Behind the scenes of ‘MIT: Regressions (a history of the Institute)'

The documentary will premiere 7 p.m. May 1 in 26-100

“MIT: Regressions (a history of the Institute),” a documentary film by Luke Igel ’22 and Wesley Block ’22 is set to premiere through the Lecture Series Committee (LSC) Sunday, May 1 at 7 p.m. in 26-100. The film inspects the history of MIT, MIT’s relationship with the federal government, and MIT’s involvement in national events, to name a few. The Tech spoke with Igel about the making of the movie.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Tech: Could you provide a summary in a few sentences of what the film is about?

Luke Igel: MIT regressions is a feature length documentary film that Wesley and I are working on. It covers the history of MIT from World War II up until COVID-19, because that’s an 80 year period in which student life was completely uninterrupted. And most of it is on film. It has allowed us to find different themes and arcs; in this time, the Institute went from a sleepy university to the world's premier capital of technology research.

We go into some specific things like who is actually funding MIT's expansion throughout each period. We find that it starts out with the federal government. As the U.S. government’s influence in MIT’s budget wanes over time, we see the different problems that MIT faces. The different problems that MIT students and professors begin to notice also shift.

The movie covers many many different themes, and I view it more as an odyssey of countless different threads that took place, whether it’s student life, particular professors who made a name for themselves, the presidents of MIT what each of them contributed, and also the U.S. presidents and how they were able to affect the growth of the Institute. 

A lot of our promotional materials meant to kind of capture this. That is to say, they’re meant to capture the many different threads that we’re trying to show in so many different sources of footage. There are probably thousands of camera people involved. We really want to expose people to this hypnotic series of images and photos to really transport them.

TT: How does such an involved project as this come about? What prompted you to undertake this project, where did you source the footage from, how long have you worked on it for?

Igel: I took a gap year during Fall 2020, when COVID was peaking. During that time, I saw this documentary by Adam Curtis [“HyperNormalisation”], in which he took the entire archive of the BBC and just created this sweeping hypnotic history. I realized you could do a very similar treatment of MIT’s footage.

My friend Wesley and I are in the same fraternity. And we’d been talking about films and we knew we wanted to work on something together since we started going to school together. And so I made a parody of that original movie, using that movie soundtrack but MIT’s footage. I sent it to Wes and he’s like, “you have to put a script to this.” So we wrote like a two page script. Then 10 pages. 50 pages. Where it is now. We committed pretty early on that Wesley was going to be the narrator.

We’ve gone through every single decade from the point that we have footage for, onward. And we’ve gone all the way up to the inciting incident that caused us to work on this documentary in the first place, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The actual making of the movie has been really interesting. We start the movie from scratch with each decade, and each chapter gives us a way to start a new project. For each decade, we search through all of YouTube to find any archival footage of MIT. We’ve looked through archival footage of all these big universities, and MIT by far has done the best job at digitizing all of its footage since the 1920s. They put up a lot of stuff online, interviews with professors, all these admissions videos. That's what really inspired us. We saw this one film from 1969 called “MIT: Progressions,” which has these beautiful shots of students just walking from the stud, students hanging out on the grass, taking classes in 26-100. And students talking about the political turmoil in the Vietnam protests that were happening at the time. And there was footage of that quality for pretty much every decade from the 1950s onward. There’s a film called “The Social Beaver” that we used. And from that point forward, we would do every Google Search possible, we would go through the Internet Archive, we would go through everything available online. 

Of course this started during COVID-19. All of MIT’s libraries were completely shut down. So to cope with the fact that a lot of the footage was of pretty bad quality, we ended up running it through this AI enhancement tool. We strung together a bunch of Jupyter notebooks to automatically colorize and upscale the footage. It worked surprisingly well and has allowed us to get way more mileage out of our footage. Overall, we ended up developing a pipeline out of this whole thing. Wes and I wrote the script together, agonized over every single line that goes into it. Wes recorded the voiceover on his end. Nowadays we can do it in the Lewis audio library.

We have a massive index of every video we’ve ever found so that we can attribute the videos to the right people. We storyboarded it, copied and pasted stills and lined it up with the narration, edited it all together, did mixing and sound editing, and ran the footage through the AI pipeline. After all that is done, we show it to people and if they don’t like it, then we do it again.

TT: I watched the promo video you sent; there’s a lot going on even in the promo, which focuses on the 1970s. It features MIT presidents and leadership, as well as external challenges, like President Nixon’s comments about cutting federal funding. There’s also Cambridge history and challenges with housing and busing. How did you make a decision about which events to include and exclude? What did you try to focus on?

Igel: We’re biased towards things for which there’s footage, which means that a lot of the ambiance of what it’s like to be at MIT is deprioritized. And what is prioritized is when something strange happens, like protests, or when Nixon’s presidential tapes leak and he’s talking about MIT.

There’s a lot more that we could choose to do, and a lot of it was determined by whether it fits with the central themes and arcs that we know to last across many decades.

And so the Nixon thing was perfect, because much of the movie is a meditation on MIT’s relationship with the federal government: how it started, how it improved, how it remained very strong, and how it eventually collapsed. MIT still receives the vast chunk of its funding from the government, but the ratio is much different from how it was before Nixon came.

There are other things like housing; when we found out about Tent City, we couldn’t believe that it actually happened. That homeless people and MIT students protested together in front of MIT in response to what we would now call gentrification. There’s so much more media nowadays of MIT’s and Harvard’s increased gentrification of the Cambridge area. And so we figured it would fit and that it would really create this really impressive effect, if we could show that this has been going on for 50–60 years now.

If it fits the thread, there’s great footage of it, and it’s interesting, then we’re doing it.

TT: Were there any events or themes that emerged that were particularly surprising to you?

Igel: This project has taken about a year and a half. We thought it would only take three months. A lot of why it took so long is because we keep on finding these insane threads and rabbit holes. Our chapter on the 1960s lasts for 40–60 minutes or so. And that is because there’s just so much to talk about.

I was very shocked to see how all-encompassing MIT has been, especially with regard to all the alumni who come out of here, and particularly their attachment to MIT’s dorm culture and MIT’s culture in general. For example, it turns out that Claude Shannon [PhD ’40], the father of information theory, used to drive his unicycle up and down East Campus’ halls. All these different people’s countless little anecdotes really excited us. 

TT: Have you shown the documentary to anyone so far? What has the process of soliciting feedback looked like?

Igel: We screened the first hour and 45 minutes, from the 1940s to the end of the 70s, for our fraternity, Phi Kappa Theta. And that itself felt like making a movie, beginning, middle and end. I was very pleased by the reaction. It felt really powerful to be able to see this stream of mini movies, all wrapped up into one long experience. Being able to hear people’s reactions was really good. I was terrified that no one was going to react and it was going to be dead silent. But watching it is like experiencing one long music video, and reacting to it with everyone else made it most meaningful. 

TT: When did you start putting up the “Who is MIT” posters to advertise? Did you intend for them to be linked to the event?

Igel: We wanted to have a teaser one month before the premiere, so around April 1. The posters were Wesley’s idea. And I was scared at first because I was like “this makes our movie look way more combative, way more controversial than it is,” but we did it anyway. And every single person we showed it to had a wildly different reaction, which is exactly what we wanted. And it was memeable too. So we printed out 1,000 posters, made like 12 different variants, and got as many friends as possible to pepper them throughout campus. 

We were not expecting all the parody posters and all that came around. But a lot of the parody posters were doing our job for us; they still had “5-1-22,” which is what we wanted, so we were more than happy. The goal was to set up the ultimate reveal, which was the canonical posters, the Instagram release, and all of the pubbing we’re doing now. 

TT: Is there a central theme/takeaway from the film, or something in particular you hope the audience leaves with?

Igel: Something that the audience needs is an understanding that there is such a massive, vast array of threads and storylines that are taking place in this portion of MIT’s history that we cover, and although we’re only giving you a snippet of it, we do hope to give people a greater understanding and an emotional understanding of what students were going through when they were living in the exact same dorms as us, when they’re taking the same classes as us decades prior. 

We also hope that the audience comes away with an understanding that all the different elements of our lives, the institutions we have, like pass/fail or the reason why our housing situation looks the way it does or why MIT is so hard.

Those are all very determined by these vast historical forces. 

One of our primary goals is that we want to become part of the canon of the movies that inspired us to make this one.

Every 10–20 years there is a really important movie about MIT, usually made by MIT students. “MIT: Progressions” was the primary one we built on. Each one of them really transports you to what life was like back then. And we hope to be able to do the same, both by looking back at those and also creating a snapshot of what the past few years have been.

Update 05/04/2022: A previous version of the article featured a few grammatical inconsistencies in comments from Luke Igel ’22. The article has been updated.