Making Movies: Scientists as Filmmakers

Many of us who became scientists may credit documentary series like Cosmos and Hollywood movies such as The Andromeda Strain for sparking our interest in science. But have you ever stopped to think about who makes these movies? Think no more: Next Wave has discovered that filmmaking is a legitimate career track for scientists, albeit one that is more likely than most to be subject to serendipity.

The scientists we spoke to give various reasons for making the transition to science filmmaking--difficulties finding research positions; the desire to communicate science to a wider audience; the diversity of activities

involved in making films; and the short-term nature and immediate gratification of film projects. Some just took the opportunity to learn about filmmaking when it came along, found they liked it enormously, and decided to stick with it.

Tierney Thys of the Sea Studios Foundation in Monterey, California, for example, says her love of teaching first got her interested in science communication. After she graduated with her Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University in 1998, she was all set to do a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at the Chicago Tribune over the summer and then to enter the science-writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the fall. (AAAS is publisher of Science and of Science's Next Wave.) But then she got a call from the president of the Sea Studios Foundation, whom she knew because she had rented a house from him during her graduate work. He needed someone with expertise in biomechanics to coordinate research for an eight-part documentary he was working on with National Geographic Television called "The Shape of Life." The series, which she's worked on for the past 3 years as chief scientific editor, was "a massive amount of work," she says. But it got her foot in the door, and she has since done a short film on fungi for Discovery Channel Canada, a topic completely unrelated to her Ph.D. training.

Thys also continues doing academic work through collaborations with people she knew from graduate school, mostly between films, which she admits is difficult. Although she's toyed with the idea of going back to research full time, "there's too much to be done in filmmaking and too much science coming out that needs to be shared with the masses," she says. "That's hugely important for the world."

Freelance filmmaker David Barlow made his start as a Ph.D. student, filming through microscopes and endoscopes. He got his first filmmaking experience while he was working on his biology doctorate at the University of Southampton in the U.K., when his advisor decided to make a teaching film on cilia as a showpiece for his work. Barlow's film was widely circulated at European universities, and in 1978 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) approached his advisor with an invitation to contribute his expertise on cilia to the David Attenborough series "Life on Earth." "From that it just grew," Barlow says, and people largely approached him. He continued to work on both his Ph.D. and films until he got his degree in 1986. Although he started out as a producer and director, he now largely does photography and special effects for clients such as Channel 4 and the BBC in the U.K., as well as The Learning Channel in the U.S.

Barlow says he has no regrets about having attended graduate school. "You shouldn't ever underestimate" the value of an academic background, he says. "I certainly wouldn't have got to where I am without that Ph.D. and the techniques I learned."

John Rubin, president of Rubin-Tarrant Productions in Waltham, Massachusetts, credits a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship with getting his foot in the door. While working on his Ph.D. in cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became frustrated by the fact that his work would be seen and appreciated by such a small audience. Having been a videotape editor for the 1970s TV comedy show Barney Miller before going to graduate school, he applied for a AAAS Fellowship, was awarded one, and asked to work in television. As a AAAS fellow he worked at the Chedd-Angier Production Company in Watertown, Massachusetts, after graduating in 1986. "I spent the summer there and instantly knew that the work suited me," he says. The fellowship was "absolutely critical" in making the transition to filmmaking, says Rubin, because it gave him credibility. Indeed, the fellowship led to a longer stint at Chedd-Angier, which Rubin followed with work at public television stations and a job at National Geographic Television. Rubin started his own production company in 1997, which has made documentaries for PBS, National Geographic Television, and The Learning Channel.

Rubin says he would recommend filmmaking. "I have a very good time doing what I do," he says, because of the diversity of activities ranging from writing scripts to picking out music. "I have a huge list of documentaries I'd love to make," he adds, "and I never felt that way in science."

Independent filmmaker Randy Olson, who is affiliated with the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, did not go the route of making documentaries. After getting his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1984, he became an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire in 1988. But in 1990, he had an epiphany when he was a guest naturalist on board a Harvard alumni cruise to Norway. He brought along a dissecting microscope hooked up to a video camera, a set-up he used to view plankton collected along the way. The alumni "went nuts," he says. "There were three other naturalists who were whale biologists and told great stories. But the video stuff upstaged them." This got him interested in video production, and eventually he took a leave of absence to go to the University of Southern California film school in 1994, just as the decision came through that he had been awarded tenure. He left academia anyway. "I had fun doing science," he says, "but I decided I enjoyed filmmaking even more." Since graduating from film school, Olson has been trying to get some Hollywood-type movies made. But he also spends time making short films describing the work of his former academic colleagues and other scientists, films that they use in PowerPoint presentations or for the media. As such he sees his role as an intermediary between scientists and the public.

Film school is useful if you know exactly what you want to do, says Olson. But he points out that it's quite expensive--he has about $50,000 in student loans to pay off.

So if your interest in science filmmaking is piqued, how can you get started? As the examples have shown, don't underestimate the value of your academic qualifications. You can become a consultant on a film, do an internship (through AAAS, National Geographic Television, the Discovery Channel, or at your local public television station, for example), or even go to film school. Rubin suggests contacting science production companies and saying you're interested in doing research. "We're always looking for people who are highly qualified in an academic area and good writers," he says. There are also meetings and film festivals where science producers gather, such as the World Congress of Science Producers, the Wildscreen Festival in the U.K., and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, all of which are good places to go to learn about filmmaking and to meet people.

But these scientists-turned-filmmakers also warn that scientists will have to adjust their expectations if they want to work in film. "There isn't necessarily an appetite to tell stories with the kind of depth that scientists want," says Rubin. They also point out that making films is a very collaborative process, one in which you have to be willing to give up a certain amount of autonomy and to trust the people you work with. Thys says that television is "the great tantalizer"--it tempts you to learn more but doesn't give you the opportunity for information to sink in. Nevertheless, she doesn't think that the science needs to be dumbed down. "You need to be realistic about the attention span of your audience and the amount of information you can convey."

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