In a beautiful gallery in Central St Martins, Wellcome recently held an awards ceremony for their newly revamped Photography Prize. Celebrating imagery that advances the language of photography while speaking to human health in all its colours, the awards were the culmination of a well executed creative and marketing journey. A journey I’m pleased to have joined for the ride, making three films in a multitude of formats to a very specific brief. Here, I thought it might be useful to share a little about my role in helping Wellcome bring this fantastic competition to life.
The Brief At the heart of every good plan, there needs to be someone with a strong vision. In this case, it was Marianne, or Maz, Dear, Creative Lead within Wellcome’s Comms team. It was clear from conversations that this year’s prize was aspiring to be different. Rather than celebrating beautiful scientific imagery - which often seemed to comprise of microscopic vistas in false colour - the aim was to celebrate genuinely excellent photography, featuring humanity and nature at both the micro and macroscopic scales.
As part of this reinvigorated approach, my role was to capture the judging process, from beginning to end and create three films that would take viewers on a journey from their initial reactions and thinking on what great health photography is, all the way through to their thoughts on the final winning images.
And it was clear we were trying to avoid cliches. I was shown numerous videos of other photography prizes highlighting what Wellcome did not want. They wanted ‘life’, ‘a non-corporate feel’, ‘lots of hands’, ‘reactions and interactions’, and so on. Observational filming is my favourite approach; natural, unstaged behaviour and it certainly felt that being right at the heart of the action was key to trying to capture these moments.
The Shoot It was a day and a half shoot - but apart from the interviews, I never used any footage from day one! Going with the flow, I introduced myself to the (genuinely extraordinary) array of judges and started doing what I do - quietly flitting around the room capturing shots, merging with the furniture as they started to relax both with each other and my presence.
I tend to find that, to start with - say the first 30min or so - it’s best not to move around too much with the camera - it raises self awareness in the people being filmed, distracts them, creates a sense of ‘being in the way’. So I tend to gently ramp up my movements over time as they gradually forget, or simply stop caring, that I’m there. And people always do - you can feel it happen and I love it, it’s like a green light.
Day one was fine but it was relatively static - at this stage all the judges were sitting around a table being shown the images on a projected screen. Apart from the technical challenge of low light, it was simply visually inert, providing little opportunity to create an exciting, non-corporate series of films.
Day two was the winner. We were in the same room but flooded with natural light as all the images that had been selected from day one were now physical prints on an array of tables. People were more relaxed with each other, moving, talking, shifting and lifting the images, scrutinising them, arguing over them, laughing and agonising – it was fantastic!
Having looked at the reference videos and aiming for something that felt progressive and fresh, it had occurred to me that we might never see the people in the films during their interviews - a ‘no talking heads’ policy. But to do this it was still important for the viewer to be able to identify which of the six judges was actually talking. For this purpose, I made sure I captured several shots of each judge, framed in a way that made it clear they were the focus of the entire shot. As each judge spoke within the film, it was then a simple case of using these shots, alongside a lower third indicating who they were.
This felt like it worked really well, especially within the context of such short films of 1-2min. Had viewers seen those interview shots, two things would have happened - the first is that the viewer would most likely lose interest in the static ‘talking head’ and two, it would have ripped the viewer away from the action of judging, the very subject matter of the film. By introducing each judge as they were actually judging, it helped create a stronger sense of being there, of the energy and human dynamism at the heart of the process.
Another stylistic choice was veering away from too many wide shots - with the best will in the world, these people were in a large room with wood panelling and strip lights that screamed corporate! So the majority of shots are close and medium, keeping us within the emotional heart of the action, which is where all the fun is anyway.
Outputs Despite the filming’s relative simplicity, this brief was pretty detailed regarding deliverables - a testament to the marketing plan. First we needed three main films, with a focus on the judging process, the shortlisted images and then the winning images. Each of these was required in both widescreen and square formats and each of these was required with and without subtitles.
A quick aside on the square format videos. When running a workshop for press teams about using mobile phones to make films, I always urge people to shoot widescreen as it gives them greater flexibility. Case in point, having shot everything in wide format (16:9), I then needed to make a series of square videos from the wide videos – but that’s not as simple as just copy/pasting into a square timeline. Almost every shot needs to be reframed, otherwise you may find that that wonderfully composed shot of one judge now has half their face cut off…
It was wonderful watching the Media and Marketing teams seeding these videos on their various social channels and a powerful reminder for everyone else out there who works with people like me to create content that has a solid dissemination plan.
Hope that was useful - I love what I do and enjoy sharing the behind the scenes. If you’ve any questions, just get in touch.
Recently, I completed a series of films for Wellcome, highlighting several researchers and the groundbreaking health research they fund. The first one, featuring Zebrafish that are helping scientists in Cambridge figure out how to beat tuberculosis, went live this week. You can see it below. Before sharing a little about the process of making this specific film, though, I thought it might be useful to give it a little personal context.
My first experience of working with animals as a research scientist was both a collision of moral values and a baptism of fire. Putting on a brave face, this naive young PhD student who’d flirted briefly with vegetarianism entered the ‘animal house’ to see the living creatures that would become the foundation of his research on motor neurone disease – the mouse.
They were cute. Small, furry, scurrying critters with an acute alertness. Like any animal lover, the feeling of being with so many animals felt like an adventure; with barely concealed Attenborough-inspired aspirations coming to the fore as the mind engaged in observing the peculiarities of their behaviour.
Unfortunately, this romantic time out was brought to an abrupt end as I was informed we were there to maintain the numbers, that the older mice needed to be culled. And I had to do it. Over and over, these little lives ended in my hands.
Today, my years at the bench are far behind me and I make films about people, science and the stories emerging from this juxtaposition. So, when Wellcome approached me about the possibility of making several films about research that didn’t shy away from the use of animals, I leaped at the opportunity. Not only because I believe it’s vital that a mature society can discuss the machinations underlying how modern healthcare actually works but also because I believe the core of my experience contained a hard truth scientists must face up to on a daily basis.
The people we call scientists love their families and friends, they also love animals and they face difficult decisions about using animals in the pursuit of what they ultimately need to perceive as a greater good. In these films, I witnessed scientists seeking a deeper understanding of tuberculosis or diabetes, diseases that adversely affect or kill millions around the world. Advanced technologies to visualise the inside of living beings to better diagnose and treat them or unravelling the ridiculously complex decision-making pathways in the brain, so that people with mental illness or whom have experienced a debilitating stroke might receive better treatment or care.
There are amore than 7.5 billion of us on the planet. Many of us get ill, victims of an external biological menace, or we can become temporarily physically or mentally broken, either through misadventure or the vagaries of life. Every trip to the GP, hospital, clinic or health centre is built on the foundation of modern medicine. And every pill, drug or vaccine they provide must legally pass through human clinical trials that lead back to animal research that began in a lab. My days at the bench are over. But looking through the camera has afforded me a broad view of scientists, people rich with curiosity and compassion, while humanity continues to hope that there may be solutions to their suffering.
The day we met the fish
The first thing my wife said to me when I mentioned this film was, ‘I’ve never seen a fish cough’, which immediately highlighted something I had to get across in this film - what on Earth does the zebrafish have to do with TB? You’ll need to watch the film to find out.
Every lab feels different. A mix of their location, type of work and the culture of the lab. This lab had a cool vibe. Lalita, the scientist running the lab, was funny, direct yet relaxed. That mood, combined with the relaxing feel of being around and watching fish, gently guided the overall tone of this film.
From the outset, I knew a macro lens would be vital to bring the fish to life. In reality, the fish and their tanks are relatively small but I wanted the fish to feel like stars - to really make them shine as the biological counterparts helping scientists to understand a disease killing millions of people each year.
To capture the close up shots, an LED panel light was used to ensure just enough illumination (I checked with the care staff that this wouldn’t distress the animals). And they’re fast swimmers, so the camera was set to record at 50p, slowing them down by 50% so we could actually catch a decent glimpse of these beautiful animals.
The combination of Lalita’s chilled demeanour, alongside the close-up shots of the fish worked perfectly with the lab based work, which was also remarkably calm – researchers, as if suspended in time, as they patiently, silently worked with the tiny fish eggs beneath the lens of a microscope.
The day we met the monkeys
This film is centred on a lab working with non-human primates, namely, Old World rhesus macaques. On arrival, security was tight, naturally, and before Sarah Tucker (my fantastic co-producer) and myself were able to actually meet any of the animals, we were briefed on how to behave and respond.
It was exciting and also a little nerve-wracking. Of all the animals used to advance research into human health, non-human primates - animals that reason, display affection and a level of empathy - are ones that can elicit strong emotional responses.
Importantly, the brief for each of the films was not to focus purely on the use of animals in research but primarily to highlight the researchers valuable work and how it relates to human health. In this instance, the research is providing key insights into the complex world of decision making - an aspect of human cognition that can be devastated by stroke or certain types of mental illness. And, the more one understands about how something works, the better able one is able to try and repair it when it goes awry.
We wanted to be more open about the use of animals while helping viewers grasp why this specific animal is used and, critically, to touch upon how important it is that the animals are well cared for. This approach appealed to me as a filmmaker because, rather than shirking away from the use of animals in research, it elevated them to a vital component of the mechanism of scientific progress and societal wellbeing. As such, as much was possible, I wanted to try and capture the monkeys as valuable participants in the research.
And the best way to do this, it seemed to me, was to join the monkey as he was doing the experiment. Because the essence of the research is all about a specific type of decision making, by being with him my hope was to capture his eyes, head movements, hand gestures and moments of hesitation - visual details allowing a viewer to actually see a moment of indecision.
So that’s what I did, I sat with the monkey for around 40 min while he performed a series of memory based tasks. It felt surprisingly intimate. The room was utterly dark, except when the monkey was illuminated by bright colours emerging from his large touch screen. The effect was quite striking - one moment, utter blackness, the next he was brightly lit with reds or blues or greens. Pulling the lens back to capture the entire scene, it was possible to believe he was floating in space. It was strangely beautiful.
Another vital thing we wanted to capture was animal husbandry - to show how the people working with the monkeys care for and interact with them. What surprised us was that all of the monkeys have names and their own unique personalities the staff respond too. Some monkeys are cheeky (naturally), some like to be tickled, others love to play with cardboard boxes and toys. It’s lovely to observe these genuine relationships and many miles away from any notions that the animals are simply tools, shunted back and forth as experiments demand.
The day we met the pigs
One angle we specifically wanted to cover in these films was the use of large animals, such as sheep or pigs. To try and address what manner of science necessitated the use of these farmyard creatures.
Initially, I felt this would be a straightforward film, in the sense that pigs, for example, tend to be synonymous with food. Surely using a pig to advance science was more easily justifiable, than simply killing it for food? In the end, though, it’s probably the film that affected me the most, leaving a lasting impact I didn’t anticipate.
The shoot started with some general shots of pigs on the farm, to help frame the film and also provide an important insight into their husbandry. What I hadn’t expected was how much fun pigs are. They’re smart, social, playful animals; inquisitive and rowdy, it’s hard to watch a pen of pigs interacting with each other without grinning from ear to ear as they muck about. They reminded me of dogs frolicking.
We timed the shoot, based in Edinburgh, to coincide with a real experiment intended to test the efficacy of a prototype piece of medical technology, known as Sonopill. Essentially, the team hopes such technology will soon be able to provide doctors with deep tissue scans through the entire digestive tract, something currently impossible. By doing so, all manner of ailments could be quickly and painlessly diagnosed and, as the technology advances, even treated.
The combination of human-like size and omnivorous diet makes the pig perfect for testing such tech because the physical dimensions of the digestive tract must mirror that of a human being. And, partly because of their size and the advanced clinical context, it was hard not to empathise with the animal on the operating table - the mood in the room was tense as the surgeons worked and the seriousness and care with which the animal was regarded and treated was second to none.
By using shots of surgery, monitors, surgeons and engineers busying about, the intention was to help reveal how sophisticated such animal experiments often are, how carefully planned and executed they are. All the while reinforcing their appropriateness for this type of experiment and the translational nature of the research - that one day the animal on the table will be a human beneficiary of such experiments.
There was a tangible reverence in the room. A silent acknowledgement that this precious life must be used to gather as much, meaningful data as possible. That feeling, of the value and importance of these playful, intelligent animals has stayed with me.
Last week, I was giving a talk to a room of professional science communicators about using smartphones to create ‘films with impact’. Essentially, it was Filmmaking 101.
Afterwards, one of the participants, Charles, came over and we had a good chat about filming scientists. The gist of the conversation was, ‘how on Earth do you manage to keep films about scientists fresh, interesting and original — I mean, when you’ve filmed in one lab, you’ve seen them all, right?’
I both knew exactly what he meant and fervently disagreed at the same time and this article is about why, featuring a recent project I did with Wellcome to make 10 short films to highlight ‘10 ideas they fund that might surprise you’.
Believe me, I get it. I’ve filmed in labs for a decade. And before that I worked in them as a scientist. But the idea that labs are dull places to film is like saying that Eastenders could never succeed because most of the programme takes place in a pub — I mean, beyond pulling pints and people reading papers or chatting, what on Earth is there to film?
This is why I never stage anything. And it often causes a moment of confusion with scientists who’ve been filmed before — when I ask them to ‘just do their job whilst I observe’. After a slight pause, they just get on with it — there’s no longer an unnecessary layer of 'acting' getting in the way, they are simply being, doing something they understand inside out.
As a consequence, their body language and movements are entirely natural, unhindered — alive. This, for me, is the essence of observational documentary filmmaking — capturing real people in the midst of their own reality. They just happen to be scientists.
Is it harder to work like this? Yes — reality does not repeat itself, you need to be looking at the world around you with four eyes open, two on the monitor, two on the room, you need to be able to shift composition and focus on a pinhead. It’s exasperating because you miss great shots — but you catch others. And I think the end result is more than worth it.
In these recent films I made for Wellcome, I worked within a brilliant, small team, including Sarah Tucker and Michael Regnier. Together, we did what we could to think outside the box, the lab, about what we could film to bring these researchers’ personalities and work to vivid life. We focussed on what they were most passionate about, and where. We did capture lab shots because they were relevant and useful but we also captured shots of the cities in which they worked, populated by the people their work could eventually benefit; we placed the science into a broader context.
Science is a largely intellectual exercise — that scientist pipetting a colourless liquid might be performing part of a detailed molecular biology experiment that would defy conventional explanation. But all that matters for most films is to convey their passion, their intent to explore the limits of human understanding — often to the benefit of others.
Labs might look mostly the same but each one is filled with a unique ecosystem of people, passionate about knowledge and ideas, determined to make a chink in the chasm of ignorance humanity pushes up against. Surely that’s more interesting than a pub?
It’s the question I’m asked the most, ‘How did you make the jump from working in a lab to making films?’
So here’s the brutal truth. There was no singular jump. What there was, was being open to chance, grim determination combined with a series of stochastic steps, frequent faith on my part, often on the part of others.
I love science – let’s get that chestnut out of the way. There seems to be a dated notion that those who leave the bench are somehow seeking an escape. In my experience, that’s rarely the case. During my second post-doctoral position, the need to explore creative ways of expressing my love of science simply became irrepressible.
At home, I began writing articles, purely for myself. This was when I started testing the power and elegance of words. To realise that, devoid of jargon, it was entirely possible to entertain and inform curious minds about the beauty, imagination and limitless reach of science.
Completely naïve to ‘how these things worked’, I started reaching out to people to try and get the articles published – not for money, just to see my words somewhere other than my own mind and computer.
The Naked Scientists, ran by polymath Chris Smith, was the first to take my articles and ask for several more.
Simultaneously, I began experimenting with film. A random encounter with a work colleague, showing clips of his new baby on his new video camera wowed me. An unapologetic technophile, others cooed while I was far more intrigued by the idea of being able to obtain such a camera and make my own films. That was the moment I fell in love with the idea of making films.
Even then, I was brutally pragmatic. There was no point having a camera if I couldn’t edit what I shot. Apple had just released Final Cut Pro. So I bought it, a ridiculously over specced computer and taught myself how to use them both. Archive.org provided limitless material to download and practice on - I’d spend hours reworking old films, creating mashups to entertain myself whilst learning the literal ins and outs of editing.
Then came the camera, a dinky, 3-chip affair that promised great colour and excellent sound. It cost a small fortune and I couldn’t have been happier – this was my gateway drug, the key to unlimited creative expression.
Initially, the films I made were more like play; films like Photo Synthesis which were experiments with stop motion, archive and little bits of reality mixed in. This was a time of BT’s getoutthere and Channel 4’s FourDocs, nascent web platforms encouraging a new wave of creative expression as the art of filmmaking moved from Hollywood to suburbia.
FourDocs was where I first met the inspiring Patrick Uden, Emily Renshaw-Smith and Charlie Philips, now Head of Documentary at the Guardian. Charlie was, and still is, a person whose passion for and experience of documentary is something I deeply respect. I’d entered a competition, pitching to make a film. The film was made as a collaboration between us all and at the time it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done in my life.
Talking about film always excites me this way. The exploration of ideas, the attempt to capture imagery and sound then weave it together to produce poetry, drama, horror or beauty is intoxicating. This creative process is the most intellectually complex and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
As confidence grew, I needed to get my camera out of the bedroom and into the real world. As much as I adore a blockbuster, it was the idea of documentary that drew me in. Reality is everywhere and I wanted to catch it, play with it, share it in new and experimental ways.
An old friend, Sue Hordijenko, was working at the, now British Science Association. I went in to meet her and some colleagues, essentially to sell my wares as a filmmaker. They had no budget (I didn’t care) but they did have an event coming up in a couple of months to explore the issues surrounding stem cell research and the ethical questions surrounding it. ‘I could make a film about that!’, I breathed at them, eyes wide.
A couple of weeks later, I was on a train to Newcastle, having taken a day off work, to meet Miodrag Stojković at the Centre for Life to do my first ever interview. It was ridiculously exciting – I was living the dream. I’m amazed he said yes to the interview but it did instill a ‘just ask’ approach to my filmmaking. It’s precisely how I managed to get an interview with Sir David Attenborough, years later.
Once Miodrag was ‘in the can’ I needed voxpops, the opinions of real world people discussing their thoughts on stem cell technology and its implications. Leaving the house with a camera to interview people was, then, nerve wracking. And what I didn’t know then is that voxpops are a baptism of fire – people ignore you, look irritated by you, evade your smiles and pleas for a moment on camera. It’s brilliant experience.
One man I interviewed, sitting in a park, revealed the power of documentary. He went off topic, yielding to the confessional quality of the lens. He shared the fact that his wife died a year ago, that he had since become an alcoholic, that he was now sleeping in this very park. That a single, random encounter could possess so much depth and pain and story inspired and moved me.
The resulting three minute film, was used to introduce an evening’s talk on stem cell research at the Dana Centre. Sitting in the audience, this was one of the first times I’d been able to watch my own work on a big screen. It’s a seductive feeling that has never worn off. In the audience was a woman from the British Council. She saw and liked the film – how it had been used within the context of stimulating conversation. She asked me to make a similar film for the British Council’s ZeroCarbonCity project. It was my first professional gig and ‘digitalis media’ was born.
Resigning was actually pretty easy. Thinking more about films and words than enzymes and cells, it was simply the right thing to do. My parents thought the decision unfathomable and I heard the word ‘brave’ more frequently than at any other time. Still, it felt like walking through an open door.
The first major piece of work I had as a freelancer was to write The Rough Guide to the Brain. This came about, like most things looking back, simply by being open to possibility. Rough Guides put out a call for titles – that was it. I submitted four; three months later I was having lunch with Andrew Lockett (a meeting I almost missed because I wanted to go to a talk about independent filmmaking). You can read about the yearlong process to write the book here.
Immediately following the book, there was a sense of having drifted too far from film. That, having taken the step to becoming a freelance filmmaker, I’d ‘lost a year’ to words and needed to immerse myself back into a more visual world.
That’s when I became aware of Sheffield DocFest. Now the largest documentary film festival in Europe, they were running a pitching competition and, fully warmed up from a year of creative writing, it seemed like a no brainer to enter.
Along with around 10 others, I found myself in Sheffield, having got through to the final of the competition. Chance had it that my group was sitting with Andy Glynne, a highly experienced documentary filmmaker, producer and founder of DFG, the Documentary Filmmakers Group. We pitched, received feedback and I considered it miraculous to be sitting with someone who actually made films for a living.
Following the session, Andy suggested we meet in London. This triggered the next and one of the most significant phases in my filmmaking life.
Working with Andy and the team at DFG, I was able to make a film for the Channel 4 and BFI collaboration, Britain Recut. Back in familiar territory, this allowed me to play with archive footage combined with newly shot film to tell a playful story of Britain’s inability to moderate its own diet.
Buoyed up by this relationship with Channel 4, Andy suggested we pitch a series for 3 Minute Wonder. Under his guidance, we managed to win a pitch for a series of shorts that became known as Life After Coma, a turning point in my career. Each film was tremendously special: Still Here, Work in Progress, Blah Blah Blah and Thomas Turns 50.
In essence, each short followed people whose lives had been dramatically impacted by coma. The combination of access, intimacy, emotional power and kindness I witnessed when making these films changed me. It was a privilege to be so close to so much pain, so much hope, so much humanity.
The rough cuts I provided were worked on by professional editors, Siv Lamark and Anton Califano, providing me with some of the most informative lessons I’ve ever had in front of a screen. Another year, another project focused almost exclusively on the brain.
During a holiday to Canada, chance alerted me to a masterclass by the late, great Albert Maysles. So off I dutifully went to listen to one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers discuss his life of work. A couple of years later I visited Al in his studio in New York and he echoed something that he’d said in Canada – short films are like poems… At a time when shorts were perceived as little more than time-fillers (how things have changed), this resonated powerfully with me. In everything I make, I’m constantly seeking that poetic layer, that quality that elevates a film.
With an insatiable interest in interdisciplinary work, I found myself back in the UK, applying to go on a five day Crossover workshop; a brilliant assemblage of characters and disciplines geared around the invention of an entirely new multimedia platform. It was here I met Mike Bennett, a hugely friendly and generous man.
Months later, I received a call from Mike, asking if I’d be able to meet a couple of people to discuss a film that was being made. At Crossover, I’d being showing people Life After Coma and Mike had suggested my approach might be helpful.
So, sitting with these two strangers from Minds Eye Productions, we discussed an idea I could barely get my head around. It seemed to involve an online fusion of games, documentary and drama – but you were never quite sure where the drama started and the documentary ended... Whatever, the overall theme was genetics, so it sounded pretty cool.
The one jarring moment in the conversation came when I realized that, rather than asking me to be second camera to an overall director, they were actually asking me to direct, film and edit all eight of the short documentaries to go with the project. Precisely. When I got home, I told my wife who asked how much I’d get paid at which point I confessed I’d been so surprised I hadn’t asked.
The result was the award-winning Routes, starring the wonderful and now immensely popular, Katherine Ryan. On the day I appeared to film in her home, I was terrified. Terrified of the responsibility, of forgetting to press record, of getting the audio right. Of pretty much everything. But then, as is now, once that camera is on, so am I and the day became a blur of footage.
Part funded by the Wellcome Trust, it was purely by chance a pal asked if I was applying for their job to be a ‘Science Multimedia Producer’. By then, I'd been freelance for five years, so figured why not apply. Two days before the closing date, I did.
During my time at Wellcome, the work I rate highest recalls the days of Life After Coma. It’s my web-series about mental illness, Last Chance Saloon. It’s the film I made about ageing and mortality, Until. It’s the film featuring the beautiful Colin Froy in The Pain Detective, who gave some of his last days on Earth to help me make a film about where drugs come from.
All I know about where I go next is that it will be poetic. It will be full of beauty and humanity and hope. Because when I look down a lens, that’s all I can see.