I’m a Scientist – making the film

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.

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45 Responses to I’m a Scientist – making the film

  1. Jane Fleming says:

    a most interesting journey well described and enticing, and the finished project well worth circulating among young students -thanks for the background process

  2. An excellent way to get us even more keen to see the film. It sounds like a huge effort but also I think we can guess how much you enjoyed the criative process as well.

    Now, to go and see the main feature!

    • Stephen says:

      If I had known at the start what a huge job it was going to be I might never have begun. Thank goodness for ignorance and inexperience…

  3. Excellent “making of” account. Surely you should have recorded this for the Director’s Cut DVD box set?

    I greatly admire your patience and perseverance in producing the video – I’m still editing one from 25 years ago.

    • Stephen says:

      I was beyond my means to film myself doing all this stuff as well as doing it. Tis a blessed relief that it’s finally out in the wild. Thanks for all your support Shane – hopefully we can get it into lots of schools.

  4. Stephen Moss says:

    Well done! The full length feature is nicely put together, and just goes to show that you don’t have to have aerial shots of the presenter standing on a mountain top in the Andes, to get the message across that science is interesting and fun. I’m curious to know how you’re going to get the film seen by those for whom it was intended – will the IAS team be able to disseminate it to schools? The running time is just right for a single science period.

    PS: Époisses, just in case you’re interested.

    • We’ll do what we can to get teachers aware of it.

    • Stephen says:

      Now who could you possibly be thinking of? But in truth I’d have done the mountain-top shots if I could have afforded the helicopter. 😉

      I’m hoping to get it into schools however I can. Shane and the guys at I’m a Scientist are helping with that. I have a couple of other contacts who are helping out and I’m working with Imperial to promote it to all the schools that we deal with via Outreach. And I’ve just had an email from the Times Education Supplement about the film so I’m hoping they will do a piece.

      This is something that I hope to continue to work on — the whole point was to reach teenage school-children so if anyone has ideas about how to add to the audience, Im all ears.

  5. Jim says:

    This was an inspirational effort, and I’m even more impressed to read the production work that went into it. Ever since speaking with Alom Shaha a few years back I’ve wanted to have a go at producing video shorts on scientific subjects, and you’ve definitely encouraged me to take the plunge. I really need to get my teeth into Final Cut Pro, and one good project is a way to do that.

    I am arranging to go into two of the schools that put a great effort in participation in IAS2011, and put my prize money towards running some experiments with them; I’d love to be able to film the experience too, but don’t doubt there will be a lot of hoops to jump through arranging that.

    I’ll certainly recommend your film to those schools when I go!

    p.s. a cheap little disk reflector is immeasurably useful when filming / photographing subjects outside to reduce facial shadows, especially if you have a spare son or daughter to hold it for you 😉

    • Stephen says:

      Cheers Jim – and thanks in advance for the schools promotion. If you have the latest version of iMovie, it’s actually a good training step for FCPX – they have a very similar approach to the handling of taw fiotage and assemby of the edit.

      Best of luck with your experiments – but I guess filming kids will be pretty hard. Peobably lots and lots of paperwork involved!

      A reflector would certainly have been a good idea but most of the interviews I did alone and managing the camera, sound and interview was enough to be going on with. 😉

      • Grant says:

        FWIW, from my experience (as a much younger me) in still photography, suitably-placed sheet of polystyrene can also make for good reflectors. Being light-weight they’re easy to work with and can be propped up or clamped by light-weight stands.

  6. ricardipus says:

    Well done, Stephen. I think you’ve done a tremendous job on the editing – the pace is just right and the humour is just enough. I particularly liked the “have you got a Nobel Prize” segment. 🙂 I’m thoroughly impressed at what a nice film you’ve created.

  7. cromercrox says:

    My favourite part was the segment about the space fireman.

    Cheddar. The king of cheeses.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Congratulations, Stephen! Extremely professional, and both illuminating and enjoyable. I think the edited version (without, of course, seeing what you cut) came out just the right tone to interest and intrigue scientists and young people deliberating the possibility of a scientific career, alike.

    My daughter, a budding scientist and actress/film-maker, was particularly interested in your technique and editing (she told me that she uses the same editing program shown in one of your scenes, but a newer version–it’s Greek to me). My wife, also a scientist, was busy doing something else, and when she saw the first intriguing minute, dropped everything and enjoyed the whole film.

    Overall, a great job. I seriously think that you should call the BBC or somehow see if this documentary might be of interest to them–it’s clearly first rate!


    • Stephen says:

      Cheers Steve – I’m glad the family enjoyed it. You can tell your daughter that I used FCPX (she’ll explain it to you), so I am more or less up to date. It only came out in June and is still a bit buggy.

      You are very kind to suggest the BBC as a possible outlet but I don’t think it’s quite up to their high standards. However, I would not turn down the chance of a Hollywood remake! 😉

      • Steve Caplan says:

        With your permission, I’m going to see if the physical science (the higher level science for 8th grade/13 y old) teacher and “gifted/talented” coordinator would like to show the kids your film.

        • Stephen says:

          Steve – that would be great. You absolutely do not need my permission for this. I will be only too grateful if people are willing to promote the film in schools.

  9. Grant says:

    Quick note while I remember – one possibility might be the likes of TVNZ 7 in NZ, which very recently ran a month (or fortnight, I forget) featuring science-oriented stuff.

    You might be able to toss it at the local ScienceTeller event, too, if they accept film-only entries (in the sense that you won’t be here). I introduced the event on my blog not too long ago. Let’s see… here:


    (If you submit it, let them I know I passed it on; apparently I might be covering some of the events on my blog – still waiting to see what’s happening there.)

    • Stephen says:

      Oh – thanks for the tip-off. I’ve emailed them to see if they will accept the film as an entry. The more exposure, the better!

    • Stephen says:

      Update: they have replied and apparently I can enter the film as a Science Documentsry if I send them a couple of DVDs.

      I told them it was you who tipped me off. Hope the blogging thing works out.

      • Grant says:

        Good to hear you‘re in the hunt!

        So far I’ve managed to avoid naming my favourite cheese. I’m not sure if I have a true favourite—it might be Elberg?—but either way I miss the cheap cheese prices we had in NZ until a few years ago. When I started my studies in the UK I couldn’t find cheese in the supermarkets until I realised it only came in small packets – NZ sold 1kg, 2kg+ blocks. We still sell the 1kg blocks, but they now cost $NZ10+.

  10. Eva says:

    I finally watched it. It’s very well done, congrats!

    I have three pressing questions, though:

    -What did you use to make the animation of the space fireman?

    -Was Marcia’s interview really short or is the clock behind her stuck at a few minutes to 3?

    -What’s *your* favourite cheese?

    • Stephen says:

      I used the animation tools in Apple’s Keynote – the animation is just one slide. Exported as a high resolution Quicktime movie — at 30 fps, the same as the video — and imported into the edit.

      You have keen eyes but Marcia’s interview was similar to the others. I suspect the clock is defective.

      As for my favourite cheese, that was discussed above and Henry thoroughly disapproved of my choice of Cambozola. He’s such a stick-in-the-mud.

      • Eva says:

        Oooh, I suddenly need Keynote. (Unless OpenOffice can do this too, which it might.)

        Cambozola is a good choice. My own favourite is cumin Gouda, though.

  11. ricardipus says:

    I think a multi-centre, collaborative study of cheese preference among scientists is in order. I suspect a budget of several million pounds/dollars/Euros should suffice for the data collection phase. Then we can compare with dodgy population data of uncertain provenance, and publish it in some appropriate journal likely not beginning with the letter “N”. What do you think?

  12. Steve Caplan says:

    I must say, some of you scientists make my blood curdle, with your cheese choices…

  13. Lawrence says:

    I stumbled across your site accidentally, but in hindsight I am glad I did! Thanks for taking the time to make this movie. As a budding scientist myself, as someone who’s only recently finding his way into “lab life”, this was quite an inspirational account of science. I wonder, do you have the primary transcripts of the interviews (aka primary data) available? Would be great to read those as well! Call me crazy but I would gladly read through pages of a Tim Hunt interview.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Lawrence. I did put a PDF of the transcript of the final edit on the I’m a Scientist Film site, to help anyone who wanted to translate it and perhaps add subtitles (someone did ask).

      I confess I hadn’t thought of posting the raw transcripts. I’d have to give it some thought and would also need to find the time to tidy them up…

  14. Jackie Potter says:

    Finally got around to watching this. Congratulations on an informative, entertaining and funny film; I really enjoyed it and it’s reassured me that I was right to tell my son (when he said he wanted to be an inventor but couldn’t “because I always get things wrong”) that the important thing is not getting things right, but persevering and learning from the things that go wrong.

    I’ll try showing it to him (if I can get him to sit still for more than 10mins). He might listen to that message if it comes from real scientists instead of his Mum 😉


    • Stephen says:

      Yes – even for me it was re-assuring to hear Nobel laureate Tim Hunt emphasise the point that making mistakes is an important part of learning. Good luck with getting your son to sit still!

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