The state of science

There was a time when science was synonymous with a cold high school lab; where the droning voice of a teacher would momentarily break to let a droning science video take over. Watching a film in science class wasn't like watching one in other classes - you never felt like you were getting a break from learning.
December 1, 2007

There was a time when science was synonymous with a cold high school lab; where the droning voice of a teacher would momentarily break to let a droning science video take over. Watching a film in science class wasn’t like watching one in other classes – you never felt like you were getting a break from learning.

But, long ago, filmmakers began experimenting with the idea of keeping the audience awake by creating entertaining and interesting programming. Now science programs are more than just not boring; they’re popular.

With the success of films such as March of the Penguins, Who Killed the Electric Car and An Inconvenient Truth, broadcasters are waking up to the fact that audiences want to know more about the world around them – how it works, what’s happening to it and, specifically, how they fit into it. So what’s changed?

Catherine Alvaresse, senior VP of sales and coproductions for EuropeImages in Paris, says doing a pure science program just doesn’t work anymore. ‘In science it’s best to avoid too many interviews, explanations, scientists, laboratories, stuff like that,’ she says. ‘Today you need something more spectacular, either in how it looks visually or with what it says.’

Story lines, rather than technical descriptions of science, are key. Manuel Catteau, producer and general manager at Paris’ Zed, agrees. ‘Science content should be spread along a good story line, so that the audience learns something without feeling like they are being taught,’ he says.

This notion that science films should have life in them is born out by the success of programs like Oxford Scientific Films’ Meerkat Manor, Handel Production’s How William Shatner Changed the World and Granada’s Brainiac: Science Abuse.

Brainiac is an experiment-based, hosted science program where the presenters cook up bizarre demonstrations – many involving explosions – in the name of entertainment and exploration. While it can come off a little like Jackass in its over-the-top manner of presentation, it succeeds in making true science exciting.

As does How William Shatner Changed the World, though in a less explosive way. This two-hour one-off for Discovery Canada explains how Star Trek influenced many scientific and technological advancements. Using the comical yet cocky Shatner to tell the story, and clips from the show to illustrate the technology envisioned by its writers, the doc illustrates that advances in space travel, medical machinery, astrological discovery and the invention of cell phones and personal computers may not have happened if it wasn’t for the imagination of Gene Roddenberry.

Meerkat Manor is a nature show that behaves more like a soap opera. ‘With Meerkat Manor, obviously it’s about entertaining, but we’re always very true to the science,’ says Caroline Hawkins, executive producer with Oxford Scientific Films.

Expectedly, some have begun to suggest entertainment trumps content. The biggest complaint about today’s version of science seems to be that it sometimes only takes up 20 minutes in a one-hour program.

Channel 4 in the UK has a science forum on their website where audiences can chat about what is and isn’t working in science programming, and what they think of shows they’ve watched. In one thread from last summer, chatters complained that there is nowhere to go for intelligent science programming. Rather, broadcasters are busy trying to feed them what they call ‘pop’ science that tries too hard to be entertaining and doesn’t deliver enough scientific facts.

If Star Trek did so much for technology, then it’s possible that it also created a more sophisticated audience for science. Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation had to up its true science quotient, so too does non-fiction science programming.

‘When people know what the scientists are doing it becomes much more interesting,’ says Richard Bradley, managing director and VP of content for Lion Television in London. ‘Rather than shooting some really nice shots of the science lab, or a shot of a blue light shafting through the Venetian blinds to make it all look 21st century, let’s actually find out what they’re doing, let’s hear their enthusiasm.’

While many broadcasters and production companies think the move toward science as entertainment is the answer to reeling in audiences, Bradley is critical of this. ‘There has been a tradition of science documentary that has now sort of evolved over 10 to 15 years which is all based around one linear hour of documentary that focuses around an amazing breakthrough or an amazing piece of scientific history,’ he says. ‘Those great seismic changes in science happen a few times a century. Documentaries make out they happen every week, and they don’t.’

General audiences may want to be entertained, but science fans are still looking for the facts. Paula Apsell, senior EP of ‘NOVA’ and director of the WGBH Science Unit, feels it’s intelligent programming that audiences want. Viewers are looking for something that’s going to be provocative and expose them to a subject they may have never heard of, says Apsell. This is exactly where a film like An Inconvenient Truth succeeded. It made the audience think about something they didn’t know was happening, which also leads them to wonder what else they don’t know.

The Future of Food and How to Save the World are two films that have had a similar effect, though on a smaller scale. Food is about genetic engineering and the effect that the copyright on seeds is having on farmers, while World follows a man who moves from New Zealand to India to teach people how to treat the soil to make it fertile. How to Save the World won best non-broadcast at the recent Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Suzanne Harle, founder of California’s Green Planet Films and distributor for both, says that films about food, sustainability and green building are the most popular in her catalog. Watching The Future of Food influenced her to sign up to her local chapter of Community Supported Agriculture, and a former marketing person for Green Planet went back to school to become a writer for food policy.

The popularity of green programming, the interest in the environment and the viewers’ desire to learn about science has led to the creation of new strands, channels and an uncountable number of programs. Discovery has PlanetGreen, which it announced last April and will be launching in 2008. The project includes an investment of us$50 million in original programming and is proposed to be a 24-hour network devoted to lifestyle programming and teaching the audience how to reduce its ecological footprint. The Sundance Channel already has a strand based entirely on the environment called ‘The Green.’ That strands and stand-alone channels for science and the environment are able to exist means that advertisers are aware of audiences’ renewed interest in the genre. For instance, the UK’s Five recently secured sponsorship from Navman – a GPS navigation company – for

The Gadget Show. The deal between Five and Navman includes visual recognition on promotional trailers and use of their product throughout the series. Harle suggests the same type of sponsorships can be procured for programs and films on green building.

Despite the growth in the environmental and green sectors, producers and broadcasters say budgets don’t appear to be increasing. If anything, according to Fred Kaufman of WNET’s ‘Nature’ strand and Lion’s Bradley, they might be headed slightly downward. ‘The clearing out of the middle-bracketed projects has been a real trend in the last few years,’ says Bradley, who adds that broadcasters are willing to pay a lot for a few big projects, but are trying to keep cost effective with the rest. ‘There will be projects for which you get a million-and-a-half dollars, $2 million per hour. Which is huge. There are several broadcasters that will do this – most often they involve coproductions – but there are a few of these projects each year. Meanwhile, down at the other end of it, people are looking to make shows for $175,000 to $200,000 an hour and there’s not much in between that.’

Kaufman points out that many filmmakers are going the guerrilla route, using DV cameras to capture footage such as Battle at Kruger, the hugely popular 17-minute YouTube phenomenon of a fight between water buffalo, a pack of lions and a crocodile in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The filmmakers, Jason Schlosberg and David Budzinski, who were tourists who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, are now making a special with National Geographic about how they obtained this amazing footage.

But going beyond YouTube, science is usually quite expensive. Most of the budgets go towards the cost of HD, CGI and research.

‘Science programs almost always require one big element. And that big element could be CGI recreation, or it could be the cost of putting on a big experiment, or it could be the host,’ says Bradley. Lion Television is currently working on a project called Hell on Earth that will take the presenters to the hottest places on the planet. For one part, they will be lowered into the world’s largest lava lake in Ethiopia where the tectonic plates are pulling apart. The cost of that expedition will probably account for at least half of the show’s budget, Bradley estimates. However, if one were to make programs like Walking With Dinosaurs or The Future is Wild, more than half the budget would be spent on CGI.

CGI and HD may be important to science shows, but the backbone of any good science program, according to Hawkins, is research. More so than with other documentaries, finding the time and resources to do in-depth research is imperative when making a doc based in science.

‘In science shows, there’s always going to be one big, chunky element in the budget which is what makes it live. And then the rest of the budget you spend in traditional ways on filming days, on editing time and getting your team around,’ says Bradley. The important element for audiences is the change in quality since the days of snooze-worthy programs. If schools are showing Planet Earth and MythBusters today, science class may become more awe-inspiring than sleep inducing.

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