Today sees the release of my new film: I’m a Scientist. It’s about scientists. Please take a look either here, or on the web-site that I have created specially for it*.
The film was a long time coming. I had promised to make it if I won in the June 2010 round of the I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here competition — a great online public engagement event that, over two weeks, enables school-children to put questions directly to groups of working scientists.
I made a trailer during the competition to show the kids what a film from me might be like. It was in fact my secret weapon: a bold move to curry favour with the children, who decided by their votes who would remain in the contest. I think it proved to be effective since I was fortunate — despite very stiff competition — to emerge victorious as the last scientist standing in our group. Of course, as I then realised, that meant I was going to have to spend my £500 winnings on making the film.
I had left the trailer hanging with the words “Coming in 2011”, thinking that would give me plenty of lee-way. As it turns out I have managed to release the completed film well before year’s end but it did take quite a while to get going.
I chose the format early on — a series of interviews with junior and senior scientists and settled on the plan to ask them the same set of questions, reflecting many of the enquiries that the children made during the competition.
And then work intervened — the whole business of teaching, grant-writing, conferences, running a research group that occupies most of the waking hours of scientists these days. Spring came around and I found I hadn’t done much more work on the project, even though I kept telling people ‘it’s coming along nicely, thanks’. I realised it was time to pull my finger out.
And so, pretty much on the spur of the moment one sunny day back in March, I rang Jenny Rohn and arranged for my first interview to be held in her garden that afternoon. After the inteview, and with my daughter Eleanor in tow — she was my volunteer camera operator for the day — I went to the Institution for Engineering and Technology to film the Farady statue and then to the British Library to get the Newton statue and do some pieces to camera. A busy day all in all but it was a good start, though not one of my pieces to camera made it to the final cut (don’t tell Eleanor).
Over the next two months I filmed the rest of the interviews and then set about the laborious task of transcribing them. This was unbelievably tedious work, largely because I’m a poor typist. I used a program called Express Scribe to replay the audio at a slower speed that matched my rate of typing. However, there’s nothing ‘express’ about my typing and the slow playback speed had the unfortunate effect of making the speakers sound extraordinarily boring. My interviewees droned on and on for hours as I tapped and tapped at the keyboard.
In the end I cracked. Tim Hunt, who was filmed last, gave me a great interview but it was quite a bit longer than the others (he’s a great talker and much of it was fascinating). I couldn’t face the hours of typing it would take and, fearing a delay that might stretch into summer, sent the audio files off to Casting Words in the US who transcribed it in a couple of days for $1.50 a minute. I even paid the supplement to get the time stamps on each paragraph, which proved very useful for finding the bits of video that I needed for the edit.
In total I had thirty-nine pages of interview transcript — single-spaced — corresponding to several hours of video. While on holiday in Crete I read through the whole lot several times and used colour-coded highlighting to group responses on the themes I wanted to focus on in the edited film. This was a tough, almost heart-breaking process because there was so much good stuff that I couldn’t accommodate in the half-hour I was aiming for. However, the winnowing did at least allow me to do a relatively quick cut-and-paste job to assemble an initial plan for the film and start on a rough cut — pulling together the different video clips into a coherent time-line. For the video editing, I turned to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, a recent release that has polarised the professional community. However, I’m not a professional and quite enjoyed getting to grips with the program, despite the odd bug and the discovery that my relatively new 13″ MacBook Pro is a shade underpowered for high-definition video editing. I have watched an awful lot of spinning beach-ball in the past few weeks.
At that stage I was also able to start writing the script needed to introduce the interviews, link the themes together and then wrap up at the end — and to plan how and where I was going to shoot these segments.
The links were shot in the latter half of August. The very last day of filming was on Saturday 27th Aug — my son Dominic and I turned up at opening time at the Natural History Museum in London only to find that there was already a large queue of people waiting to get in. Popular place. Once inside, we then discovered that you are supposed to have permission to film within the museum. Oops. Happily, permission was granted after a quick phone-call: “The name’s Curry, Professor Curry. From Imperial.”
The rest was editing, editing, editing — for hours and hours it seemed. Inserting the linking sequences, playing with the order, re-timing, tweaking the audio levels, adjusting the exposure. I made the mistake of filming Tim Hunt in front of a large window; although variations in the light were not noticeable to the eye, they certainly were to the camera, as is evident in the final cut. That’s a mistake I shall to learn from. I hope.
Getting the tone right was also trickier that I had anticipated. I had always wanted to have a light, humorous approach to the film but found that my initial attempts at linking shots were too jokey. They seemed almost disrespectful to the contributions made by my interviewees so I had to re-shoot some portions to rein in the silliness. I hope the final version remains light but does not undercut the weight of what the scientists in the film are saying.
Towards the end there was the matter of working out the opening and closing credits and finding royalty-free music that I could use in the soundtrack, to keep things legitimate. That was also rather difficult since it involved listening to large swathes of original clips described variously as “calm’ or ‘bright’ or ‘relaxed’ and so on. I’m pretty happy with the final selections by Kevin MacLeod that I got from Incompetech. I particularly like the light, inquisitive tone of Sneaky Snitch, which I used for the main theme.
I would rather not dwell on the troubles I had with compression, a rather technical subject that I have yet to master but which is needed to get the video file to a size that can be uploaded to YouTube. Suffice to say that it took several goes to iron out a good solution, and to track down the final bugs in the edit. I’ll be glad if you watch the film once but I have watched it through several times to check for flaws and have begun to understand why Woody Allen says he never looks at his own films once they are finished. That’s not to say that every flaw was caught — there are several remaining in the finished product and I won’t draw your attention to them unnecessarily — but I think I found and repaired all the dropped or blank frames.
The process was thoroughly absorbing and, on the whole, a great deal of fun. It took far longer than I imagined possible; I simply hadn’t realised how much work it would take to record and process six interviews. I don’t think I’ll be able to do a similar sized project on my own again.
I have been so immersed in it these past few weeks that I find the finished film impossible to gauge — my judgements oscillate. But I do hope that it will please some people.
*Thanks to Alom Shaha for suggesting this, to Richard Grant for help with technical details on registering a domain name and to Shane McCracken for hosting and helping me get imascientist-film.org.uk set-up.