There are a number of new things coming out on screens near you (or may have already aired) that might interest you. For fans of the History Channel’s The Universe (thanks so much for all the emails with kind remarks, and so forth, by the way) there’s a new show in the works that’ll mix science and history (and other disciplines) in an interesting way. I’ve no idea when it is set to air though, and frankly I’m very confused as to what is on History and what is on H2, the companion channel, so I’ll just say watch out for that. We shot a lot of material for that earlier this year, and I hope you enjoy the show overall, despite my mumbling mug appearing on your screen a bit!
Apparently the many of the Weather Channel’s science-y segments were shown, in a series called “Deadly Space Weather”, which imagines what would happen on earth if you brought various prevailing conditions on other planets back here. Yeah, I know… but actually it’s a good opportunity to think about science ideas, at least in principle. You’ll recall that I did some demos for that which were rather fun – and hopefully interesting too. I saw a piece of one of them online (10:44 or so), and got rather annoyed at one point. There’s a segment where I demonstrate – with real sulphuric acid – the effect it has on organic compounds, using sugar. It is quite spectacular. And of course quite dangerous, so I’m actually wearing a lab coat (yes, there are occasions where real scientists wear real labcoats on TV for good reasons and not just to support a cliche), and a mask and goggles. We agreed that I would not be shown doing anything that was not safe for this segment (it was something I made a big deal of) since I did not want to be encouraging people to do that sort of thing without taking precautions. Now, there’s a point during the filming where, to help give them fill-in shots (coverage, it is called) of what my hands are doing, I did the pouring action several times but pouring water on to the sugar, just so they could get the shots to cut between. For that, since it was agreed that it would be a close shot, and also because I’m using water, and it is easier to see without the face gear, I of course don’t have the goggles on, because they’re filming my hands. But of course, in the finished version, they cut in a wide shot that they must have taken, making it look like I am pouring concentrated sulphuric acid while bending over it with no goggles! That is SO annoying because it shows a lack of regard for what I was very careful to warn them of showing, and sends a bad safety message to people watching at home. Luckily it is not too long a segment. What likely happened is that probably an editor was given a lot of freedom in cutting the thing together (which is a good thing to do – they can really make a film sing if left to do their job freely), but someone who gives a damn about the show’s overall accuracy should have given notes to the editor before they even started work on it, and/or spotted that error and got it fixed before the picture was locked on that episode. But, as I suspect is the case with a lot of these things, the attitude is often that people don’t care enough to know the difference (wrong!), so why waste time on such details.
Anyway, moving on…
The Industry is changing. You probably know this, since if you’re reading this you are likely to be someone who gets a lot of your entertainment (increasingly) from web sources, and since you’re a savvy consumer of obscure little known blogs like this one (go on, all five of you wave at each other!), you are quite likely someone who watches a lot of online film/video, maybe even have more online video time than you do traditional TV video time now. A lot of filmmaker friends and acquaintances of mine are part of the movement to create a lot of “content” (the already-tired buzzword) for the web. Not as a second cousin to TV, but as a destination in its own right, with all of the re-thinking of the filmmaking that goes with producing good material for a new outlet. Many of those same people are now being approached by the traditional TV world to either make things on their behalf for the web, or to bring their web ideas to TV, and back and forth and so on. This will affect the film world a lot too, just wait and see. It is an interesting time and a changing world.
So this means that it is going to affect science on TV too, and – if we scientists get involved at the beginning – hopefully in a good way! A lot of the chain of command and responsibility that is somewhat broken -with regards to ensuring good and exciting (and fresh and non-cliched) science content in film in either theaters on on TV- is much more fluid right now because a lot of the rules and traditions are all new (or or have not been fully written yet), so I consider this an opportunity to change things. So get involved! And please, please, fellow scientists, in this window of opportunity, let’s try to break the standard assumptions made by filmmakers and especially the people who call the shots at the top (like actually green-lighting the shows). A lot of the science community have been helping reinforce some of these assumptions. Let’s try to stop. We, and the knowledge we bring, are not disposable or interchangeable, especially in a show that is about science, or scientists. (It seems obvious, but believe me, it needs to be said.) The science is not just an add-on to the other more urgent stuff. It is important. Increasingly, audiences care that this component is done right, and richly mixed in.
One of the things I mean is that it is difficult to hold up some standards for good science content if the filmmakers know that they can just call another scientist who will say any old random garbage to camera without words of caution. I’m tired of appearing on shows and seeing a delicate matter – often after I’ve spent a long time working with the filmmaker giving them very careful measured quotes (and behind the scenes advice) – being over simplified or misrepresented by the next scientist contributor who just says the first misleading flashy-sounding soundbite that comes into their heads. Let’s all try to be more careful. If you’re afraid they won’t use you on screen because they want you to say or do something that you think it is inaccurate or misleading, then say so! Risk walking, away, its ok. More often than not, by working together with the filmmaker you’ll arrive at a way that works that keeps both sides happy and serves the science. And if not, walk away. Show em that we have standards. Walk away if it comes to it – you’re worth it. I don’t mean be a prima donna. Just someone who has some pride in their work (the knowledge they are bringing) and the value of it. It’ll also help rehabilitate the idea of nuance in the mainstream.
The same goes for giving away a huge amount of our time and energy for free by the way. It is great to do that, as a service to science and the public (and I’ve done an awful lot of that to just try to get certain kinds of things made, which maybe would not have made it to screen otherwise), but up to a point. Where that point is depends on a lot of factors (such as the filmmakers involved, the nature of the show, and the nature of your contribution), but beyond that point I think many of us send the wrong message to people who work in a culture where time, value, and money are perceived as correlated. From the point of view of someone controlling a budget (which after all determines how much time will be spent on production) the question in their mind will be: How important can the scientist contribution really be if they’re spending hours – days or even more – helping with the science but still they cost less than the entire budget for the lens cloths used in the shoot? or How careful do we need to be with their contribution if we can just get another one to show up for free with just a phone call? We need to be careful here, but we can’t change this easily if we are not somewhat collective in our actions. Let’s start being careful about how far we go for free. Ironically, some of our work will be valued more by channels if they at least pay a token “thank you” amount for it. Right now, many production outfits don’t even have that in the budget, but they know to budget if they are asking for legal advice, so why not the other experts who are key to the show? This is not going to change if we don’t change it ourselves.
If we collectively make it harder for some outfit with a camera to find another scientist who’ll do anything just to be on screen, the content will be stronger, more care will be given to the material we contribute, audiences will stop feeling insulted, and everybody will win. Yes, it’ll take time, but let’s all try to work toward getting it known that we are just as valuable an expert to have present as the wardrobe person, or the lighting person, or the set designer or other contributors who really help make the work shine, and bring audiences back. And we should be treated as such, valued in the ways that they value them, and more. So let’s not roll over to have our tummies rubbed as soon as someone gives us a chance to be in front of the camera, or in the credits. Let’s have some self-respect and help raise the standards.
(And yeah, on a lot of the above, I’m looking at some scientists in particular here. You know who you are…)
Ok, I’ll end on a lighter note. So Discovery has bought an online property (Revision3), as you may have heard. This is old news now. It is part of their plan to have a stronger online presence, and they will be launching (and have already launched) a lot of new shows (either under that name or on TestTube, or both, I don’t know for sure). So I got a call a while back to be involved in the pilot of one of them, and we shot it. It got bought, and a raft of episodes are being made as we speak. I spend a Friday on set recently working on three episodes in which I appear and it was a lot of fun. I won’t say anything about it yet, since I can see nothing about it on the web yet which means the details are not yet out and I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder. But I can say that I like the main concept for the show (made by an excellent filmmaker I’ll mention later when I have clearance) and it is an opportunity to unpack some science in a fun and perhaps unexpected way. It is hosted by Crystal Dilworth, a scientist that some of you might know (check out her excellent TEDx talk about images of scientists in the media – we are very much in agreement about so much concerning this issue, so it was great to chat about some of this!), from things like the PhDcomics movie (I am so unhip I did not know they’s made one), or a variety of other things – she photoblogs them here.
In one of the episodes we did a little comedy together that I hope reads well in the final cut. Anyway, that explains the picture at the top left*. Well, actually it doesn’t much. But I don’t want to spoil, so keep an eye out for the show and watch it. More later. (And no, she’s not really angry…!)
*Thanks for the photo James A.!