The Journey from Physics to Filmmaking

Ian Harnarine

Ian Harnarine. Photo by Elizabeth Harnarine

“Physics to me is about understanding the universe around us and art is the representation of the universe, including the people in it,” said alumnus and filmmaker Ian Harnarine (MS 2005 physics). “While studying physics I became more interested in the stories of the scientists and the science, than the actual science. Most scientists are remembered for their discoveries, but I am drawn to their humanity and the ways in which their work and their passion can be relevant and relatable to everyone. At the end of the day, I love the thrill of discovery, whether of a scientific nature or of a more inward-looking personal discovery.”

Harnarine began his journey of personal discovery in his native Toronto. The child of Trinidadian immigrants, he had a passion for film but also demonstrated a talent for science. That talent earned him a scholarship to York University where he earned an undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy.

“During high school I was really fascinated with how the world works and the ‘big’ philosophical questions. I took physics in high school and it changed my view of the world around me. But at the same time, I had a love for photography and movies. Luckily, I had teachers both in physics and the arts who really pushed me to explore them both. It seemed natural to me,” he explained.

It’s the search for understanding that still draws me to physics....I have a huge respect for those who devote their lives to the search.

“When it came time to apply to universities, I applied to both science programs and to film school. I ended up getting rejected from film school but accepted into the sciences. I can’t say that I was crushed because I really did love science and there was a bit of scholarship money involved, so it was a simple decision. With that being said, throughout my undergraduate education, I made good use of the film library at school and continued on with my personal photography. It served as a nice break from my otherwise rigorous education in physics.”

For graduate school he chose the UIC Department of Physics. “The research being done there was really top notch and Chicago is a great city. The department is relatively small and you get to know everyone and become part of a community. Some of my fondest times were studying with my fellow first-year grad students at all hours of the day and night in our offices at SEL. If we weren't there, we’d be grabbing food on Taylor Street or exploring Chicago, since a lot of us were new to the city.

“The physics department is chock full of people who changed my life. Professors Nikos Varelas and Mark Adams gave me the opportunity to do particle detector research in DeKalb Illinois. I’ve never lived in a rural environment like that before, so it really influenced my perspective of America. 

“I also took a philosophy of physics class with Nick Huggett in the Department of Philosophy. The course really challenged the way I thought about science. Professor Huggett is a giant in the field and it meant a lot to be able to learn from him in a small-class setting.”

Harnarine also made time to take graduate-level art classes and he credits Deborah Stratman, a moving image assistant professor, with “opening my eyes to the fact that you could make a living by ‘doing art’.

“Above everyone at UIC though, I'm in much debt to Professor David Hofman, who became my thesis advisor. I was a member of his amazing research group, which allowed me to do research in experimental nuclear physics at an accelerator. His group of post-docs and grad students was amazing. I was struck by their passion and love of their work. It’s incredibly inspiring to work alongside such smart and cool people. Professor Hofman is a great advisor, physicist, teacher and most of all, he’s a giving person. When I told him that I wanted to leave physics to pursue filmmaking, he was extremely encouraging and supportive.”

Ian Harnarine with his Genie award for filmmaking

Ian Harnarine with his Genie award for best live-action short drama. Photo by Elizabeth Harnarine

Harnarine completed his MS, but ultimately had to follow his heart and went on to earn an MFA at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where he now teaches both physics and filmmaking.

“I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and work with Ian during his time here at UIC,” said Hofman, who is now acting head of the department. “His passion for physics, interest in our universe at large, and his deep concern and care for people were an inspiration for all of us who knew and worked with him. He was an outstanding researcher and teacher who created motivation, excitement, appreciation and a deeper understanding of physics in our undergraduate students. He is also a world-class artist and filmmaker, and I still recall how excited I was when Ian said he had been accepted to NYU in filmmaking. I look forward with anticipation and great interest to following his career and seeing how he will continue to combine his science and his art in ways that I have absolutely no doubt will touch us all.”

Still from the film Doubles with Sight Pepper

Still from Doubles with Slight Pepper.

Harnarine is currently working on developing his award-winning thesis film, Doubles with Slight Pepper, into a feature-length film. The original 16-minute film and Harnarine’s effort to secure funding for the feature have garnered some impressive media attention with coverage in The New York Times and a nod from Filmmaker Magazine, which selected him as one of the 25 new faces of independent film. The film’s story draws on his understanding of the immigrant and transnational experience, family dynamics and the father-son relationship.

Still from the film Doubles with Slight Pepper

Still from Doubles with Slight Pepper.

The fact that controversial auteur Spike Lee is the film’s executive producer doesn’t hurt development efforts. “Spike was a professor of mine at NYU and he holds regular office hours. It’s kind of amazing, but you can sign up for office hours with Spike Lee,” said Harnarine. “He’ll read your script, watch your film and offer advice. It can be surreal to be sitting in a room with one of your idols and seriously discussing your script. The media gives a certain perception about him, but I’ve never known anyone who is as devoted to developing and helping young talent as he is.”

In addition to the Doubles project, Harnarine is working on a film adaptation of the novel Soucouyant by David Chariandy and with Lee is co-writing a film based on Time Traveler, the story of physicist Ronald L. Mallett, who continues his efforts to develop a real time machine.

There is much precedent for moving between, and weaving together, the worlds of science and art. “The creative folks I most admire for their treatment of science are Stanley Kubrick, who directed the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Aronofsky for Pi, and Robert Zemeckis for Contact,” said Harnarine. “Of course, the sitcom The Big Bang Theory is like a documentary of my first year at UIC and it does a wonderful job of respecting physics while still making it accessible.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a physicist who inspires me. He had a knack for explaining things in a way that was accessible to all and he possessed a slightly different perspective that gave much insight into the world. Because of his unique perspective, he dabbled in the arts and pretty much anything that he was curious about. 

“It’s the search for understanding that still draws me to physics. I don’t think that we as a civilization will ever be able to understand everything, but we try and we’ve done a pretty good job so far. I have a huge respect for those who devote their lives to the search,” said Harnarine.

“Most of all, what I appreciate about physics is the ability to solve problems. Physics forces you to analyze, ask questions and look at things from different perspectives. These are skills that one can apply to anything that pops up—on a film set, in screenwriting or in everyday life.”