June 14th, 2011
It’s time for The Shifties! The Shifting Baselines Videomaking Awards. After 6 years and 10 iterations of our 3 day intensive videomaking workshops for science students, our one man team of judges (me) has settled on the following awards, which bring with them no cash, no trophy, no fame, no fortune, but a large amount of admiration from myself and the other folks who have taken part in these workshops. These are all PSA’s that fight The Nerd Loop. GREAT WORK!
It’s the Shifty! The most uncoveted award in the world of science communication!
We’ve run our intensive 3-day videomaking workshop 10 times now, including 6 times at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and once each at U.C. Merced, U.S.C. Catalina Island Laboratory, University of Tromso (Norway), and University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The net result is a total of 60 one minute Public Service Announcements created — each one made by students with no filmmaking background, given no budget, and just 48 hours to go from initial concept to finished product.
The single MOST AMAZING accomplishment to date is that there has never yet been a video that has been anything close to a disaster. No videos have left the audience saying, “Um … whut?” They all make sense in the end, though of course some are better than others.
So with no further adieu, here are my selections …
BEST OVERALL FILM*: “Some Things Aren’t Reversible” (U.S.C.)
There is no justice in this award. The recipient, a U.S.C. undergrad, directed one sloppy take of his concept then got on the boat to the mainland and said he forgot to tell everyone he had tickets to a music festival — good luck! I was furious until the rest of his crew began pulling it together and it was clear the concept worked. Though there is one cheating element in using a major music cue (by Arcade Fire), which is against course rules, but … in this one case, it just fit so perfectly I didn’t have the heart to have them strip it off. So there’s an asterisk by the title. But all this said, it’s a beautiful exercise in the power of simplicity (though not as direct and substantive as “Mr. Mayhem” cited below) — run a visually intriguing clip backwards then make the point that some things aren’t reversible. It is a very, very powerful concept and absolutely worth considering for the world of conservation — how much of this damage is not reversible? I’m not sure most of the experts have an answer for that. And by the way, this was THE POINT of the very first Shifting Baselines video Jeremy Jackson and I made —“Rediagnosing the Oceans” — that almost no species in the oceans have gone extinct — they’re all still out there, just smaller and less abundant. So in the case of the oceans, the damage is indeed reversible — which of course is the idea behind MPAs.
IRREVERSIBLE: It’s simple. It’s to the point. It’s truly a non Nerd Looped production.
BEST OVERALL FILM (not relying on major music): “Cold Rush” (Norway)
This was a classic example of a student being able to “take direction.” The initial concept was a fairly dry explanation of “bioprospecting” in the Arctic, but it had a clever title, “Cold Rush.” I suggested expanding the title and having some fun with the gold mining theme it suggested. They did. Beautifully. I also like that this is a fairly complex concept — the search for chemical compounds in the Arctic — that they brought a humanized angle to. One of the crew was best friends with the folks running the Arctic Museum there in Tromso (the video is from our workshop at the University of Tromso) which gave them the run of the place (including the outtake at the end). And I love the response to the term, “bioremediation,” as the prospector says, “Whatever that is!” The Norwegian students were so much fun (despite my jet lag and death virus I caught).
COLD RUSH: There’s gold in them thar Arctic bacteria!
BEST ACTOR: “Old Spice Parody” (Scripps)
The performance by Matt Leslie is stunningly good. I warned them that for this one to work he would have to get his performance down so perfectly that he could do it all in one take without hesitating. He did. He absolutely nailed it. The one big disaster was I had coached them to shoot it right at sunset — called “golden hour” — where you get the perfect glowing sunset as the light from the horizon comes straight onto the face of your actor. But … alas … unfortunately, it was such a complicated shot, they didn’t manage to get it off until after the sun had set, resulting in more of a silhouette which doesn’t look as good. But, it’s a testament to the brilliant performance that despite this handicap, the spot is very, very effective. And well-written.
OLD SPICE: Hello, ladies. Look at me, now look at your ocean.
BEST ACTRESS: “Attack of the Killer Seaweed” (Scripps)
How brave does a research professor have to be to star in a campy video about her research topic? Dr. Jen Smith plays the role of a super-hero in this excellent piece which, like all these other crazy videos, has a serious point at the core of it — her research on invasive seaweeds. And the point of all these films is, if you show this to 100 people along with four dry informational videos about invasive seaweeds, which one do you think they will remember a month later? I love how naturally she slips into the role of kicking the invasive seaweed’s ass. Don’t mess with an invasive seaweed biologist.
ATTACK OF THE KILLER SEAWEED: Who you gonna call (when your Caulerpa gets outta hand)?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: “Law and Order: Turtle Victim Unit” (Scripps)
I’m sorry that I don’t recall his name, but the actor who plays “Johnny” in this brilliant film (definitely the best Scripps student video ever) nails the line, “It’s true, Chief,” in a manner that is beyond campiness into some sort of surreal, weird meta-acting space. It’s six years since they made it — they were in the very first group ever – but his line still echoes in my head — “It’s true, Chief.” So splendidly bad it’s great.
TURTLE VICTIM UNIT: Not so fast, Johnny.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS(ES): “The Tag is Not Enough” (Norway)
Even Austin Powers would be jealous of Agent Arctic sitting fireside sipping champagne with Snowflake (Anna Silyakova) and Goldie Ice (Jannike Falk-Petersen). What a great scene. Perhaps the best ever in these videos.
THE TAG IS NOT ENOUGH: Chillin’ with Agent Arctic
BEST DEVELOPMENT OF A SIMPLE CONCEPT: “Mr. Mayhem” (U. Mass, Lowell)
This is one of the best PSA’s ever made in this exercise — quite possibly the best. It’s almost a shame this one has to end up being a parody/adaptation of an existing commercial because at it’s core the theme is actually very simple and original — the idea of ignoring road signs as an analogy to ignoring the evidence of climate change. The concept really didn’t even require emulating the Mayhem commercials of Allstate. But that said, the Mr. Mayhem actor (Tim Koehn, one of the crew) was pretty much perfect in capturing the same character as the commercial so it worked. Overall, there are some good similarities to the “Reversible” video in having a simple concept and message (road signs/change our direction), but also bad similarity in utilizing a major music cue (but how could you veto a Miley Cyrus cue?), however in this one the entire piece didn’t rest on the power of the music. With two weeks time and a little bit of a budget this could be a better PSA than 98% of the milquetoast efforts of the major environmental groups.
MR. MAYHEM: I hate that Miley Cyrus song sooo much, but can’t get it out of my head (there’s a party in the U.S.A.!)
BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS: “A Coral-Bacteria Love Story” (Scripps)
This video is utterly bonkers, but also totally watchable. Never has one group gone so completely insane with the green screening, and yet … they pulled it off, in part thanks to our amazing teaching assistant from New Zealand, Steve Ting. And if you find yourself welling up with tears at the most touching moments of this video … well, then there’s probably something wrong with you.
A CORAL-BACTERIA LOVE STORY: Why no one in Hollywood has bought the story rights to this film yet I simply do not understand.
BEST ADAPTATION OF COMPLEX SCIENCE: “The Desperate Clam” (Norway)
The topic of ocean acidification is uber-boring. Major environmental groups have spent large sums of money making hyper-boring films about the problem, doing their typical, literal-minded lecturing that makes their communications efforts so unpopular (how can I possibly say enough bad things about the dull communications work of the multi-million dollar NGOs — they put the uck into suck). All it takes is two days and no money for a group of students to make something that is at least watchable. Like this. I love it. It’s the video that opens with the desperate plea, “But what about us clams?”
THE DESPERATE CLAM: If there was a Shifty for Best Comic Actor the clam would win it.
BEST COMIC MOMENT – “The Sturgeon General” (Scripps)
Sometimes all it takes is a single moment to make one of these things work. In this case, maybe it’s just my sadistic sense of humor, but I love when the white coated investigator comes back in and smacks the suspect in the head with the folder. Makes me laugh every time. Total surprise. Also, it’s amazing how much you can do with so little sometimes in making these student videos. For this one they were trying to find an office that would look like a police station, but I showed them how with a single light source you can create a blackened room — something I learned in film school from Eddie Dymytrk, my intermediate directing instructor who was literally one of the founders of the entire genre of film noir. He said they started in the early 1940’s during the war when they couldn’t afford huge banks of studio lights. They discovered that just a single bulb could create dramatic lighting and with it an entirely different world.
THE STURGEON GENERAL: Nothing like a good slap in the face with a manila folder.
BEST DIRECTOR: “Law and Order: Turtle Victim Unit” (Scripps)
Writer/Director Jeff Wescott set the bar stunningly high in the first year with this tour de force, playing the lead actor himself. Sometimes students have a very clear vision like this from the outset, where all you can do is stand back and watch them make it happen.
BEST FIGHT SCENE: “A Coral- Bacterial Loves Story” and “Attack of the Killer Seaweed” (tie)
Too close to call in this one. What was really needed would have been a Death Match between the Pathogenic Bacteria and Superhero Jen Smith. Just look at that kick of hers — she could have taken the bacteria down, no worries.
BEST PROMOTION AND FOLLOW THROUGH BY A PROGRAM – Univ. of Tromso and U. Mass, Lowell
In the end, this is the MOST IMPORTANT award of all. We can do these little workshops, but to really make them effective, I need other people catching fire and adding in their own creativity, especially after we’re done and I’ve left.
For six years we ran the workshop at Scripps every August, and I kept thinking, “This place could do so much more with this amazing workshop we’ve created.” They never did, and now they’re done. But two places have.
First, the folks at University of Tromso in January (headed up by the wonderful Ute Vogel, and supported by the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, APECS, with superstars Dr. Jenny Baeseman and Dr. Jennifer Provencher) just went ker-razy with the experience. They shot their own “making of” video — actually it was shot and edited by friends who were wishing they could have been part of the class — what a great way to let them get involved. Then after I left, and after they proudly showed the 5 videos on the closing night of the Arctic Frontiers Conference which had been going on simultaneously, they then formed an organization for further science filmmaking efforts, got their university to give them a budget, then shot this EXCELLENT promotional video for the project which has the same broad entertaining feel as the videos. Truly amazing.
And equally impressive has been the group at U. Mass, Lowell, headed up by Dr. Juliette Rooney-Varga who managed to get a NASA grant that covered the workshop. I visited there a year before the workshop and we began planning it.
TROMSO “MAKING OF” VIDEO
U. MASS, LOWELL, “MAKING OF” VIDEO
MY OVERALL STATEMENT ABOUT THESE WORKSHOPS
When you first move to Hollywood you think that writers and directors are the most powerful and important creative forces in the entertainment business. But over time you are slowly forced to the realization that they are trivial elements — the town is littered with them, bumping into each other, all hoping and dreaming of making their big movies, but unable to make ANYTHING happen on their own.
No, over time, you come to realize the true creative “voices” of the entertainment business are the producers. They are the ones who are the “selective agents” (if we were to talk in evolutionary terms). They are the ones who chose the scripts, choose the directors, choose the major actors … THEY are the ones who determine what will actually emerge from Hollywood.
So at first you think of producers as a bunch of emptyheaded posers who are trying to hang with the cool people. And plenty of them are. But eventually you realize why the BEST PICTURE Oscar is given not to the writers or directors, but the producers.
It is incredibly hard to make good films. ALL of the elements in the world conspire against you as you try to get a movie made. I thought it was odd when I first began film school that people were impressed simply with the idea that someone “got a movie made.” But after nearly 20 years of this stuff, I get it.
I’ve only managed to make fewer feature films than I have fingers on one hand. It’s incredibly tough. But along the way I’ve managed to express my creative voice through a number of other outlets, such as the short films and PSAs of my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project.
And towards that end, I’m at a point now where I can look back at these 10 videomaking workshops and see that I’ve been able to function just like a producer with them. The original ideas and execution have all been the work of the students. Even the selection of the individual films — I only get one vote among the 30 or so people voting.
But what I get to do is to push the students a bit in the broader, less literal-minded, less informational direction, so that they end up with videos that are as wonderfully entertaining as these, and yet still have at their core a kernel of information.
This is how film, in its most powerful and effective manner, is meant to be used. This is the message of my book. This is what I now teach in countless workshops and talks — film is at its best when used less literal-mindedly. And hopefully through these workshops at least a few younger folks have gotten a little bit of guidance in this direction, which will down the road make them into better, more effective, broad communicators of science. Or at least they’ll have more fun by making films that have some humor and emotion to lighten them up. Yay!