Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Telling your science story on film and video

I do a lot of work with scientists and researchers, and many of them want to know how to make a short film about their research for their presentations, the websites of their institutions and research centers and for online platforms.

My message to scientists is: telling the story of your research in a short film or video is possible. It’s a LOT of work and it takes a lot of time. But it is a fun process, and helps you think differently about your work (which is good). Your audience will respond.

First, answer the most basic question of all: who is your film “for?” Your film is for an audience. That means, you have to express your ideas about your research in a way that your audience understands. That's an easy concept to understand but much more difficult to execute properly.

For example, audiences within your scientific discipline might have one expectation for your film. People in science, but outside the discipline might have another expectation. And the general public has another expectation altogether. So it's tricky. It is essential that you keep your target audience in mind when you think about how you want to tell your story film or video.

The two key structures we use to explain scientific research in the medium of film or television are:
  • Processes
  • Character driven stories

A "process" is simply describing step-by-step, in a logical way, to your audience how a certain result was reached. Obviously because that matches your work process, it's an ideal structure for expressing scientific research on video. But what's essential is the process is explained clearly and understandably for your audience. "Processes" in films about science are quite common and usually quite effective.

Process: animation

The most basic approaches involve simple computer animation. Some creative scientists have taken animation a step further, to tell a short story about their research:

Process: live action

The next level of telling your science story using a process involves live-action and “real people.” It's a step above simple animation, but the principle of showing a process is still very clear. Here is an example of a process using live action. This one uses a very technical, step-by-step approach. Videos like this are quite common in science today:

Process: visual metaphors

The next step up in making your process more interesting for audiences is using a “visual metaphor” to explain your process. What's most important is that the metaphor is a simple one, easy for your audience to understand. That also makes it easier to visualize (shoot.)

Character-driven stories

Now the next level up from "process” stories are what are called "character-driven stories." A character-driven story is the "gold standard" for storytelling in film and television, because audiences respond extremely well, if they are done well. But there’s a big drawback: process stories are easy, character driven stories are very, very hard to do well.

The topic has to be strong enough to support a character driven structure with enough built-in, ever worsening conflicts to keep the audience with you, and the character, and what is happening to them, has to be strongly compelling for the audience.

That's a tall order and obviously means not every scientific or research theme is suitable for a character-driven story. But when everything comes together there are few structures more powerful for audiences:

If you want to do a character-driven film about your research, here are the key points to consider when it comes to structuring and planning your idea:
  • Who is affected (your “character”)?
  • The stakes have to be the highest possible for the character (the loss of life, by the way, is the highest)
  • You don't tell what happens, until the end

“Sense of wonder”

This is quite possibly why a lot of researchers got into science in the first place. It is the "sense of wonder" about scientific research, and the challenge of visualizing that on film.

This is perhaps the most famous example of inspiring a “sense of wonder” about science in audiences.

Millions of people have seen “Powers of 10” since it was made in the 1960s. It is directly responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of young people around the world to pursue a career in science. That's not a bad goal for your own film about your research!