conservation canines

Making a science documentary on a shoestring – Part Two

Part Two: Contributors

One of the Conservation Canine contributors, Jessica Lundin, at the University of Washington laboratories.

Finding contributors for scientific documentaries must have been a huge challenge before the internet. However, now that almost every significant university worldwide has a website, it is possible to obtain an email address for most prominent professors or top researchers. The strange by-product of this is that much of the content and planning can be built up without actually meeting your contributors until the very last moment.

While most production companies send people out on recce trips (as in, “reconnaissance”) to scope out locations and meet contributors ahead of time, this wasn’t really an option for us. So, with Skype and email as our only means of communication, booking plane tickets and renting cameras to film with people we had never met felt like a complete leap of faith.

This is a significant aspect of documentary-filmmaking: the lack of control and certainty. In one sense, this is precisely what makes documentaries so captivating – the idea that the events seen on screen are playing out as they did in reality. However, in another, practical sense, it can make constructing an interesting and comprehendible story out of as-yet-unknown events, very difficult.

Recce trips and frequent contact can help you anticipate what your contributors might say or do, allowing you to plan around this. Nevertheless, no matter what size the budget, there will always be some things you wish your scientists would say. But as much as you can try to guide your contributor, through carefully-honed interview techniques (that I, unfortunately, don’t have!), to describe their work in a neat and meaningful way, if they don’t want to say it, they won’t.

In my and my fellow students’ recent internships with production companies, we all encountered producers who wanted to push their scientist contributors to sum up their findings in broad, exciting terms – We can resurrect dinosaurs! or We can build a time machine! But, when you interview a scientist, they will rarely claim absolute certainty. Many scientists will strive to keep their answers close to facts and confidence intervals, having been taught – and rightly so – to be wary of anything labelled as the “truth”. Truth in science is messy; it is controversial and, ultimately, unobtainable.

Yet these are the kinds of distinctions and bold statements that filmmakers build stories with and, no matter how careful a scientist wants to be, caveats like “p < 0.01” will be the first things that get cut in the edit. It’s not because filmmakers are ignorant sensationalists (although some are), but that explaining new research to someone outside of science – or even outside of that particular field – needs to be made broadly accessible. No matter how much you, as a filmmaker, might be captivated by a piece of research, many people won’t be.

This was a concept that I have found tough to get to grips with. Instinctively, it is entirely reasonable that most people without a strong passion for biology would need something more to hold their attention during a film about biology. In practice pitches for our documentary about conservation biology, we have been criticised for approaching a story “as a scientist”. I suppose what this means is that we haven’t fully stopped to think about the people who aren’t immediately enamoured by minute details of orca whale conservation; we haven’t considered how to approach some aspects of pure science from a more relatable angle.

It is a distinct learning curve, going from science to science communication, and asking a scientist for their personal opinion almost feels like treachery. But one of the main techniques  I’ve learnt to help unearth the relatable story in a body of research is to focus on the human element. Phrases like “story value” and “human interest” set off alarm bells in most scientists’ heads. Most scientists, no matter how passionate they are about their research, will actively work to keep this kind of subjectivity out of their speech.  However, if you can get someone talking about why they love their work, why they think it’s important, then a passion for science can become as relatable as a passion for cycling or painting.

This is where being able to build up a trust with your contributors over a longer period of time, with several meetings and conversations, becomes such a valuable thing. And this is something we’ve simply not had the chance to develop on such a narrow time-frame and bare-minimum budget. So, without meeting our contributors before going along to film and interview them,  we felt a huge sense of uncertainty as we lugged our equipment across the University of Washington campus.

A great piece of advice we were given recently was from the director and producer of BBC4’s Beautiful Minds series which profiled pioneering scientists in hour-long biographies. She told us that getting your contributors to relive their memories, to describe them vividly to you, can lead to some of the most captivating story-telling.

It was during our first day of shooting, while we were interviewing a researcher studying the decline of orca whales in Washington State by using dogs to sniff out whale dung for sampling, that we recalled this piece of advice. At the start of our interview, most of her answers comprised mainly of facts and figures and a brief history of the project.

However, it was when we asked her about the moment of first seeing the whales that we got the best material. She described spotting a pod of orca from the research boat – of seeing them breach the surface of the ocean, in the distance, through the morning fog. It was personal, and genuine and a moving recollection. Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of our interviews – although it still feels like a step into the unknown.

Noah Baker and Jade Hoffman are currently studying for an MSc in  Science Media Production and have just returned from filming a documentary in the USA.

Check out Jade and Noah’s campaign

And follow their progress on Facebook or Twitter.