Mar 9, 2017
The Making of the Riri Williams Pi Day Video
Chris asked to meet with me last fall, in late September. We sat down in an office in MIT Admissions. “For the spring admissions video,” he said, “I basically want to make a two-minute trailer for the new Iron Man with Riri Williams.” This sentence, and the conversation that we had afterward, was what would eventually turn into the video you all saw posted on Tuesday.
For those of you that aren’t Xtreme Nerds (and/or don’t particularly follow Marvel), Chris was referring to the (then) recently released new concept for the Iron Man comic series, a 15 year old black woman from Chicago studying at MIT. She was to take over Tony Stark’s place as the new Iron (wo)Man.
Art from the Iron Man comics
A lot of people at MIT were of course ecstatic, and in particular quite enthused that Marvel decided to go into real MIT details, making sure to state that Riri was a resident of Simmons dormitory. Erick made an excellent blog post about it at the time. (I, personally, was confused that they managed to get Simmons right but somehow messed up the MIT motto in the Avengers: Civil War movie :P)
Chris and I had a couple more meetings after that first one. He had worked with Loren S. ‘17 in the past for last year’s bb8 droid video and the previous year’s drone video, so he’d already contacted him again to ask him to come aboard for this year’s video as well. Given the much more extensive computer graphics work needed for this year, Chris had another producer in mind--Cowboy L. ‘20 (yes that’s his real name) who had submitted a video reel he’d made as a part of his application to MIT, and had a YouTube channel including some of his own computer graphics work.
Loren, working with the steadicam we borrowed from Student Cable, an MIT group that helps students make professional-level video projects.
Cowboy, holding the steadicam for the Lobby 7 footage.
Lastly, we needed a cast. Ayomide F. ‘18 came up in a couple discussions we had because she had worked with Latasha in the admissions office previously. Ultimately, she became our lead (and only) actress.
Ayomide, featured in some admissions publications sent out to prospective students earlier this year.
Ayomide is a junior at MIT (Class of 2018) who studies Chemical Engineering. She’s very active in the MIT community as Panhellenic President, and frequently dances or performs in productions around campus. She danced with Mirchi, MIT’s South Asian fusion dance team, and lives in Maseeh. It was in part because of her acting and performance abilities that we thought she’d be great as Riri, and were even more encouraged when she was eager to take on the role.
Ayomide in her Riri Williams outfit that we used in the video, photographed by fellow student Chheangkea I. '17
Now that we had a full team, Chris and I got started working on the actual story of the “trailer” we would have. We based it on the existing Riri introductory comic, and a lot of the fanart that was on tumblr. We’d follow Ayomide as Riri, putting together her Ironheart suit at MIT, and in a bunch of real places at MIT. From there, as the resident Mechanical Engineer, I worked on identifying all the actual locations (particularly labs and machine shops) we could film in, and sent many many emails to many many people asking for their time and permission.
We did a lot of filming, and though I knew from the beginning that not everything could possibly fit into the final video, I cried at the loss of several really-frickin-awesome scenes. Probably the one that hurt the most (because it looked the coolest!) was cutting out the glass lab footage that Annie C. ‘18 helped us put together. Fortunately, Chris cut together a quick teaser for fun that includes some of the glass lab shots!
Annie and Ayomide in the glass lab.
The actual, final-cut video contains footage from: Simmons dormitory, Lobby 7, Classroom 10-250, the Edgerton Center, the Center for Bits and Atoms’ Machine Shop, the MIT Wind Tunnel, Barker Library, Stu’s office in MIT Admissions, and of course, outside all over the campus. Lastly, all the inside-of-the-mask/HUD shots were taken inside the MIT Admissions office with a green screen background.
Outside MIT and Lobby 7
We now live in the future, and you know because the aerial shots of MIT were done by a drone! I really enjoy all the tops of the buses on bustling Massachusetts Avenue, and the bright light over Stata--it’s surprisingly clean and beautiful footage. When we followed Ayomide while she was walking or moving, we used a steadicam, which (pretty self-explanatory) keeps the camera stable while in motion. That provides the nice cinematic sweep as Ayomide walks into Lobby 7 of MIT (if you look closely you can see me in the background, sitting on the floor and guarding our stuff) (I was the one filming the behind-the-scenes footage, so there’s never any real footage of me doing stuff--I’m behind the camera!)
10-250 is a classic MIT lecture hall, in the sense that pretty much anyone who’s been a student here in the last 100 years or so has probably had to have class in it at some point. This is because it is big, capable of housing 450 students, and as I learned from this article, one of the most requested lecture halls in the institute, in use 90% of its available time. So, it made perfect sense to make Riri Williams attend lecture here--although, you can make students go to class, but you can’t make them pay attention, as she demonstrates by half-listening, half-doodling in her notebook in the video.
That scene was filmed during a real lecture that was just continuing as normal while we filmed quietly in the background. Dr. Simona Socrate stands at the blackboard, teaching 2.001: Mechanics and Materials. I like this scene a lot because it almost looks made up--stereotypical MIT professor surrounded by tons of random equations, cliche. But that’s actually an exam review lecture (if you listen very carefully you can hear the students panicking) and all the students in that class sitting around Ayomide really did need to know all those equations on the board by their exam time the next week!
MIT Wind Tunnel, Edgerton Center, and Center for Bits and Atoms Shop
The MIT Wind Tunnel was my first excursion into the Aero/Astro department ever, and it was pretty darn cool. Fellow blogger Allan K. ‘17 helped set us up with some of his classmates who were planning to do some aerodynamics testing there, and I was sent on a reconnaissance mission--to get the relevant contacts of wind tunnel staff, and see if it was feasible for filming. After confirming that it was possible, Chris, Cowboy, Loren, and Ayomide filmed the torso testing scene there with the help of David Robertson, who manages and maintains the wind tunnel.
The Edgerton Center is home to student projects and affiliated with some classes. Ayomide really does know how to weld in real life--a skill she learned as part of D-Lab, a group of courses that aims to teach how to perform engineering in developing countries/settings. Ayomide has access to the Center, and so we chose it as a place where we could take some great shots of metalworking, as well as Ayomide spray-painting at the camera lens (presumably, some part of the suit) outside.
The Center for Bits and Atoms shop is the name of the machine shop on the first floor of the Media Lab, a place where I UROP in real life and Chris was once a research assistant. I had business hours access to the shop, but we needed the help of Mike Skuhersky, a masters student (known affectionately by many as “Blue”) to get us in on the weekend. This was where the torso hologram was filmed.
In the process of all the filming, one of the important (and awesome!) people we’d need is Virginia A. ‘18. Virginia is one of my own close friends and an actual resident of Simmons dormitory (Ayomide herself lives in Maseeh, and I live in New House).
When I was asking around about rooms in Simmons, she let us use her room for filming Riri’s room. We all greatly appreciated it, and I personally felt it was a cool and important feature of the final video. Including someone like Virginia in the video, even tangentially, meant that although Riri Williams is a fictional MIT black woman, she’s played by a real MIT black woman, directed by a real MIT black woman, and “lives” in a real MIT black woman’s dorm room, something I thought was pretty awesome. It shows that all of Riri’s characteristics can be found, collectively, among all of the black women at MIT, and I’m glad that there’s now an additional story among all the fictional stories where people can witness this identity.
Virginia (on the right) and I, being friends :)
Virginia's dorm room in Simmons
Editing and getting ready to release the video was probably one of the most strenuous parts of this process for Cowboy and Loren, who worked hard performing amazing video magic to bring our abstract concepts to life. It was strenuous for me and Ayomide because we were supposed to kind of keep this project a secret, and I was itching to tell everyone all the time all over the place, writing 5 blog posts about it in the process.
Some of Loren’s CGI work creating the Iron Man suit
Final edits night at the New Media Center with Chris and Loren!
There were a lot of things each of us thought were important during the editing process. I wanted to make sure that the engineering portrayed in the video made reasonable, real-life sense. When it came time to color-correct the video, admissions officer Latasha Boyd, seconded by Ayomide, brought up concerns about skin lightening, an unfortunate phenomenon that happens when photo editors are either careless or subconsciously favor lighting and color editing that washes out darker complexions. Cowboy and Loren were hard at work making sure the shadows and lighting of their own CGI creations made sense and were realistic. I was constantly impressed by everyone’s close attention to detail.
And then the video was posted, and I got to work writing this blog post, which brings us full circle!
Me, performing the less epic looking, but still strenuous(!) work of blagging
Riri W. ‘20
Who is Riri Williams? This was a question that we set out to answer, in a way, through our 3-minute video. The inspiration for the storyline came from Marvel, but even before any of the comics were released, people were already excited and talking about the new character. Why?
I once took a class called 21G.190: Modern Chinese Fiction and Cinema. Dr. Feng-Mei Heberer, who taught the class, once said, “the effect of a lack of representation is sometimes only visible in the limits of your imagination. Can you imagine an Asian Batman? Why not? How come that thought doesn’t even cross our minds when we think of Batman?” It extends to other areas of life--is the programmer you think of a Muslim woman? I happen to know quite a few. Is the mechanical engineer you think of an African woman? Can you imagine a biology researcher, who’s also a transgendered man?
People were excited about Riri because she opened up the spectrum of imagination--for people in and outside of the demographic of black women. It makes you think, I can imagine a black, female, mechanical engineer--because I’ve seen one. It allows people of that demographic to imagine themselves that way, too. Raul B. ‘17 sent an email out to Simmons dormitory the day that the video was posted, notifying his living group of their fictional dorm-mate Riri. “To be a senior,” he said, “and to think that this video can inspire little girls of color to apply and get accepted into MIT. Damn, it's really something!”
Every type of person is welcome to study at MIT, and there all sorts of different people here. I hope that any combination of a demographic present at MIT and a field of study that we offer is a person we can always imagine.
Riri Williams came to life almost more satisfyingly across the internet and tumblr, and that’s where we drew many of our ideas for the Pi Day video from. Fanart and fanfiction has always made its home in the margins of books, sketching beyond those limits of imagination (and there's an MIT class on that subject, too!)
Fanart by blogger alumna Rachel F. '12, who also drew Riri's avatar for when the video was posted as a blog post. It's a young Riri trying to balance an inverse pendulum, which is a classic robotics controls problem!
If you happen to create your own, we’d love to see it in the comments!