The second post in our mini-series on science as seen on screen.
One of the toughest obstacles faced when attempting to explain science for the screen, is how to present it clearly and concisely in new and adventurous ways. So who better to ask about ways to overcome these difficulties than Greg Foot, the BBC’s latest science presenter, recently seen making Big Ben chime 13 times and surfing a tidal wave for his BBC Three show Secrets Of The Universe.
Having graduated from Cambridge University with a first class degree in Natural Sciences, Greg has spent the last five years both in front and behind the camera making science documentaries. He’s made hover boards for the BBC1 children’s science series Whizz Whizz Bang Bang, been the science expert on the BBC2’s quiz series KnowItAlls and challenged rugby star Gavin Henson to take a direct hit from 750,000 Volts of electricity!
Why did you decide to become a science TV presenter? How did you become involved?
When I was at university someone said to me that I would make a great Blue Peter presenter. It had never crossed my mind before, but I thought “Well, why not dream big?!” It seemed the natural route to take – I enjoy communicating science, I love to try to answer those big questions, and I love a challenge. So I went for it!
Over the next three years I wrote tonnes of letters and emails to production companies, filmed and edited dozens of showreels (the first ones are plain embarrassing!) and just kept trying to meet and chat to as many people as possible. Eventually, after a couple of screentests and pilots for other projects (including a spin off of How2!) someone in CBBC got hold of a showreel and I landed my first gig presenting a new series called Whizz Whizz Bang Bang. The whole experience was awesome – among other wacky inventions I got to build an underwater canoe, a robotic horse and a jet powered bed that was driven by The Stig. It was a heck of a learning curve!
I realised that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a science presenter. But the hard work didn’t stop there. It’s definitely not the case that once you’ve had one show you get loads more. I’m still new to all this and its early in my career so it’s always a mission to get the next show. After Whizz Whizz Bang Bang I spent the next four years making countless showreels, was in and out of meetings, and had my name attached to some very cool ideas that never happened. That’s just the nature of the industry. The hard work is worth it though – I got to be part of some really fun shows, so you’ve just got to believe you can do it and keep pushing for that next gig.
What else do you do?
As well as presenting, I am also involved in the production side of things. I’ve worked as a researcher and producer on TV series for the BBC, Channel 5, National Geographic, and many more. I also co-present a podcast called Droppin’ Science that is a new take at doing a science pod that’s more MTV than Material World. Plus, I’m one half of an outfit called Science Junkie (with a mate called Huw James over in Wales) and we present an action packed live show at science festivals and schools all about the science of extreme sports.
How do you begin the preparation for a new programme idea? Are you involved in development meetings and script writing?
In Secrets of the Universe, BBC Three were looking for a way to present science to a new audience. The key to a good TV documentary is to have a good narrative so that’s what we had to sort out first. I was really involved in the development and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to present something I hadn’t been involved in writing; that way you’re presenting something you’re passionate about. Plus, I reckon the best formula for producing a successful science show is for the director, researchers and presenter to all be on the same level. So everyone was involved in the script writing.
I had regular meetings with the director and researcher to chat through the narrative and to work up some interesting science stunts. They were looking for a new approach to presenting science and this is where they felt my adventurous side tied in well.
Secrets Of The Universe was a great playground to try out this stunt science approach to explaining big principles. I was really fortunate to have an awesome team behind the camera and I got to have the time of my life. The highlights included surfing a tidal wave to explain the concept of gravity, being shot by paintballs as I was dropped out of a tree and having a very fun day exploding cakes, jellies and watermelons!
You never know what the audience is going to think so we all sat there nervously on transmission night. But the flood of tweets and Facebook messages were amazing and I was so chuffed. The highlight was all the teenagers saying they’d been put off by science at school but after watching the show were really excited about it.
What are the most important things to take into consideration on a film set when presenting?
The main thing is to make sure the underlying science is clear and accurate and that can be tricky when you are in the middle of a big energetic stunt. The cogs have got to always be turning in my brain making sure my biggest priority is that the science is comprehensible.
Do you change your style when teaching kids?
A good presenter will always adapt their style to their audience. So, for instance, if your target audience are children you modify your language, and banter accordingly. Your explanations change in complexity.
It is also different presenting a live show from a television programme. The trick with a live show is to get a dialogue going with the audience. When presenting a television programme I try to imagine the camera is a viewer otherwise you’re talking to a inanimate object. I’m in the early stages of my presenting career so I’m still learning every day I go out. I suppose it’s an art form so it will be an ever-developing skill.
Its important to note that a science show may only be an hour long, but months of research go on behind the scenes. Secrets Of The Universe was a small team and a one off documentary, but it still took over six months to research and film! Although I was involved throughout the whole thing it’s the director and researcher that really put in the blood, sweat and tears.
Why not see Greg in action…
Finally for those who want to start a career presenting science? Do you have any advice?
My top tip is to be yourself. If you aren’t yourself, people will see right through you. Also, you must always consider your language when explaining science – its really important to adjust it appropriately for your audience.
If your dream is to be behind the camera, learn as many skills as you can. If you can shoot, edit and write you’ll be onto a winner. If you want to be a presenter it’s useful to know these things too; it really helps to understand production and appreciate how things function behind the scenes.
Finally, my last piece of advice would be to talk passionately about what inspires you, as it is this enthusiasm that helps to encourages others, especially when presenting science.