Published 27 June 2010 by Lou Woodley

Making Movies – an interview with the Nature film team

In 2008, 2009 and again this year, the Nature podcast and video team have attended the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetings and produced several short films around them. I talked to Charlotte Stoddart who is the Director and Producer of the films, and Martin Freeth who works with the film crew every year as an Executive Producer and Director, about how they put together the films, as well as getting a sneak preview of the themes for the ones that we be recorded this year for the 60th anniversary celebrations.

The majority of the films that the team produce each year involve conversations between a young scientist and a Nobel Laureate but rather than being a formal interviewing of the Laureate, these discussions are intended to be lively, two-way conversations that reflect the shared interests of the two participants and hopefully show some exchanging of ideas.

The first step in preparing for these films is to email all the young scientists who will be attending that year and ask for anyone interested in taking part in a film to submit some thoughts on which Laureate they would most like to talk to and why. In parallel, Charlotte also looks at video clips of talks and interviews with Laureates, trying to see who might be most suitable for such an informal discussion, and whether they could be paired up with any of the requests made.

Typically, Charlotte receives about 50-60 applications from young scientists to take part and of these she calls up to 25 for a telephone interview to hear more about their ideas. From this selection process, the team come up with a shortlist of candidates whom they meet at Lindau right before the conference starts, to assess their suitability for the available Laureates who’ve agreed to be filmed, as well as how they are likely to perform in front of the camera. "We’re looking for people with confidence and some kind of charisma" says Martin. "When they talk about their project, it should come to life."

The films include footage of a conversation with the young scientist before their meet their chosen Laureates, the discussion itself and then interviews with both the Laureate and the young scientist after the conversation has taken place to see how they both found it. The team also records footage of the Laureate’s lecture during the conference in case there are any sections relevant to their meeting with the student that can be edited in later.

A key factor that influences Martin’s organic appproach to how the filmed discussions between Laureates and young scientists are organised was the concern that "films around conferences can be boring" and that it is therefore much more important to pair young scientists and Laureates together correctly and then just "let them do their own thing" than create something that is very structured. "It’s all about the chemistry", he explains; "you’ve got to find the right pairing."  

In this way, the film team doesn’t have a set of pre-defined shots before the event, but spend the week of the meeting researching and then using suitable locations. "You can’t really tell until you’ve chosen the people, which locations might work" says Martin. The team try to find links between location and the interests of the students e.g. a talk on string theory by someone interested in the guitar might involve a short clip of them playing the instrument.There is also some experimenting with styles of conversation – should the participants be walking? sitting? inside or out?

After an intense week of recording, the team work over a couple of months to edit the footage into several short films. This is a "very rich and subtle process" that the team rely on Nick Curry to assist them with. It’s clear the team value the input of someone who was not actually involved in the filming: "You can be too close to a shot at a particular location because you sweated to get that shot, when even then it doesn’t actually work". During the editing process, classic musical is typically added as a soundtrack to the footage and this has on occasion included asking musician friends to record a particular piece!

Once they have been completed, the films are released over several weeks at the end of the summer. Keep an eye out for this year’s footage which will include interviews with Jack Szostak and Tim Hunt as well as a specially commissioned extended film on "The Spirit of Lindau" to celebrate this year’s 60th anniversary of the meetings.

You might also be interested in Nature Physics Editor Ed Gerstner’s recollections of the filmed interview between Laureate Bill Phillips and PhD student Hannah Venzl.

Lou Woodley