Kansas City’s top animation firm reaches even higher as they search for challenges. Owner Shaun Hamontree explains.
Shaun Hamontree has shaken hands with Princes William and Harry in the royal receiving line in London. He’s met actors Dame Judi Dench and Daniel Craig, the latest incarnation of James Bond, as a result of his firm’s visual effects work on “Quantum of Solace.” Hamontree’s company, MK12 (mk12.com), is a design and filmmaking collective that has created work for Google, Red Bull, Fidelity Investments, artists like Common and films such as “The Kite Runner.” But these achievements pale in comparison to his work on “Particle Fever,” a feature-length documentary about the God Particle that may help answer some of the most fundamental questions about the universe.
Hamontree sits on the patio of record Bar and sips on a Boulevard Pale Ale. His hands wave as he explains how MK12 crossed paths with Dr. David Kaplan, a professor of theoretical particle physics at Johns Hopkins University who studies supersymmetry, dark matter and properties of the Higgs Boson particle––perhaps the greatest discovery of mankind.
“Dr. Kaplan wanted MK12 to create animation that would help explain the scientific theory behind particle research and this discovery in a visual way,” says Hamontree. “It’s the most challenging project I’ve worked on to date. Unlike our work on films or commercials that have a shelf life, this film will become part of the doctrine on particle physics.”
Over a year ago, Kaplan contacted MK12 about the idea for a documentary film titled “Particle Fever” that would use raw footage chronicling the scientists and experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) outside Geneva. There, physicists have spent their entire careers devoted to the subatomic particles that the LHC was built to detect. The most famous particle being the elusive Higgs boson, or God Particle, so-named because its discovery could help answer questions about parallel worlds and other mind-blowing scientific enigmas.
The LHC is one of several particle detectors around a 17-mile tunnel built out of supermagnets and buried 500 feet under the Swiss Alps, connected by an over-ground complex spanning two countries and consuming ten times the energy of Geneva.
At the time, Kaplan had little funding for the film project, but Hamontree was intrigued and signed on. Discussions proceeded but the project hit a lull for lack of funding and due to Kaplan’s intense scientific work. Then, Kaplan called and told Hamontree that he had secured funding and other collaborators for a full-length documentary film.
Mark Levinson, a particle physics scientist that became an award-winning director (“The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain”) and Walter Murch, a multi-Oscar Award-winning film editor and sound designer (“The Godfather” trilogy and “Apocalypse Now”) had signed onto the project.
Hamontree says, “This small project turned into a big film.”
“Particle Fever” follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the LHC, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet.
MK12 created animation for parts of the film where dialogue and voiceovers explain the mechanics behind the science. “Kaplan wanted a visual representation at a basic level. It needed a visual cue to help people understand,” says Hamontree. However, Kaplan didn’t care for the “antiseptic” graphics typically seen on the Discovery Channel. “We added an aesthetic to it but it had to be scientifically accurate down to how particles would actually move in reality.”
The project was supposed to last five months but extended to just over a year. Hamontree and MK12 finished their work on the film in June. Working with an esteemed film director and editor as well as a brilliant scientist made the project challenging at times, but Hamontree was thrilled to be involved with the film. And, the timing couldn’t be better while worldwide interest in this discovery remains active.
The Higgs boson was observed for the first time in July 2012 and only confirmed as a discovery in March this year. A great deal of uncertainty remains about the impact of this particle and how the universe works. With the help of MK12, this film will reveal the efforts of scientists to unravel the mysteries of the universe. “Particle Fever” will enable audiences to view a significant scientific breakthrough as it happens. Imagine being able to witness Thomas Edison turn on the first light bulb.
Dr. Kaplan and the filmmakers are currently working on distribution for the film. Visit particlefever.com to learn more and sign up for email updates about the project.