Making a science documentary on a shoestring – Part One

Part One: Funding

“We’re making a documentary about the Conservation Canines – they’re a research group in Washington State who train rescue dogs to sniff out orca whales…”

I’ve lost track of how many times I, and my fellow student and filmmaking partner Noah, have said this over the last couple of months, always with an eager smile and a burst of enthusiasm. It’s sad, in a way, because it’s become something that’s not only fuelled by a desire to share a truly impressive and fascinating piece of science, but – in the back of our minds – there’s a small hope that we’ll generate more interest, get more Twitter and Facebook followers, and maybe (maybe!) our project will reach the ears of someone who will be willing to contribute some money to our film.

We’ve had a few lectures on the structure of today’s documentary film making industry, and we’ve heard producers talk about the price of commissions in terms of hundreds of thousands, even fractions of millions. They’re daunting figures for a somewhat idealistic student filmmaker. The cost of hiring cameras and other equipment, let alone travel, research and editing, can quickly rack up. Without financial backing from somewhere, the vast majority of films would not exist.

Still, films starting out from nowhere – without a major production company, or channel powering it – do get made. There are hundreds of success stories, despite the hundreds of flops. And, whilst sourcing funding for creative projects seems to be getting increasingly difficult, there are still some avenues open to independent filmmakers.

The Wellcome Trust is probably one of the most well-known supporters of scientific broadcast media, and offer several opportunities for filmmakers to apply for their Broadcast Development Awards. BRITDOC is also a Channel 4 foundation set up to award a variety of specific grants to different documentaries. Both of these funding bodies have grants in the thousands, or tens of thousands, generally enough to make an independent documentary. For students, there can be local council or university-based funding opportunities to support young filmmakers. In some cases, additional costs associated with film making will be cut back for students and non-professionals: Transport for London’s permits for filming on the underground or other public transport systems are £50 for a month if you’re a student, compared to a professional filmmaker’s price of £500 an hour.

However, with many major funding bodies like the UK Film Council and a number of BFI initiatives being shut down, the competition for these grants are fierce and, in today’s economy, many previously supportive foundations simply do not have the moneyto give out to filmmakers. The route we’ve taken – and one that is rising in popularity for many creative projects, especially documentary – is crowd-sourced funding.

Crowd-funding opens projects up to the public and often relies heavily on social media to gain attention. Websites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter have built up a system that allows project creators to offer their funders perks or gifts – such as special film credits, DVDs or invitations to premieres – in return for different amounts of monetary contributions. Past projects – like the award-winning The Age of Stupid; part-animated docudrama starring Pete Postlethwaite – have managed to raise hundreds of thousands with this strategy, but crowd-funding can be equally well suited to smaller-scale projects.

I suppose what appealed to us most about crowd-funding is the transparency and inclusiveness of it all. People who like a project can be part of it, and the project’s creators have an obligation to keep their interested investors updated on how they’re spending that money. As a model for film making, it tends to be less wasteful simply because the filmmakers are acutely aware of how much of a difference $10 or $1000 would make.

Of course, crowd-funding has its problems. Many projects on these sites fail because they rely on having strongly passionate people with a certain amount of luck behind them. Our friends and family have been subjected to a lot of me and Noah pushing links, ‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ at them, and I feel crowd-funding is probably not an option we can exploit regularly. The harsh reality of documentary film making, particularly scientific documentary film making, is that, no matter how strong your desire is to share a story and showcase what you wholeheartedly believe is an important piece of science, making a film costs money. And if you’re passionate about your project, you’re going to have to put a lot of that passion into getting funded.

So we’re making a documentary about the Conservation Canines – they’re a research group in Washington State who train rescue dogs to sniff out orca whales. You can click on the link below to see our crowd-funding campaign. You must’ve seen that coming, right?

Check out Jade and Noah’s campaign

And follow their progress on Facebook or Twitter.

Jade Hoffman is currently studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College.


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