Blinded by Science

Science producers regularly face the difficult task of having to visually educate an audience about subjects that are virtually impossible to see in the context of film. The increasingly popular solution is to use interpretive forms, such as animation and dramatization,...
November 1, 1999

Science producers regularly face the difficult task of having to visually educate an audience about subjects that are virtually impossible to see in the context of film. The increasingly popular solution is to use interpretive forms, such as animation and dramatization, to convey facts. Beyond that, however, doc-makers often must deal with the sticky issue of taboo practises and topics, which vary depending on the region in which they work or sell. Add to that the heady task of transforming complicated scientific concepts into entertaining programming, and the particular challenges of science producers become apparent.

Science sells

Aside from natural history, science documentaries are perhaps the most exportable type of factual programming. But within the genre, certain topics cross international borders with more ease than others. Charles Schuerhoff, president of Massachusetts-based distribution company CS Associates (which specializes in science docs), says he finds non-fiction medical programs are in growing demand, especially cutting-edge shows about the latest breakthroughs. Still, he admits that the limited shelf life of these programs can be a problem, as the topics might not be applicable five or ten years down the road.

Schuerhoff also cautions against focusing too much on what is happening in one particular territory. ‘Buyers weren’t born yesterday and they know that every medical advance doesn’t just come from the U.S. They’re looking for something that is a little more all encompassing,’ he says.

Gayle Gilman, head of coproductions at Channel 4 International, also finds medical docs tremendously popular. However, she says they can be challenging to sell, due to varying levels of cultural acceptance for certain medical practices. ‘I have discovered great differences even between the U.S. and the U.K.,’ says Gilman. ‘Something like finding a cure for meningitis is universal, but then something like the use of Ritalin is very different on each side of the Atlantic.’ If a program is to travel well internationally, adds Schuerhoff, producers should try to avoid nudity, especially female nudity, and discussion of such issues as abortion.

One-off science programs and long-running series can be difficult to place in the international marketplace, says Gilman. She feels that two to six-hour series are ideal for foreign sales. Her advice to science producers is to ‘think big,’ both in terms of the scope of their projects and the budgets. ‘I think people have gotten used to broadcasters saying `keep your costs down.’ But science is the perfect genre for coproduction, so large budget projects can be financed because [science] generally does cross cultures quite well,’ she says.

Both Schuerhoff and Gilman point out that social factors will continue to be a major force in driving the desire for science programming. Gilman says she sees growing interest in metaphysical topics that focus on such ideas as understanding the universe, and the science and physics of why we are here. She feels that the popularity of these topics may have something to do with millennium madness and people’s desire to find intimate meaning in our existence as we enter into the next century.

Adds Shuerhoff, ‘So much of what you read in the popular press, in terms of business, economic and even social development, has been made possible because of advances in science. As that connection is made more clear to the average person, it raises the profile and people’s interest.’

Seeing is believing: The visual art of science

Stuart Carter, managing director and executive producer of London-based Pioneer Productions (science doc specialists), recently finished a two-hour special called Blast Off for the The Learning Channel in the U.S., about things that can go wrong in space. The program features a special effects sequence in which an astronaut discovers a puncture in his space suit. Carter says this is a classic case of the benefit of dramatization, as it allows viewers to visually experience something that could never be shown in reality. ‘I think that what television can do that a book illustration can’t is give you the view that is unimaginable in your mind’s eye. It is not just telling the story, but giving an image,’ he says.

Emmanuel Laurent of Paris-based Films ˆ Trois says animation is the ultimate tool to convey complex processes. He cites a 3-D animated sequence in his 59-minute one-off The Life and Times of Life and Times (budgeted at US$607,500) in which the viewer visually dives into the DNA, starting from the whole cell. ‘It’s like diving from the Eiffel tower, into a match box, down to the extreme part of DNA,’ he says.

However, the issue of truthful representation and disclosure in medical-based documentaries can create an ethical dilemma for science producers. ‘A rat’s lung looks pretty much like a human lung, and a pig’s heart looks pretty much like a human heart,’ says Carter. ‘There are many tricks that you can use. The big issue is where does the tissue come from?’

Carter refers to laws regarding what can be legally filmed and just how intrusive footage can be. Most countries have very strict laws governing these topics, laws that extend beyond even personal consent. Yet the legislation is not universal, and what isn’t legal in one country may be in another. The question then becomes: can the footage be transported and broadcast, and if it can, does the end justify the means?

Bo G. Erikson, executive producer and head of science programs at SVT in Stockholm, is quite familiar with this topic. His 1981 film, the 59-minute The Miracle of Life, created tremendous controversy nearly 20 years ago because of its incredible footage of human reproduction, showing initial cell division and astounding shots of the developing fetus.

Erikson remembers having to defend his film when it came under fire. Critics questioned the origin of the footage, and whether he used shots of fetuses that were about to be aborted. He defended his work then, and does to this day, saying that all of the footage was from human tissue, and that the fetuses featured in his film lived to full term and were born. ‘You have to remember that in the long run, you can’t lie to the public because then you can’t come back. People won’t believe you.’

Erikson is currently at work on The Miracle of Love, a US$2 million `prequel’ to The Miracle of Life that illustrates the inner workings of human processes leading up to reproduction. Love is a large-scale coproduction involving pre-sales/partnerships with Boston’s WGBH, Germany’s ZDF, Paris-based ARTE, ABC Australia, Italy’s RAI, NHK in Japan and SVT Sweden to date.

Taboo or not taboo?

One example of a topic that seems to be contentious across the board is that of genetically modified food. In general, producers say this topic creates problems because opinions differ widely from country to country, and even among experts in the same country, regarding the value and safety of genetically modified food. The fact that there are tremendous corporate interests involved, who wield great power and influence around the world, doesn’t help either.

‘I’m developing a film on GM crops called Kidnapping Life, and we have encountered troubles and felt some pressure,’ says director Emmanuel Laurent.

Carter points out that the issue of genetically modified food is rarely presented from a non-critical standpoint. ‘Science producers want to be alternative and critical, so the mainstream thought becomes the taboo thought,’ he says. ‘And that happens in journalism in the whole. Journalists will want to be very damning about genetically modified foods. But there are a lot of studies that are well researched and you won’t often hear the government line or industry point of view.’

Anne Schoen, head of science at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, cites animal testing in research as a taboo topic that has become more so in recent years, partly owing to the influence of pressure groups. ‘These days, we experience that scientists abroad are very reluctant to show the `guinea pigs’ that they work with. Some even demand that we never mention the word `dog’ in a particular interview.’

McConnell adds that topics like animal experimentation bring up very personal issues and moral questions for science producers. ‘What do you do when your main scientist has done his work by sticking electrodes into hundreds of gophers? You’ve got to show it because you would be falsifying it otherwise, or you just don’t do the subject.’

Like all doc-makers, science producers understand that they have a great responsibility to the audience, their subjects, the scientists, the research, and to themselves. Yet it is nearly impossible to report on a controversial topic without putting one’s own spin on it. All the more reason to be sure of your information, says Schoen. ‘Check it with more than one source, and know that every meaning has its opposite. Know it, even if you decide not to tell it.’

Lise Lense-Moller, producer and managing director of Magic Hour Films in Denmark, feels it is acceptable to take a position on a topic, but that in doing so, a producer must be able defend their project in the scientific community. As the producer of Light, Darkness and Colours, a 52-minute one-off (budgeted at US$570,000), she was called on to take part in discussions on the film because some of its assertions were in opposition to Newton’s theories on academic abstraction.

Truth and consequences

Pioneer Productions’ Stuart Carter says that in some ways the truth can be taboo. He cites the tendency among producers and broadcasters of medical programs to put a positive spin on stories despite the harsh realities.

‘Take cancer for example,’ Carter says. ‘The truth is that most people don’t survive it, and those hard statistics are still pretty negative. Even people who go into remission will probably die young, and very few programs will admit that. The broadcasters don’t want to show something so hard-hitting, and as a society we duck these truths all the time.’

Amanda McConnell, a Toronto-based science documentary writer and researcher, says ‘one of the main difficulties in science programming is that there are such strong `givens,’ and trying to question accepted assumptions could put producers into headlong conflict not only with major scientists but also with science programmers.’ For that reason, she adds, it is extremely difficult to get programs made about topics outside of mainstream thought.

McConnell, who has worked on the series The Nature of Things (for Canadian pubcaster CBC) among others, gives the example of a legitimate, fact-based documentary on extra sensory perception. ‘You come up against great criticism because it is not an acceptable subject, and if you do things like that you are condemned for being flaky.’

At present, McConnell is in development on an ambitious 6 x 60-minute series called Sacred Balance for the CBC, based on a book of the same name by world-renowned geneticist and ecologist David Suzuki. The series examines the intricate interconnectivity of all life on earth from both scientific and philosophical perspectives. In her opinion, this project, which combines the cutting-edge with ancient science, offers an example of the opportunities available to science producers to look outside the box. ‘It is not a series that is an obvious example of mainstream science. It encompasses some very new science with ancient science, and we haven’t been without our own set of challenges to express to people how important both of these sciences are,’ McConnell says.

Robert Lang, president of Toronto-based Kensington Communications and executive producer of Sacred Balance, says he feels that in the past, topics that went against corporate interests were generally ignored or treated with kid gloves. ‘I have been involved with science programming for many years and have found that there is a real need for subjects that look critically at the interface between science and industry.’

In Lang’s estimation, this problem might be even more real today because of growing commercialization in media, and the diminishing role of true public interest TV. ‘There’s the idea that science programming should be purer than that, and not sullied, yet corporate interests are often what predominate in the scientific sector,’ he says.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.