Science mentoring: The Director’s Cut

Every year at Lindau, film maker, producer and director, Martin Freeth works with the Nature Video team to record a series of short films about the meeting. Other members of the team have gratefully benefited from Martin’s mentoring and here he shares some of his experience to explain the dos and don’ts of putting together a compelling clip. If you’d like to see more of Martin’s work, you can browse some of his archives, and for more posts on mentoring in science in the build-up to this year’s meeting, see the special series on the nature.com guest blog, Soapbox Science.

Martin Freeth: I’ll share some thoughts about film because I know this medium best, but I believe that most of the same considerations apply to radio and podcasts.  In film, TV and radio, science communication has (almost) nothing to do with facts or information.   If you don’t realise this please don’t get involved with the media and please don’t try to make your own videos or podcasts about science, or about anything else for that matter. 

If you have facts or theories to explain, just publish using text and/or graphics.  But if you want to motivate people to take an interest in, or to fund your work, or to protest about something, or to want to find out more, or to admire somebody you admire, or to share your passion for a subject… then, yes, make a film. 

In five years now of making films for Nature at the Lindau Laureate meetings, my favourite film of all we made there was our edited discussion between Laureate Bill Phillips and a young German scientist, Hannah Venzl.   This is my favourite because most audiences will not understand anything Bill and Hannah are saying to each other!  But their passion and excitement is positively infectious.

See and click on The Quantum Lattice’.  
On taking part in other people’s productions, if somebody wants to film you, they will not give you editorial control.  If it is live, you’d better be prepared with sound bites.  If it’s edited, just relax – they will edit what you say in ways you will not like.  If they included all your qualifying statements, their films would be so boring nobody would watch them.  The more passionate, excited, moved or emotional you sound, the more likely they’ll use a lot of what you say.  The question is, do you trust them and respect their aims or not? If not, don’t agree to take part.

If you want to make your own film, what’s the story and where’s the drama? That’s the really important question.  You started some time back with a question?  Do you now have an answer?  Somebody was going to die, now they might live.  We thought the universe was expanding, but maybe we’re wrong.  We set out to make a new kind of cling film.. and suddenly we came across a super conducting polymer.  We thought pathologists were recording the true causes of death… now we know that half of their data is rubbish. Whatever!

A film can then become a journey from ignorance to knowledge, or knowledge to ignorance, or fear to hope.  But who are the protagonists?  Do they have a belief which the whole scientific world opposes (as, historically, most of those who made progress in the world of medical research did)?  Do not include people because they are senior or ‘important’, include them only if they can be passionate, eloquent and moving.  In short, can they tell you why they get up in the morning? 

So get the casting right and try to be ruthless about doing this. By the way, most people cannot talk straight into the camera to save their lives… don’t make them do it.  Let them look at you and talk to you, while somebody else runs the camera.  Somebody also had to get the sound right too, which can often be even more important.  One way or another, get microphones close to people, hidden under their clothes if need be. 

Shoot lots of different stuff… close-ups of equipment, faces, hands, experiments, graphics, and very wide shots of the people, the landscape, their labs, etc. Make sure you catch those unexpected and spontaneous discussions which often start up when people think you have stopped filming. Don’t forget that the content, and the action, matter much more than the quality of the filming.  As you tidy up (that is, savagely cut) what people say, you’ll need relevant things to cut away to. For every day spent shooting, to make a good film, you will need to spend a minimum of five days editing. Editing is where the real magic happens…. so try to work with real editors, or at least get advice from them.

If your rough cut seems long, it is long. You can always lose another minute and you will usually find the key messages are still there in the images, and in people’s expressions and attitudes. Your viewers can get angry, they can smile, they can feel suspense, they can get up and do something, they can be sad.  But if they feel nothing, they will have switched over to something else long ago.  

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