January 25th, 2011
This was the main reason I came to Tromso, Norway in the dead of winter — to run my videomaking workshop for 25 Arctic science graduate students. The experience has spun my head around. I’ve been getting fed up with the dilution and lack of understanding of the word “innovation” in the U.S. science community. This 10 day visit has sealed the deal for me. I’ll be writing an essay on the subject next week. Americans have a skewed, impoverished concept of what “innovation” is. But for now, have some fun and watch the work of these very talented AND creative SCIENCE graduate students. THIS is how science communication to the general public is meant to be.
Let’s get right to the entertainment. Here are the 5 finished student videos, the result of one day of planning, one day of filming, and one day of editing, this past Friday to Sunday. This place had EXCEPTIONAL resources for the workshop, both in equipment and people. But then it’s Scandinavia — so what, big surprise.
1) COLD RUSH – a totally logical, clever little film that’s almost ready to be a TV commercial about “bio-prospecting” in the Arctic, a HUGE topic at the Arctic Frontiers workshop that began the day the students finished their films — they will be showing all 5 to the ENTIRE conference (1000 participants) tonight.
2) ON THE EDGE – simple, clean, gripping.
3) SPAWNING SMART – the student who directed this sent me her script THE NIGHT BEFORE their pitches, titled, “Stayin’ Alive,” but it was little more than a narrated listing of facts. I wrote back, “I dare you to re-write lyrics to the Bee Gees classic song for your pitch.” To my disbelief she showed up the next morning and did exactly that — she had written the lyrics, so for her pitch she sang and danced. And feeling like the grand old man, it rocketed me back to the spring of 1995 when I pitched my musical comedy to all the students and faculty at USC Cinema School by singing and dancing two songs I had written while waving pairs of scissors (it was about castration of course). The students that day erupted in laughter and applause for me. They did the EXACT same thing for her. I got picked. She got picked. You take a chance, sometimes you win. This film is very close to my heart.
4) ARCTIC EYE – how can you not love a shot of James Bond, fireside, with two bombshells … and a laptop showing salmon diving data of course.
5) DESPERATE CLAM – these are not fake accents folks — it’s the real deal. And that’s not a fake clam-man. And these are not ideas I gave them (I WISH I were this good!). But I did push ALL the students to exploit film as a medium as effectively as possible — to employ the subtitle of the book — talk substance through the use of style, which they truly did
Almost a year ago I posted a detailed description of my (not-even-patented, steal-it-and-do-it-yourself) Three-Day Videomaking Workshop that I developed with my marine biologist heroes Jeremy Jackson and Nancy Knowlton at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2005, deriving it from my USC Cinema School experiences combined with what I learned about something called “natural selection” three decades ago when I was an evolutionary ecologist. The benefits of merging my two backgrounds are now being paid off by basically Executive Producing at least 5 short films every time we run one of these workshops. The ideas ALL come from the students, but I PUSH them to make them into something more than just a bunch of statements of scientific fact.
Here’s what we’ve produced to date:
TOTAL 55 films
Based on that post and on some people who had read my book, the wonderful, visionary Ute Vogel at the University of Tromso contacted me last fall to invite me to something I had no interest in. I don’t like cold climates, but I did have one clear recollection — once upon a time Dr. John Pearse at U.C.S.C. invited me to Antarctica at a scientific meeting, and before I could reply, “No, I hate cold weather,” everyone in the assembled group had gasped in envy. I had to go. I went. It changed my life. And so, bingo, here we are again. I unenthusiastically took the Norway invitation, I went, and now it has changed my life.
The timing was to coincide with their annual, mid-January convergence of events, timed to end the workshop on the day the Arctic Frontiers Conference began. They recruited 25 science graduate students from University of Tromso (who originated from 9 countries and together could speak 12 languages), with the tremendous help of APECS (Association of Polar Early Career Scientists) — specifically Jenny Baeseman and Jennifer Provencher — ALL of whom mostly had no clue of what they were wandering into (always love experiencing the story arc from skepticism on day one to total belief at the end of the last day — wait, this is sounding like a cult retreat). They only knew they had to produce a one page script by last Tuesday, based on a three page handout I had provided.
On Thursday evening I spoke to the students briefly at a reception, telling them their topics were excellent, but I wanted more from the scripts in terms of narrative structure and creativity — less recitation of facts — don’t TELL US about your topic, SHOW us something that will reach inside of us and develop a genuine interest and curiosity about what you’re doing. Yadda, yadda, all my normal film school schtuff.
The next morning the workshop began with a loooong lecture from me about the philosophy of my book and what we were about to experience, then a few improv games (the importance of which I’ll talk about next week), then their 3 minute pitches. One of my favorite details was that before the pitches several students grumbled to me, “Do we really have to come up with a funny story?” I told them absolutely not — a linear telling of scientific facts is fine. But look what the class voted for — the 5 most entertaining pitches also turned out to be the most popular. Funny how that works.
How many times can I say this — film is not at it’s best as a literal listing of facts. It is a non-literal medium. Why do you think my book got a better response from literal-minded scientists than my films did from them, even though both media had the same basic message and tone?
Anyhow, I got a little bit under the weather and missed most of the second day, but I know from experience by then the students tend to be on their way and I’m more of a hinderance than help. So I came back on the third day to guide some editing, and the footage I saw deeply impressed me. Actually, what I saw for everything here deeply impressed me. The filmmaking resources the Visual Anthropology Department at Tromso University donated (THANK YOU, Seifu, you most wonderful Ethiopean man who made all the cameras and Avid machines work, you are the best!) were indeed the best resources I’ve ever been given for a workshop, the spirit of cooperation/collaboration of the students was the best (much to say about that next week), and, most importantly, the celebration at the final viewing was beyond belief — a pure outpouring of unbridled laughter for an hour. And guess what didn’t happen, making the experience most different from America. There were zero hugs. No phony affection from people who just met each other. Which was wonderful. But of course will never work in Hollywood. Sorry, kids.
The Scandinavian countries are amazing. We all know that. It’s not a secret. They are the closest thing to Utopia on the planet today. And guess why they gave Al Gore the Nobel Prize — this place is warming at TWICE the rate of the rest of the planet. These people didn’t do it. They’ve created a good world, have been THE leaders for the entire concept of sustainability and are incredibly efficient with their lifestyles, not to mention civil. It is indeed other people in other parts of the world who are causing this warming for them. But you know, I never heard one note of bitterness towards foreigners (which is how I know I could never qualify as a Scandinavian — I’d be sooo pissed). These folks could end up being the best hope for humanity. It wouldn’t surprise me.