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?