In Search of The Fly Room

The process of recreating the Fly Room lab started with a visit to Columbia’s Schermerhorn room603. Not even a plaque acknowledges its presence but it could be located with a bit of Indiana Jones style exploration. The Fly Room is on the 9th floor of the building between what are now the Art History and Biology departments.  

With the help of science lecturer Lise Hazen and professors Daniel Kalderon, Stuart Firestein and Darcy Kelley, we were able to access the room. Behind massive wooden doors, we were surprised to still find a fruit fly laboratory inhabited by an odd jumble of items, both old and new. Strange ageless specimens in yellow-tinted jars loomed from above shelves. Underneath, a few modern plastic biological machines had LED lights blinking and hummed at the tune of today’s modern research lab. Some old microscope lights with the rusty inscription “Columbia Zoological Department” were piled up in cardboard boxes beneath, while a few framed photos of the original residents of the lab in the 1920s were scattered on bench tops. And lastly, in plastic vials lined up in metal racks tapped with yellow foam, were the unsung heroes of the 20th century, our beloved fruit flies - the descendants of the lab’s original settlers.

Reconstruction consisted of several steps. First, we were provided floor plans dating back to the late 1800s for the original Columbia Zoological Department (photo included in G Drive) and the research spaces by the Biology Department. In 2009, enriched by these floor plans and recollections from visitors to the lab, we began the process of rebuilding the space.

A Miniature World

Set designer Ika Avaliani constructed a 1-inch scaled model of the laboratory and designer creator Lauren Delaney George helped furnish this environment with miniature tables, milk bottles, and microscopes. Multimedia artist Luis Violante brought this space to life with wired figurines that moved around the lab in a stop-motion animation short film.


Miniature Fly Room Designed by Ika Avaliani & Lauren Delaney George
Character Modeling by Luis Violante
Stop Motion Animation by Dan Scofield
Directed by Alexis Gambis
Produced by Rose Meacham
This miniature lab makes a cameo in the feature film during one of Betsey’s dreams.        

This miniature lab makes a cameo in the feature film during one of Betsey’s dreams.

The Fly Room: Back its Original State

Our team decided to do a teaser of the film in the actual Fly Room lab. Production designer Anna Yates and her team brought back the Fly Room to its original state in just a few days with overnight stays, filling it with with dirty milk bottles, rotting bananas hanging from the ceiling and flies buzzing around old tungsten lights. Our lead actress Zoe was inspired by her first exposure to the surreal world of scientific discovery and insects. Our crew also gave tours of this space to the scientists at Columbia as part of our efforts to revive this momentous time in scientific history.

Recreating The Fly Room Stage At Pioneer Works

As the Fly Room pre-production was taking off, Pioneer Works, a center for arts and innovation in Brooklyn, had recently opened its doors, creating synergy between scientists and artists. Artist Dustin Yellin generously welcomed us to his space in Red Hook where we create a full-size reconstruction of the Fly Room. In about one week, one team of students and professionals came together to construct a 20 by 30 foot Fly Room space. For three weeks in June, we shot the film here and then opened it up as an exhibit and a lecture series where scientists spoke about the importance of model organisms in research.

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