Science & Nature: the small screen and the smaller

In 1981 it turned out that it didn’t take a lot to make a really great science film. The team behind the BBC’s Horizon took a gamble and found that one person sitting in chair, talking candidly to an off-camera interviewer, could produce one of the finest pieces of television about science. It helped that the interviewee was Nobel Prize winner and world-class raconteur Richard Feynman, an extraordinary lecturer who knew how to communicate to non-scientists. But the fact that his opening monologue (“I have a friend, who’s an artist…”) has been watched around 200,000 times on Youtube says a lot for the role television can play in popularizing science.

But the gamble was a safe bet. Feynman was a professional and incredibly watchable: an extraordinary lecturer who knew how to communicate to non-scientists, Sagan-style. But, regardless of Feynman’s aptitude for ‘presenting’, the human element of the researchers performing science turned out to be as powerful as the usual ‘how does this effect me’, as Horizon later proved. By opening with Oxford Professor Andrew Wiles unable to speak, choked by tears, as he tried to describe the moment he proved Fermat’s Last Theorum after seven years of work, Horizon also made must-see-television out of maths.

As a zoologist, I’m drawn to Natural History reportage, a historically softer form of science documentary, but one of western society’s most important sources of information about the natural world.

The genre has altered significantly over the years, as clearly demonstrated by early work of David Attenborough. In 1984, his series The Living Planet consisted of hour-long lectures whilst the Natural History Unit’s footage acted as a slideshow for him to talk over. When Bluesci was first published, the most expensive science documentary ever made, the cinematic Planet Earth,was still two years away from being broadcast, and today Attenborough is, generally, a presenter of beauty, no longer a writer of explanations.

The choice of how to match visuals to the traditional presentation of TV documentary (being, as a direct descendant of radio, a largely audio-led medium regardless of the pictures) has never been a challenge for the teams Attenborough has chosen to surround himself with. However, Green, an extended portrait of a dying female orang-utan and the overall winner of the 2010 Wildscreen awards, highlights how used to the formula of documentary we’ve all become.

Green, an extended portrait of a dying female orang-utan and the overall winner of the 2010 Wildscreen awards, is an independently produced, free to download feature, created by an ‘ordinary citizen trying to protect the rainforest’. In introducing concepts such as deforestation and palm oil production whilst dispensing with narration, the film succeeds in posing questions, not answering them. Rather than explaining a concept to the audience, it asks them to consider the implications of an action. In a way, it asks them to think – to be scientific, rather than acting as a visual anchor for hand-holding narration.

Well, in a way. Obviously the ‘evidence’ of the film isn’t unbiased. Green is extremely emotive and the poetic cuts from scene to scene may infer too much.

I’m not saying I like it, but in treating the medium as the conduit it is, rather than the visual anchor for a hand-holding narration, unambiguous animations and questionable music beds we’ve become used to, Green might be an indication of just be where long-form documentary making is heading. On our television sets, anyway.

Short visual-heavy infographic films, on the other hand, are giving difficult to understand science topics a helping hand. The Higgs Boson, for instance, could be devilish to understand, were it not for the visually heavy short films such as (Piled Higher and Deeper’s) Jorge Cham’s. Even the salient – but number-heavy – issues surrounding fishing quotas become obvious (and appalling) to anyone watching the thirteen computer generated jumbo-jets flying into a single trawling net in Uli Henrik Streckenback’s animated infographic Ending Overfishing.

In the future I’m foreseeing a schism in science documentary making between mediums, with more poetic representations of reality on one hand, and the fact-heavy five to ten minute long infographics pervading Vimeo and YouTube on the other (however, internet productions can sidestep impartiality in favour of emotive content in away the BBC cannot). Whether this will effect science documentary making which is, by necessity, based on fact, as much as humanities subjects, I don’t know.

The latter are what we’re linking to on our blogs and retweeting, from Wired and BlueSci.co.uk: it’s already happening. Whether we’re bound to carry on down this route, I’m not sure. Television as it stands is still a fickle mess of excellent and mediocre production companies. Channel 4’s extraordinary Inside Nature’s Giants seemed a high water mark of cerebral natural history television, but Richard Hammond hosting the BBC’s Planet Earth Live was not a good sign. Let’s just wait and watch.

This was my original edit of a piece I was asked to write for the special 25th edition of bluesci magazine. The version in the magazine is shortened due to word count. 

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