By Liz Kalaugher, editor of environmentalresearchweb
And no, that doesn’t mean including footage of people attending exercise classes. The S Factor under scrutiny in this blog is the S Factor Workshop on how to make successful science videos, held at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December 2011. The event saw a panel of Hollywood professionals critique 10 entries, picked from a total of 42 submissions by hopeful researchers.
On the panel were marine-biologist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, and his former film-school classmates Sean Hood, now a screenwriter with credits such as horror movie Halloween: Resurrection and Conan the Barbarian to his name, and Jason Ensler, co-producer and director of Franklin & Bash, and director of episodes of TV hits Gossip Girl, Chuck and Psych.
The trio were cheerfully disparaging of scientists’ storytelling skills, saying that many of the videos took the approach “here’s our lab, here’s our kit, come see us some day”. But story is key – “think of it as making a trailer for science”.
One exception was San Jose State University’s Green Ninja. The panel felt this video showed good storytelling, with a character who clearly has a problem – his oversized and ever-growing feet – that he needs to solve.
A useful technique, as detailed by Nicholas Kristof, is to follow the story of one individual and, ideally, to reach an uplifting conclusion. According to Olson, Kristof argues that an article on death is depressing, but an article on people fighting a disease engages. In the same way, a story about coral deterioration could be depressing or dull, but a story about a man interested in coral can catch people’s attention.
Since film is good for conveying emotion and humour but not for transmitting information, it can be useful to break your complex content down to a simple story. According to Ensler, it takes time to develop stories but they can be overdeveloped and lose some of their original spark. Hood stressed the need “to keep hold of that nugget of awe”, and that scientists should “inspire the 11 year old in all of us”.
It’s also worth considering changing the order of events from a “that happened, then that happened, then this happened” type of narrative. Replacing “ands” in the storyline with “buts” and “therefores” can change the direction of the story and add tension, the film experts explained. For example, in Volcano from Space, the storyline could have been “We monitor volcanoes but they’re hard to see so we need new techniques.” Arguing two sides of an issue can also create a good story.
Ensler recommended that researchers set up cameras whenever they are in the field so that they have plenty of interesting footage to use in their videos.
But interesting is not enough; if somebody says interesting after Hood’s latest film pitch, he knows “I’ve failed, because I haven’t grabbed them emotionally”. People are most engaged by people talking, not things, he said, so it’s useful to show a person alongside a piece of scientific kit. Because watching a person speak in real life is different to seeing them onscreen; if you’re filming a talking head, then you need multiple cameras and different angles, as per the TED talks, to stop it from being boring.
That said, many of the films submitted began with somebody speaking to camera – the panel felt there was no need for this. According to Olson, it’s good to arouse and fulfil – grab the audience’s attention, make them want, then fulfil their need. For example, the Mata Eruption video from JISAO (the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean) could have put its amazing video footage of an undersea volcanic eruption right at the start of the film before answering the questions the footage raises. Alternatively, Ensler said the team could have made the audience want by promising them they were going to see some great footage but first explaining why it’s hard to obtain.
As film is a visual medium, it can be helpful to see if you can get the gist of a short film without listening to the soundtrack, the professionals explained. Indeed, one of the most well-received videos – Perspective, which used animated graphics to indicate the relative energy release of large earthquakes throughout history – contained no sound at all, and was praised for its Hitchcockian withholding of information from the audience.
In summary? Every picture (should) tell a story…