26 February 2010

The 2-Hour Film School (a non-degree-granting institution)

Posted by Michael McFadden

Mark Benfield (LSU) and Randy Olson (Hollywood) after the workshop ends

Mark Benfield (LSU) and Randy Olson (Hollywood) after the workshop ends

On Wednesday, ocean scientists turned in their hard hats and field gear at the door for a different hat:  filmmaker.

Dr. Randy Olson,  author of the new book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in the Age of Style, led a workshop on science filmmaking.  Olson has directed two critically acclaimed films, that took a unique look at science controversies; Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.  We mention this because Olson’s career as a tenured marine biologist-turned-filmmaker uniquely qualified him to lead a workshop to teach scientists about how to be successful in reaching out in the public sphere.

In the run-up to 2010 Ocean Sciences, an invitation was sent to scientists to submit videos about their research.  The workshop had time to feature nine videos out of the many submissions received.  As each video ran on the Big Screen, scientist- filmmakers in turn sat on the stage in a chair appropriately called the “filmmaker chair.”  Once the movie was over, Olson gave the creator his suggestions for improving the film, and then discussed the film with the audience to make his point in the broader context.

The videos were made by full-time scientists who were part-time filmmakers, and thus the camera movements were frequently shaky, the sound was occasionally messy, and sometimes the animations weren’t quite…animated.  Nonetheless, Olson at no point suggested remedying these faults in production.  Instead, he had a series of suggestions that related to one, simple concept:  STORY!

Just like the other contributors to the workshop, we were very excited about seeing our film – about the Gulf SERPENT Project – on the big screen.  While the Gulf SERPENT Project is an industry-academia collaboration, the footage we capture from the project consists of beautiful, graceful marine organisms.  And on one occasion, a massive, impressive, and frightening  oarfish.

When our movie stopped, the lights went up; Olson asked the audience a fundamental question: What was this movie about?   There were six respondents, with six completely different answers. “Cool marine life!” “ROVs!” “Oarfish!” etc.  Maybe one respondent actually picked up on the industry-academia relationship.  The problem?  We made the scientist error.

Film is an extraordinary effective medium to reach a broad audience, but the scientist error is making films that are information heavy and light on Story.  Olson decried this misuse of the medium of film, asserting that film is a motivational medium, not an informational medium.  It’s impossible and inefficient to crunch into a 10-minute film the amount of material equivalent to a 10-minute read of a journal article.  Instead, he suggested that a 10-minute or even a 60-second film can be powerful enough to make somebody want to read the article; want to learn about the science behind the film.

The discussion continues even after the workshop!

The discussion continues even after the workshop!

It is truly amazing that such a workshop was even held at a scientific conference.  It shows forward thinking on the part of the NSF, ASLO, TOS and the AGU.  But this is just the first step.  To paraphrase Dr. Olson, if we are concerned about our image…about the way we’re misunderstood, misquoted, and portrayed poorly in popular media, the way to change this is to take control of our own image.  Perhaps twenty years ago, this would not have been possible. But, today, inexpensive camcorders (less than $100!) and YouTube have made it possible to connect to audiences literally everywhere.

The one voice that is perhaps the most crucial voice in contemporary scientific debates is the voice of scientists themselves.  A handful of vocal scientists who are attempting to hold the line for the success of science cannot sustain the fight against the tide of ignorance that is currently pushing back towards science.  It is up to every single one of us to enter the public dialogue, and speak for ourselves.  The most effective and universally understood language to tell our story?  Make a film!

— Mark Benfield, oceanographer at Louisiana State University and director of the Gulf SERPENT Project

— Rohan Dhurandhar, science writer and filmmaker