The fourth post in our mini-series on science as seen on screen.
We have considered how science can be seen on the big screen, on television and online, so we thought it could be useful for all those budding science directors to get some useful tips, and who better to ask than someone in the business.
Charlotte Stoddart is an online video editor and director. She has been working at Nature for almost 4 years and has directed dozens of science films, including several series about the annual Meeting of Nobel Laureates at Lindau in Germany. Charlotte holds a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge, and an MSc in Science Communication from Imperial College.
How do you begin the process of making a science film?
First you need a good idea; for the most part, the films we produce are based on research published in Nature. Our aim is to tell the story of the research in pictures.
From the start, it’s important to think about the audience, the main message of the film, and exactly what you are going to show. We also need to identify the stars of the film.
We work closely with the editors of the paper and the scientists behind the research to find an interesting angle and to make sure the information we have is factually correct.
You have the idea – now what next?
Once we have the idea, the next step is to plan carefully what we want to be seen on the screen. We interview contributors, discussing the film focus in detail, searching for a story to tell; we look for the human angle behind their research. Often we try to dig up interesting, anecdotal stories, those that you wouldn’t read in the journal. We ask the researchers about their lab and the experimental set-up, all the time thinking about what we can film to illustrate the story. We also ask about graphics or animations they may have that could be included in the film.
What things do you need to plan?
Prior to the film shoot, obviously the logistical, practical stuff needs to be planned. We must organise filming dates to fit around our contributors, and in some cases get permission to film on location.
The day before the shoot we check our kit. We make sure we have everything ready, such as the correct lighting equipment, release forms for contributors, spare camera batteries, cable extensions. It’s the little things that count, so we ask ourselves: Does our camera work? Do we have an umbrella in case it rains? Do we have tissues? And have we got enough tapes?
We also write a list of questions to ask our contributors. We use this list as a guide, but we don’t stick to it rigidly; the most interesting answers are often the ones you’re not expecting and you need to be ready to throw away your list and take the interview in another direction.
Planning also varies depending on the film. For instance, for the Lindau series, we spend a long time choosing our contributors. The aim of the Lindau films is to capture on camera a debate between a Nobel laureate and a student, so lots of research goes into finding Laureates and students with overlapping research interests – and also making sure they’ll be able to speak clearly and confidently on camera.
What are the most important things to take into consideration on a film set?
The filming day is often fun but also long and tiring. Depending on the film, it may just be me on set, in which case I am director, interviewer, and camera/sound man all in one. Being able to multi-task is crucial. At other times there’s a small team of us.
There is an awful lot to think about on a film shoot. First of all, you must listen to background noise in a way you don’t normally. Aeroplanes, for instance, are really noticeable in a film. Indoor air conditioning units are also noisy. You need to be ready to change location or re-record bits if there’s too much background noise. Good quality sound can make or break a film.
Lighting is also important. You have to think about where the natural sunlight is. It’s important that your contributor’s face is lit up and not in shadow. Sometimes we use artificial lighting to achieve this but, where possible, we position them so they’re lit by the natural light coming through a window, for example.
Think about your contributor; it sometimes takes a while for people to warm up and get used to being on camera. As the interviewer, being silently encouraging always helps – lots of eye contact, nods and smiles but no verbal encouragement because usually you don’t want your voice to be recorded. For some it can be an intimidating process; ideally, the contributor will forget the camera is there.
The filming is complete, then what?
The next step is editing the film. Back at the office, first I digitalise the footage, which means transferring it from the camera tapes to the computer. All the video clips must be organised, and all the associated material collected, whether that be pictures, graphics, objects or anything else relevant to the film. I also check we’ve got permission to publish all these materials.
I really enjoy the editing process; working out how to weave the different elements together to tell the story. It’s very creative. I try to find something surprising or particularly emotional to start with – something to draw the viewer into the film.
What else needs to be carried out in the cutting room?
Sometimes we add narration, music and captions to the film. The editing process can take several days. You need to be a bit of a perfectionist; if there’s a glitch in the audio or a bad cut, viewers will probably notice. I like to work early in the morning or at the end of the day when the office is quiet so that I can concentrate.
I try to come up with an overarching theme for the film; something to tie together the text, the music and the story. Music has the ability to alter the mood of a film, so the choice is important. .
Once I’ve got a rough cut of the film, I show it to my colleagues and also, where appropriate, the editor of the paper. I take on board all the feedback and then go back and make changes accordingly. The last stage is to add Nature branding to the film.
Finally, for those budding science filmmakers, do you have any advice? .
My tips would include a few simple things that can make a film look more professional.
•Make sure you record good audio. If possible, use an external microphone rather than the camera’s built-in mic and use headphones to listen to what you’re recording. Take notice of background noise and if you’re filming outdoors, watch out for the wind.
•Use a tripod. Not everyone has a still hand. Rather than holding the camera and following the action, stay still and shoot the same thing from different angles – then put the shots together to make a sequence. This looks more professional and stops your audience feeling sea-sick (unless you’re deliberately going for a ‘Blair Witch Project’ feel).
•Don’t forget to film the location and your contributor ‘in action’. It’s a common mistake to film plenty of the contributor talking to camera but not enough ‘B-roll’ shots to illustrate what the contributor is talking about. This B-roll is very useful when it comes to editing the film.
•Get close up. When your interviewee gets emotional, zoom in so we can see the emotion in their face. Shoot close-ups of the kit in the lab or the fossils etc. that are the subject of the research.
•Remember, all the viewer sees is what you choose to show them, so don’t be afraid to cut things out in the edit – what they don’t see, they won’t miss!