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Capturing science on film

People watching an outdoor screen in Sheffield

People enjoying an outdoor screening in Sheffield’s Peace Gardens.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

For the past few days I’ve been back to the place where I grew up: the city of Sheffield in the north of England. It’s famed for its steel production and snooker, but I’ve been in town for what is billed as the world’s most exciting documentary and digital media festival: Sheffield Doc/Fest. There has been an eclectic mix of films and audio documentaries from around the world to enjoy but I’ve been focusing on a strand of the festival dedicated to “Ideas & Science”.

Among the most talked-about films was The Last Man on the Moon about the story of Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, which I wrote about on Monday. There have been screenings of Brian Knappenberger’s portrayal of the life of Aaron Swartz in The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. I haven’t seen it yet but a friend described it as “incredible”. Another film inspired by the Internet is Web Junkie, which looks at China, where Internet addiction has been classified as a clinical disorder.

Of course, the festival isn’t just about sitting back and watching films. The main reason I came here was to meet people involved in the craft of making films about science. There were some excellent sessions on Tuesday, including one in which academics were invited to pitch their research to a panel of television-industry folks. It wasn’t a competition as such, but it was clear that these academics are serious about getting a break in the industry. Here is a clip of molecular biologist Nate Adams getting feedback from the panel after he pitched his idea for a programme about the energy technologies based on enhanced photosynthesis.


Another thought-provoking session looked at how science documentaries can benefit from the art of storytelling. One of the people on the panel was John Yorke, a TV drama guru whose production company creates many high-profile British series including Skins, Shameless and The White Queen. Yorke has also produced science programmes, including the 2009 BBC drama Breaking the Mould about the discovery of penicillin, and he authored the book Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story.

Yorke argued that for many cases “science and drama are antithetical”. His point was that good drama is simple and things change with every passing scene, as he demonstrated by playing a clip of a fiery family argument scene he wrote for the series Eastenders. Yorke recognizes that in science, things are often not as black-and-white as this and scientific developments often occur over long periods of time as ideas evolve.

One of Yorke’s tips for dramatizing science is to borrow storytelling techniques and to make sure that the films have strong characters, such as the idea of a “quest”.  He named Marie Curie as a classic example of a strong character on a dramatic personal quest, and the Manhattan Project as an example of a group on a quest towards a dramatic goal. I asked the panel members whether any of these dramatic devices should be incorporated into some of the short explainer videos we produce for Physics World. Their advice was “more kidnappings, more bombs!”. So fans of our 100 Second Science series, watch this space.

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