A Comic Strip That Skewers Academe Will Become a Live-Action Movie

Jorge Cham, Caltech

March 28, 2011

Grad-student audiences can stop asking Jorge Cham when he plans to bring his comic-strip parody of academic life to the big screen. Piled Higher and Deeper: the Movie began filming a few weeks ago at the California Institute of Technology, and Mr. Cham and others involved with the project are hoping to have the comedy ready for screenings on college campuses by fall.

It would be a brisk turnaround for a cartoonist who has turned his personal relationship with procrastination into a standing joke in his strip.

"You could say I've been procrastinating for 14 years," says Mr. Cham, who created Piled Higher and Deeper, the comic strip, in 1997 as a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University and sustained it through two years as an instructor and robotics researcher at Caltech. Then, six years ago, he decided to throw himself full time into drawing the strip and channeling the angst of grad students he meets while visiting colleges as a sought-after celebrity lecturer.

Turning PHD into a live-action comedy was inevitable, he says, and the drop in digital-production costs, combined with the viral popularity of several recent grad-student parody videos, argued for sooner rather than later.

"I've been talking to Hollywood agents for a while," he says. But many a promising film project has been indefinitely shelved in Tinseltown, and Mr. Cham was unwilling to take that gamble. He says he also wanted to make a movie that celebrated the creativity and talent of scientists and engineers rather than portraying them as "one-dimensional stereotypes or soulless caricatures."

In October he approached members of Caltech's theater community to see whether the university would be interested in collaborating on a video project, and a deal was struck.

Meg Rosenburg, a doctoral candidate in geological and planetary sciences who studies the topography of the moon, says she and others were moved by Mr. Cham's interest in their help. "It was kind of touching that he came to Caltech—which is not a film school, obviously—to do his pet project when there's ... so many other impressive film schools in the LA area."

Ms. Rosenburg, who became the film's student producer, says that Caltech's Moore-Hufstedler Fund for Student Life provided financial support for the project, and that Mr. Cham put up some of his own money as well. In November a casting call went out, and the cartoonist found the real-life counterparts of the characters in his strip: Alex Lockwood, another planetary-science grad student, would play Cecilia; Evans T.D. Boney, a grad student in chemistry, would play Mike Slackenerny; and Raj Katti, a freshman who is mulling a physics major, would appear as the nameless grad student—the strip's true hero.

"I knew I wanted to cast people who would just be themselves," Mr. Cham says, "people who had some quality of the characters in them so it would feel more natural on-screen."

Mr. Cham and Ms. Rosenburg say that two other volunteers have lent the project a professional polish: Lucie Adalid, a cinematographer who is married to a Caltech physics postdoc, and Vahe Gabuchian, a graduate student in aeronautics who does comedic films of his own on the side.

The screenwriter was Mr. Cham himself, who says that the setup-punchline format of comic-strip writing translates well to film.

Filming is scheduled to be completed in a total of seven weekends, Ms. Rosenburg says, and a rough cut is anticipated by June.