Eric May – Media Consultant




Telling your science story on video


Telling the story of your research in a short film or video is possible. It’s a fun process, and helps you think differently about your work (which is good). Your audience will respond. But telling the story of your science on video is a LOT of work and it takes a lot of time.


First, you have to answer the most basic question of all: who is your film “for?”


Your film is for an audience. That means, you have to express your ideas about your research in a way that your audience understands. That's an easy concept to understand but much more difficult to execute properly.


For example, audiences within your discipline might have one expectation for your film. People in science, but outside the discipline might have another expectation. And the general public has another expectation altogether. So it's tricky.


It is essential that you keep your target audience in mind when you think about how you want to tell your story film or video.



Reaching your audience

The key to helping your audience understand your idea is to recognize that films have "structure." Just like a house, if the structure is weak, the house will fall down. The key to a strong film about your research is making sure you have a very strong structure to express your ideas.


The two key structures we use to explain scientific research in the medium of film or television are:


  • Processes
  • Character driven stories



A "process" is simply describing step-by-step, in a logical way, to your audience how a certain result was reached. Obviously because that matches your work process, it's an ideal structure for expressing scientific research on video.


But what's essential is the process is explained clearly and understandably for your audience. "Processes" in films about science are quite common and usually quite effective.



Process: animation

The most basic approaches involve simple computer animation. Some creative scientists have taken animation a step further, to tell a short story about their research:


Proteins Protagonistes by Ignasi Buch and Inés Navarro



Process: live action


The next level of telling your science story using a process involves live-action and “real people.” It's a step above simple animation, but the principle of showing a process is still very clear. Here is an example of a process using live action. This one uses a very technical, step-by-step approach. Videos like this are quite common in science today:


Gene Transfer to the Developing Mouse Inner Ear by Oregon Hearing Research Center



Process: visual metaphors


The next step up in making your process more interesting for audiences is using a “visual metaphor” to explain your process. What's most important is that the metaphor is a simple one, easy for your audience to understand. That also makes it easier to visualize (shoot.)


Chemical Party by EC EU Science


Alcohol Consumption during Pregnancy by Susana Eva Martinez PRBB Intervals Programme


The Epigenetics of Identical Twins by LearnGenetics


Visual metaphors are effective and can work well for audiences. But the essential point, as in the examples above, is the metaphor you choose to visualize your research has to be clear and easy to understand for it to be effective.




Character-driven stories


The next level up from "process” stories are what are called "character-driven stories." A character-driven story is the "gold standard" for storytelling in film and television, because audiences respond extremely well.


Character-driven stories demand special characteristics which make them much more complex than simply illustrating a process.


A character-driven story is never about a big problem, a threat, or the actions of politicians or powerful interests. A character-driven story is always about how an ordinary person is affected by a big problem, a threat, or the actions of powerful interests. In other words, it's not what the story is about, but "who" the story is about. "What if it was me?" is very resonant for audiences. Scientific research is very rich in all of this, so there's a lot of potential for character driven storytelling in your work.


But there’s a big drawback: process stories are easy, character driven stories are very, very hard to do well. The topic has to be strong enough to support a character driven structure with enough built-in, ever worsening conflicts to keep the audience with you, and the character, and what is happening to them, has to be strongly compelling for the audience.


That's a tall order and obviously means not every scientific or research theme is suitable for a character-driven story. But when everything comes together there are few structures more powerful for audiences:


Bicycle Spoon Apple by Carlos Bosch


If you want to do a character-driven film about your research, here are the key points to consider when it comes to structuring and planning your idea:

  • Who is affected (your “character”)?
  • The stakes have to be the highest possible for the character (the loss of life, by the way, is the highest)
  • You don't tell what happens, until the end



“Sense of wonder”

But there is something missing, and it is possibly why a lot of researchers got into science in the first place. It is the "sense of wonder" about scientific research, and the challenge of visualizing that on film.


This is perhaps the most famous example of inspiring a “sense of wonder” about science in audiences.


Powers of 10 by Charles and Ray Eames


Millions of people have seen “Powers of 10” since it was made in the 1960s. It is directly responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of young people around the world to pursue a career in science. That's not a bad goal for your own film about your research!