“What does this look like?”
“Zombies!” one of the scientists suggested.
“Right,” the cinematographer agreed. He reinforced the idea of shifting the frame to give the person on camera space for their gaze to travel – ‘Lookroom’. He’d noted before that when there’s an empty space looming behind a person’s back it creates tension. Perhaps a zombie is about to stagger up from behind. Whoever’s filming needs to keep in mind framing, or the way that visual elements are placed and presented within a shot. Framing helps to direct the viewer’s focus.
Science Storytelling Workshop
The scientists who attended the Science Storytelling Workshop participated in a small group filming activity to practice the camera shots and storytelling techniques they’d just heard about. Then the group reviewed the clips together, gaining lessons and a few laughs along the way as they covered cinematography fundamentals.
The workshop was hosted at the American Geophysical Union 2014 Fall Meeting. This year’s #AGU14 Fall Meeting brought together 25,000 attendees – the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world. Part of an effort to reinforce and spread ideas about sharing science, the Science Storytelling Workshop was presented by Liz O’Connell, FrontierScientists director & video editor, and Dave Selle, Alaska-based Discovery Channel cameraman. Most of the attendees were scientists hoping to learn techniques for sharing their science via film media.
Get the shots
When filming the scenes used to tell your science story, you need to allot plenty of time. “It will take longer,” Sell scribbled on paper in the conference room. “Write that down,” he said. Later he returned to the page to underline it. It will take longer.
Selle presented basic camera shots which become the building blocks of any story. Shots you’ll need can be ticked off a list in order large to small. Establishers are wide shots, dramatic vistas which orient the viewer to the part of the world the science story is taking place in and set up the scene. O’Connell: “Often science brings you to unique locations – take advantage of it!” After catching the sights, move increasingly closer to your subject as you frame or set up shots. Frame some shots that show your subject head-to-toe, working in their field. Medium shots are shot at a medium-close range, showing the torso and head. Nearer, get closeups of the face or face and shoulders. Then film inserts, shots of i.e. scientific instruments and hands manipulating things. If one shot was a closeup of the scientist looking down at a screen and manipulating dials, then make one of your inserts a shot from over the scientists’ shoulder showing that screen and those dials in close view. It’s better to have plenty of material, so give yourself at least a count of 10 even for simple shots.
All about the eyes
“So much of what we do as cinematographers or cameramen is tell people where to look,” Selle told us. That means directing the gazes of the subjects in the film as well as the gazes of the audience watching the film. When he records scientists in the field, Selle films the process as it unfolds. He says it’s tough to have a subject perform a task and explain the process fully at the same time, and instead recommends taking OTFs – on the fly interviews in the field. ‘Now that we’ve filmed what you do, could you explain?’ Later, in a more formal setting, have the scientist retell the story again in a well-lit setting. Interviewees should be looking just to the side of the camera lens, not directly at it. I’ve seen O’Connell sit just to the side of the Selle’s camera lens as she asks interview questions so the scientist being interviewed can direct a gaze to her more naturally.
It’s apparent that the eyes are incredibly important. Use the editorial technique eyeline cut: if the scientist looks toward something in the video, then move and film the thing she looks toward. When editing, you can cut between the two to show the viewer the object of interest. Avoid confusing the audience by following the 180 Degree Rule. Imagine an axis line drawn through two speakers having a conversation in your video. Pick a side to film from and don’t cross that imaginary line. Speaker A is reliably looking to the right at speaker B and speaker B is reliably looking to the left toward speaker A. Filming from one side of the axis line keeps the audience oriented. Selle said: “We’re always trying to create a sense of dimensionality in a 2D world.”
Creating dimensionality can be done when setting up a scene. During sit-down interviews, keep the subject away from the wall behind them. Whenever filming, consider what’s in the foreground, the mid-ground and the background. “Maybe you’re shooting through the instrumentation looking at a closeup of the scientist face,” Selle gave as an example, in which case distant mountains might be the background.
Creating pleasing proportions is also part of your task as a cinematographer. The Rule of Thirds divides the screen into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Items of importance should ideally be placed along the imagined dividing lines and can be centered at vertices where the lines meet. Shooting your instrumentation which stands alone in a brush-covered field? Don’t center the instruments onscreen; place them to one side. Conducting an interview? Keep the subject’s eyes on the higher imagined horizontal line. It also helps to minimize headspace – don’t leave a large amount of unnecessary space showing above your subject’s head. Don’t cut off bodyparts unnecessarily; if you’re taking a head-to-toe shot it would look strange to leave off the feet and end at the ankles.
“A person’s eye is always drawn to the brightest part of the frame,” O’Connell said. Make sure to light the face of whomever you’re interviewing. There are inexpensive alternatives to professional gear. Selle brought up using a Chinese lantern – a big paper orb with a light inside. What’s known as the key light provides the main lighting; use it to light your subject’s face. Fill lighting is provided by auxillary lights to soften shadows. If you’re using backlighting from i.e. a window, get flexfilm or a white board to bounce the light back onto your subject’s front side. And ‘daylight’ (blue-tinged) LEDs can provide great cheap light sources. Selle joked that your gear can be good, fast, or cheap, but you only get two of the three. Make compromises. Consider renting gear. Even inexpensive tech can get the job done.
O’Connell gave video examples reinforcing basic storytelling tips for editing. Present a topic in each video and don’t stray far from the message; bite-sized videos about your research might be more digestible to the general public. “You really want to drive home the point for that particular part of the science you’re showcasing,” she explained. It helps if there’s a hint of the topic presented from the get go.
“It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image.
No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.”
~Robert Frost, from essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”
Know your message. Use storyboards to stay on track. Avoid continuity errors.
Opening hooks help grab your audience’s interest, even before a title is displayed. O’Connell suggested some opening techniques to use and played short video clips. One example she played was an unusual statement: a video about Arctic Ground Squirrel Research which began with the scientist’s statement claiming the Arctic ground squirrel would make the perfect yuppie pet.
“Cinematography is a craft; a craft that is in a constant state of change,” Selle noted. If you’re going to showcase a scientific process, you need solid building blocks with which to compose and build your story. Hopefully this gives you some ideas. Have fun filming!
Frontier Scientists, a National Science Foundation funded nonprofit, features scientists’ work through short videos.