadblocks that oppress certain populations, primarily in regard to people of color.  

From participating in a civil rights pilgrimage in the U.S. South on three separate occasions to traveling abroad to study the conflict between Israel and Palestine, McGilvery developed an understanding of social conflict that he says awakened his consciousness. When he returned to school, he founded the Dallas Improvement Association to provide resources to local families and schools in need.   

During his time at SMU, McGilvery voluntarily lived on the streets of Dallas for a year to research the increase of homelessness and study its impact on students. This unfolded into what he calls “Project Homeless,” a study program offering volunteers of the Dallas Improvement Association to do the same. 

“I’m inspired by the oppression I see,” McGilvery said. “Those who are oppressed and dehumanized in all sorts of ways are the people who inspire me to keep going (…) to help be the voice for the voiceless and help the voiceless use their own voice. That includes women, that includes people of color, that includes youth, that includes those who are incarcerated.” 

McGilvery is an agent of change committed to bettering the community as a whole and creating an equal platform of opportunity — on the stage and beyond. Eventually, he hopes to become a professor so he can continue to preach the importance of representation in theater.  

Ultimately, he said it’s seeing the faces of the lives touched by his service that motivates him to continue and confirms that he’s taking on both the right and necessary actions for the benefit of his community.  

“It’s really not about me,” McGilvery said. “It’s about the people who are encouraged through what I can offer.” 

For more information about ASU events honoring King, go to

image title

Redefining the movie-watching experience

December 28, 2018

Tapping into spectacle, upgrades such as fine dining and babysitting may help theaters draw back audiences, ASU professor says

From the dusk of the drive-in to the dawn of the login, America’s movie-watching journey has traversed a twisty plot of romance, drama, enterprise and disruption in the decades since the first “Automobile Movie TheatreRichard Hollingshead Jr. opened the first “Automobile Movie Theater,” which would later be called a drive-in, in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933.” offered a new way for fans to enjoy the movies on the big screen.

Drive-in theaters delivered more than just movies to audiences in their heyday. These outdoor exhibitions would sometimes include colorful sideshows such as pony rides, bingo contests, dance floors and even laundry serviceCited in Rodney Luther’s study “Marketing Aspects of Drive-in Theaters” published in the Journal of Marketing, Vol. 15 No. 1 (Jul., 1950)., luring audiences from the fancy movie palaces downtown to outdoor carnival-like theaters that were multiplying in America’s bourgeoning suburbs. Drive-in theater owners were very successful — for a while. 

Photo courtesy Orange County Archives/Wikimedia

When movie lovers turned their focus to newfangled technology like television, videocassette recorders and digital streaming services to watch their flicks, the movie house and the drive-in found common misery in falling attendance. Theater operators — indoor and outdoor — had to find creative ways to bring audiences back into public view — and make money. The challenge persists today.

“People, now more than ever, have a wide range of choices in cost and platforms to watch movies,” said Kevin Sandler, an associate professor in the Film and Media Studies program at Arizona State University. “We are seeing fewer ticket sales at the movie box office because of these choices, and so the question is, ‘How do you get people to pay more money to go to a movie?’”

We asked that same question and more of Sandler in a recent Q&A for ASU Now.

Question: The year is not quite over, but it seems that we are seeing a repeat of 2017 when it comes to revenue and attendance at the movie box office — profits are up but fewer people are buying into the theater experience. What is happening, and how are theater operators addressing this shift in movie attendance? 

Answer: How much money theaters make is definitely more important than how many tickets they sell. Exhibitors make a large chunk of their money through concessions and everything that is around the movie rather than a percentage of that ticket price. That puts the pressure on owners and operators to tap into their local communities to try to get people to come to the theater. This is not dissimilar to some of the shifts in exhibition that happened with the introduction to the drive-in where there was a variety of activities around the theater that targeted different groups. At some drive-in theaters during the 1950s, you could bring your laundry; there would be swing sets and hayrides. Drive-in owners also promoted the outdoor theater as a solution to the parking and babysitter problem for families. It was also a place where people could mix and mingle before, during and after the movies.

Exhibitors today have an even greater challenge in luring moviegoers back to the theaters with so many platforms available to potential ticket buyers. One of the things you see is movie theaters and movie chains tapping into the community just as they had during the Golden Age of Hollywood. In those days, the Hollywood studios encouraged local movie theater owners to create marketing buzz in their cities or towns to sell a movie. Such advertising, known as ballyhoo, was accomplished through dazzling marquees, street hawkers, parades, star appearances, partnerships with other merchants and other gimmicks.

Playgrounds and babysitting services are now popping up in some of the big indoor theater chains, and we have seen the rise of dine-in theaters, some of which offer full dinner and cocktail menus alongside conventional movie snacks like popcorn and soda. Harkins Theatres in Phoenix recently brought in live aerialists and jugglers for a showing of the movie “The Greatest Showman,” and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Tempe has partnered with ASU’s film school to bring classroom lectures on films to the movie theater. So the trick for an exhibitor is to make their movie house a destination beyond the blockbusters that come and go throughout the year.

Q: The growth of these destination movie houses is expanding but at an increased price point for moviegoers. Is there a concern among exhibitors that the high cost of creating new activities for moviegoers might see more drop-off in movie attendance, especially among those who don’t have much in the way of disposable income?

 A: I don’t think it diminishes access for moviegoers. I think it does what the old studio system did from the 1920s into the mid-1950s. They had what was called the run zone clearance system, which allowed a film to pass through various regions and markets — from the urban to the rural, to the movie palace to the drive-in, from downtown to the suburbs. It was always class-based, hierarchized ticket prices. So if you wanted to see a new release, you would have to pay a pretty penny to see it downtown, or you could wait several months for its next run in second or third run in theaters that were not as nice as the theater downtown. You had choices. Some people do not have that choice, and to them this whole wine-and-dine theater experience doesn’t matter as smaller cities and rural towns generally will have more traditional theaters.

In this modern model of the run zone clearance system, first run now is the movie theater; the second run could be Netflix, Amazon or Redbox; and third run may be the cable networks. It gives people with expendable income the ability to make a decision about when and where they want to see a movie. The focus now is for the major Hollywood studios to provide good enough content — blockbuster-worthy content — in order for people to buy into this economic logic and the first-run theater-going experience alongside exhibitors trying to make additional money outside of box office ticket sales.

Exhibitors used to make more money because the longer a movie stayed in theaters, the larger a percentage exhibitors would get from the ticket price. Nowadays, movies come and go; they don’t sit as long and the studios are demanding larger percentages, especially for blockbusters. Studios control the pipeline so exhibitors have to find ways to create experiences for moviegoers. The logic seems to be, "If we are not filling the seats the old way, let’s start ripping up the old seats and put in new, comfortable seats and food to enhance the movie-watching experience in theaters because we simply can’t make the money off of the ticket price point."

Kevin Sandler

Q: The competition between exhibitors and on-demand services is now going head-to-head with Netflix, experimenting with the same-date release of original films like the Will Smith sci-fi fantasy “Bright” (2017) and the Sandra Bullock thriller “Bird Box” (2018) — in both theaters and via Netflix. What might this mean for the movie-going experience going forward?

A: I think it's still too early to say what, if any, impact simultaneous releases in theaters and VODvideo on demand services like Netflix will have on the future of the movie-watching experience. The value of the exclusive theatrical window is still essential for franchises and still important to directors and movie stars. When building global franchises, the major Hollywood studios will choose the largest, most conspicuous, spectacular mass medium to launch their product — and that is theatrical motion picture exhibition. Because of the importance of the launch of a franchise in this manner, exhibitors will be relatively safe for the foreseeable future.

In my opinion, Netflix’s simultaneous release of “Bright” to a handful of theaters in 2017 did not do much in terms of affecting the theatrical movie-going experience. In fact, many industry websites don’t even list the film as a theatrical release, even with the low number of theaters at which it screened. What it may mean for the movie-watching experience on the small screen via Netflix is a whole other thing. With 11 million streaming viewers in its first three days on Netflix, “Bright’s” release does suggest that people are willing to watch the opening-weekend premiere of a movie by big-name actors and big-name directors on the small screen, just as they would watch on the big screen. The success of “Bright” may suggest that consumers may not discriminate between the big screen and the small screen for similar content and that blockbusters don’t necessarily need the big screen to be blockbusters. 

I don’t think you will see the impact of simultaneous releases on any significant level until the studio members of the Motion Picture Association of America get involved in exhibition again. Concerns about the studios’ monopoly of the movie business led the U.S. Supreme Court to compel the major studios to divest themselves from theater ownership at the end of the landmark antitrust case U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. in 1948. The court did not outlaw studio ownership of theaters, just certain monopolistic practices associated with it. Nevertheless, the studios divested themselves of theater chains and never really got back into the theater ownership business, despite the relaxation of some restrictions in the 1980s. Just this year, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust division opened a review to determine if the Paramount decrees should be modified or terminated. So, change may be coming.

Q: What role has the dominance of blockbusters played in the evolving movie-watching experience? 

A: People want franchises. This is why they go to the movies — as long as the movies are good, as long as they deliver. Hollywood doesn’t simply make movies anymore. They make franchises that can be experienced across all media and entertainment sectors: toys, videogames, television series, music, broadcast and cable television networks. It is all about horizontal and vertical integration for these global media conglomerates so the theatrical experience, and the blockbusters that accompany it, still needs to be about spectacle, bigness, importance, eventness. 

Alongside the aesthetics, culture and history that we teach in our Film and Media Studies program here at ASU, we also ground our understandings of media within industry. To me, to understand American mass media, you have to first and foremost approach it as a product and understand that the interaction between executives, artists, agents is really all about making the numbers work. Some of our students get a firsthand look at this interaction through the internships we have created at the Sundance Film Festival over the past eight years. It has been a valuable experience for students who have been able to use it as an immediate launching pad for their own careers in the film industry and one of the first things potential employers want to talk to our students about once they have seen their resume.

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival will host screenings in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 24-Feb. 3, 2019. Students in the Film and Media Studies program in ASU's Department of English will serve as volunteers during the second half of the 10-day festival. The 2019 film fest will also see the screenings of three films produced by ASU Sun Devils. The movie "Official Secrets" was co-written by Associate Professor Greg Bernstein of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. ASU alumni Michael Helfant and Alex Witherill also produced the films "Them That Follow" and "Give Me Liberty," repectively.  

Top photo courtesy Pixabay

Suzanne Wilson

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Sundance Film Festival to screen film written by ASU professor

December 14, 2018

The Sundance Film Festival announced its selection of films for 2019, and one of the feature films includes a screenwriting credit for Greg Bernstein, associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Bernstein and his wife, Sara Bernstein, wrote the screenplay for “Official Secrets,” which will have its world premiere at the festival in late January. Photo of Greg Bernstein Greg Bernstein. Download Full Image

Official Secrets” tells the true story of British intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the U.N. Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The movie is directed by Gavin Hood, who is also listed as writer, and stars Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans.

"I am so fortunate and thankful to have a film with such a great cast premiering at Sundance,” Bernstein said. “Most importantly, the film will enable people to learn about a remarkable woman, Katharine Gun, and the very courageous action she took in an attempt to stop the Iraq War from ever happening."

In addition to Bernstein, two other Sun Devils will have projects screening at Sundance. ASU alums and ASU Film Spark  board members Michael Helfant and Alex Witherill are producers for two selected films. Helfant is a producer for “Them That Follow,” and Witherill is an executive producer for “Give Me Liberty.”

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival received a record-breaking 14,259 submissions from 152 countries. The 112 feature-length films selected represent 33 counties. The festival hosts screenings in Park City, Salt Lake City and at Sundance Mountain Resort, all in Utah, from Jan. 24 to Feb. 3, 2019.

Sarah A. McCarty

Marketing and communications coordinator, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts