Just last week I participated in the science film sprint at the World Congress for Factual and Science Producers, where 5 film makers and 5 scientists paired up to work on a short film (2-5 minutes) in 72 hours.
Going into this sprint I was a little worried that 72 hours was too short an amount of time to fabricate an animation, it usually takes me months to produce 2-5 minutes and so I did consider using live action instead. In the end, I decided to go for an animatic style approach, with greater emphasis on narrative and framing, with minimal movements.
The film sprint began at the convention centre on Tuesday the 27th of November at 10 am. All the film makers and scientists met, and we were each paired off at random.
For the sprint I collaborated with a geneticist named Caitlin Curtis who is from the school of biological sciences at the University of Queensland. Caitlin was interested in making a film about the social repercussions of commercial gene sequencing and the uploading of this information to online databases. Cases like ‘The Golden Gate Killer’, in which a criminal was convicted based on matched DNA from an online database, hint at the significant potential for this information to be used against individuals for a whole range of issues, including things like insurance. Caitlin also told me that genetic information could now be used as a form of facial recognition; a chewed-up piece of gum now has the capacity to reveal: one’s facial shape, how easily they freckle, hair condition, their predisposition to mental and physical disease etc. I found it all very interesting.
Caitlin and I went to the cafe at the bottom of the convention centre to have a hot drink, and tried to figure out how her interests in the social implications of commercial gene sequencing could be wrapped into a story.
Firstly, we tried to come up with a scenario in which an average person would typically get their genetic information sequenced. We narrowed it down to 3 options
1. A company like AncestryDNA or 23andme
2. Medical purposes, a hospitalised patient
3. A criminal investigation
Number 1 seemed the most plausible and most identifiable option for an audience to relate to.
We then had the challenge of trying to figure out how this information could have a 6 degrees of separation effect, where someone could impact another person’s life by revealing their DNA without them even knowing about it.
At this point we thought it would be interesting to separate the story into 2 parts and give it a false ending. The first part of the story would cover the physical journey of Sally, the protagonists, DNA whilst the second half would follow the digital journey of the DNA as it enters the online ether.
On Wednesday morning I put together an animatic based on our story ideas from the previous day.
Caitlin and I met for a coffee at the bottom of the convention centre and tried to work out how we could achieve the 6 degrees of separation needed for the story. I also learnt that using a DNA sequencing service was relatively harmless, with the more dangerous aspect of the process being the uploading of the DNA onto a secondary data base. For now, the police and insurance companies do not have access to this information (on the initial server) without a second step being involved (unless they have a warrant).
We had lunch together at Harajuku Gyoza where we continued to talk about story ideas and came up with a ‘Golden Gate Killer’ style police investigation, where a criminal is identified through DNA recognition. I tossed around a few ideas about Sally knowing the criminal however, Caitlin thought it was important to reinforce the 6 degrees of separation aspect by creating a level of distance. There was also the logistical component where only a few countries have started using genetic information in this way.
That evening I turned the second half of our story into an animatic and got to work on constructing the final visuals for the film. As previously mentioned, I had decided to go for an animatic style for the film. To give the film a layer of polish and texture I thought it would be nice to use water colours, which could then be edited and lightly animated.
Thursday morning, I continued to work on the visuals for the film. Caitlin was to meet me later and together we were going to paint the drawings I had produced.
Peter, my animation supervisor, also met with us that morning and gave us his feedback on the film, it was very helpful to have an additional pair of eyes critiquing it. Peter said he understood the story, but we all agreed the uploading of the information onto a secondary website was confusing and that the ending seemed a bit blunt. In the end we decided to have a pop-up ad appear on the first website, the pop-up tempts Sally and provides the basis for her to go to the second website. We also though it was important to reinforce this element of 6 degrees of separation, and so the ending was cushioned with a message statement. After Peter left, Caitlin and I did some painting, had a drink at the closest café (Caitlin needed a coffee 😊) and then split off so that I could animate the film.
It was a bit of a frantic evening, I realised that I needed far more water colour assets than I initially thought and so spent quite a few hours drawing and water colouring the additional pieces.
The water colour images were then scanned, had their saturation increased and were animated via After Effects.
Caitlin and her buddy, James, worked on the sound for the film, I sent them a rough animatic as a guide and they selected sound effects based on the animation.
Friday morning was even more frantic than the previous evening. When it came time to hand in the film it was pretty much complete, except for the family tree shot which I re-edited in the version shown at the screening.
The screening went well, and we received some very positive feedback on our film. The other films made for the competition were beautifully shot and the experience was overall, very helpful in illustrating the differences between live action and animation approaches.
THE OTHER FILMS
All 4 of the other film makers had chosen to go for a documentary, interview style for their films. That is not to say all the films were the same, it more the fact that the story driven animation was quite different.
The selection of the winners was also helpful in identifying what the judges were looking for. First place was given to Joshua Radford who had gone for a very youtube-eque, vlog, style of film making, documenting his experience, learning and understanding the science. Second place was given to Gabriel Murphy whose piece was very beautifully shot using different antique camera lenses.
Both films had an auteur aspect to them, where the film makers presence and style was a large part of their final output. They also represented a youthful take on documentary filmmaking which, as Caitlin had told me earlier, was an important theme for the conference, making documentaries more accessible and engaging for young people.
The other 2 entries by Kristy Slemint and Rosario Jiménez-Gili both focused more on the subjects of the documentary, the scientists, the way they communicate science and their interactions with the science around them.
All the films are available on the WCSFP Facebook page
It would be interesting to find out what the films would have looked like without the time restriction. Would the film makers still choose an interview style approach, or would they have done something different? It is hard to say.
Live action lends its self to documenting, what it did for these films was record the scientist’s passion for their work, the scientists were the communicators. Editing was also significant in framing the communication, however there seemed to be an invisible wall between the audience and the science itself.
I believe this has to do with the live action form, in which live action can only curate a reality, it cannot create it. Animation on the other hand, was able to take the scientists ideas and thoughts and visualise that material, creating something abstract which doesn’t exist.
After spending a lot of time around CaItlin, eating lunch and discussing ideas, I felt like we had reached a higher stage of collaboration, where I was able to understand the science from her point of view. Anyone, be it scientists or animators, are constantly thinking about their craft and trying to work out new ways of approaching and understanding it. The scientists know their research best, many of them have developed novel ways of understanding it through metaphor and story.
I believe that these nuggets of distilled, lyrical science are the ones which most lend themselves to animation. What better way to understand science than by seeing it from a scientist’s point of view.