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An Awe-Inspiring Film

Senior Jake Bloch's honors thesis and first documentary, "Awe,” explores the intersection of science and religion.

Senior Jake Bloch created the documentary "Awe" for his religion honors thesis in USC Dorsife. The film investigates and merges scientific theories and religious pursuits. Photo courtesy of Jake Bloch.
Senior Jake Bloch created the documentary "Awe" for his religion honors thesis in USC Dorsife. The film investigates and merges scientific theories and religious pursuits. Photo courtesy of Jake Bloch.

Senior Jake Bloch grew up seeing religion and science mixed together — right on his father’s bookshelf. Books by Alfred North Whitehead sat side by side with those by Albert Einstein, along with Houston Smith and texts on evolution and physics.

That blending of religion and science inspired Bloch’s ambitious religion honors thesis in USC Dornsife. His documentary titled “Awe” explores and merges scientific theories and religious pursuits.

The 21-year-old debuted his first film on April 26 at the Leavey Library Auditorium. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by USC Dornsife Professor of History and Religion Lisa Bitel and featured Office of Religious Life Dean Varun Soni and Nick Warner, professor of physics and astronomy, and mathematics in USC Dornsife.

“Awe” integrates interviews with Soni and Warner with Bloch’s original music and animated representation of the creation of the universe. Bloch, a member of USC’s Student Interfaith Council, is graduating this month with a bachelor’s degree in religion and music.

AWE from Jake Bloch on Vimeo.

“The film is not supposed to answer questions,” Bloch said. “It’s supposed to ask questions. I pitted science and religion against each other, and then showed their parallels. I strung the ideas together using the interviews and, at the end, established a relationship and used the animated music videos to feel a little bit of that.”

His ongoing eight-month production and post-production process for the 15-minute film included developing the narrative with assistant director and USC business alumnus John Ma, storyboarding, shooting with dolly tracks and a crew of 15, some of whom were USC students and alumni, and working on the animation.

“Jake is an extraordinary young man – passionate, inspired and engaged,” Soni said. “This is totally out of the box for what an honors thesis traditionally looks like and he was willing to take on new challenges with this film. I’ve been really impressed with how he had a particular idea and, despite the odds, really blazed his own path with it.

“I believe this kind of multidisciplinary honors thesis could only happen at USC.”

As for his own religious beliefs, Bloch primarily identifies himself as a humanist. He joined the Student Interfaith Council after meeting Soni at an event last year and realized the group had a strong sense of what spirituality meant to him. The student group hosted His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet’s visit to USC on May 3.

“I consider myself a small being in the span of the universe,” he said. “I think it’s empowering when you realize how simple and fragile we are as microcosms of the universe. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Born and raised in Santa Monica, Calif., Bloch grew up playing piano, the drums and the saxophone. He decided to come to USC because he wanted to pursue academic studies in addition to music. He declared majors in religion and music — both of which inspired his film. 

“USC is totally unique in that it has provided me with an opportunity to nurture my creative and intellectual pursuits concurrently,” he said. “This university is a breeding ground for new thinking and innovation.”

Bloch's idea for “Awe” was in fact inspired by music. When recording songs with a friend in his basement a year and a half ago, Bloch had heard a new sound — “a chaotic drum and bass electronic-acoustic crossover,” he called it — and thought it sounded like the creation of the universe. He was also fascinated by Warner’s lectures, featuring walkthroughs of stellar creation and the creation of the universe alike.

Last summer, Bloch worked as a student research assistant for Bitel’s forthcoming book about a woman in the Mojave Desert who has monthly visions of the Virgin Mary. He talked with Bitel, his religion honors adviser, about doing a traditional written thesis at first, but his vision evolved into two short films and then into “Awe,” a unique thesis format for the department.

“He suggested to me that maybe written form wasn’t the best for him,” Bitel said. “I really believe in multimedia scholarship and, since this film is about seeing and believing, I thought why not a visual medium? Jake is quite fearless, smart and able. If I’m allowed to be, I’m quite proud of his work.”

After graduation, Bloch will work an iPad application company called Miso Media, but he also hopes to work in film and will submit “Awe” to film festivals.