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.