Film course day at Bristol, 6th Aug

A great problem for academics and those in highly technical professions is trying to communicate what they actually do in terms that the wider public can understand. Quite often, such people can explain their research in wonderfully deep detail that sounds fascinating to anybody already in the know, but there will always come a time when it is necessary to get somebody non-technically-minded excited about your work.

One of the most engaging methods of communicating ideas that is underutilised in the scientific community is the medium of film. While a book might be a little dry to an uninterested mind and a presentation is infinitely less engaging when not actually experienced in person, a video has the power to grab attention and hold it in almost any environment. When a combination of moving images, sound and a controlled amount of information are skilfully combined, a highly enjoyable yet powerful method of communication results.

Through this philosophy, the Systems Centre at Bristol organised a two-day event in which a number of its students would learn the skills of writing and creating a short film to communicate their research in an accessible way. The event was led by Kate Butler, a highly-experienced ex-BBC journalist and documentary producer, with support from Sophie and Sarah from the Centre. Students who attended were:

  • Natasha Watson
  • Patrick Tully
  • Tom Barton
  • Joel Igba
  • Richard Craig
  • Bharat Kunwar
  • Rachel Freeman
  • …and myself.

The first day was held on 6th August, and was split roughly into two parts. The first looked at the technical aspects of producing a film, such as how each shot is composed and the effect that music and sound have on the overall feel.

As a first exercise, we split up into two groups and were asked to take 10 photographs on the theme of ‘Lost & Found’. A key part of this task was to experiment with a combination of close and wide shots, a key skill in setting the scene whilst helping the viewer feel engaged in any visual story. Tish, Joel and Rachel disappeared to Sainsbury’s to create this enthralling tale…

I grouped with Paddy, Tom and Richard, where we set our story in a pretty cool mirror maze in the centre of campus. If we did it right, this should make sense without any explanation…

The exercise utilised a few tricks in photography that I was already aware of through my own attempts of ameteur photography, such as the rule of thirds, focal points and ‘looking space’, but the aspect of bringing a set of photographs together to tell a specific story brings about a whole new dimension of creative challenges and opportunities. Even with only ten ‘frames’ to play with, it was surprising how small details in the pictures could change the overall feel, and how the flow of the story could either be enhanced or shattered by how the alternation between wide and close shots is used.

The next task was to take this new-found knowledge and create a short video on campus. The topics themselves were intentionally mundane – the two groups were respectively offered ‘filming a meeting on the stairs’ and ‘filming somebody using a lift’ but the idea was to take this simple scenario and make it into an interesting visual story.

We were talked through how storyboards are used to plan the shooting (and subsequent editing) of a piece of video. Essentially, it is making a sketch of the finished product, one picture for every few seconds or so, and helps when shooting video to ensure, for example, that there is the right mix of close and wide shots.

Creating the video itself took around 20 minutes with a few minutes of editing squeezed in. Not quite Avatar then, but I think this is possibly better!

After lunch, the focus then moved on to the goal of this course – creating our own video to showcase our research to a wider audience. In the morning we had been shown some one-minute submissions to a video competition to the Royal Academy of Engineering with a similar aim. Having discussed this together, one idea that stood out was that, in such a short space of time, that we shouldn’t try to say or do too much in the video, but to have one concise idea and to focus on this.

This meant of course that we each needed a very definite concept to focus on. And since I have all the imagination of [insert something cleverly unimaginative here] I decided to take my camera and go and see what the others coming up with.

Once we had arrived at this concept, the next step is to create a storyboard for it. Some people sketched at desks while others sprawled out over the walls (thankfully which are covered in whiteboards).

We then presented our ideas to each other, with the intention that the most popular 1 or 2 videos would be selected for filming on 22nd August. I jointly presented with Natasha (I can’t make it for the filming day anyway, so it’s not like I could have been there to have taken my idea forward…)

After a vote, two winning videos were selected: Paddy’s systems-inspired video, based upon Bob and how, without being aware of it, as a driver he is an integral part of the system that is the road network, and Natasha’s video which, like a lot of videos produced by the government, tries to encourage people to think about their CO2 emissions, but unlike the government’s videos, will be a lot cooler because it’s going to involve Tom in battle with hundreds and hundreds of balloons. Both videos won’t necessarily be made and will be heavily subject to time, the weather and Murphy’s Law, but it’s going to be hugely interesting to see what comes out of this…

Many thanks to Kate for hosting this course. Her teaching was clear and enjoyable, and I certainly feel that I learnt a lot on this day. Many thanks also to Sarah, Sophie and Oksana (and anyone else I am unaware of) for their fantastic efforts both on and in preparation for this day. Cheers!


Go to day 2

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