On the making of polar documentaries
Almost 100 documentary movies about polar science projects are being shown at the IPY-OSC. A selection of scientists and film makers shared their experience of the filming process, among them award-winning Mark Terry.
Successful cooperation between film makers and scientists is essential when trying to capture science on film.
Learning to let go
“To begin with, I was hoping to be able to give the film makers as much information about my research as possible,” recalled Dr Georg Schwamborn of the Alfred Wegener Institute. He and his team were followed by Jörg Poppendieck, who has made the documentary Secrets in Siberian Ice.
“During the process, I realised that the film makers had their own deadlines, and that they needed to summarise the story in a way that was not quite as I wished.
However, when the film was completed, I seemed to be the only one who was bothered about it. Other people congratulated me, and I decided that the result was OK.”
BBC science presenter Sue Nelson followed up Mr Schwamborn point.
“The question always arises of how the science is put across on film,” said Ms Nelson.
“I think scientists have to realise that they are not talking to their peers, and have to learn to let go,” she added.
Photo: John Petter Reinertsen/ Samfoto
Mr Mark Terry, director of the award-winning documentary The Antarctic Challenge
The film makers were only on the set for a few days during the filming of Secrets in Siberian Ice.
In Ms Nelson’s experience, time constraints are often frustrating for the scientists. “It is important to manage the expectations of the scientists by letting them know exactly how many minutes of filming are going to come out of a day on the set,” said Ms Nelson. She emphasised that TV coverage is very important in itself, and that viewers rarely ask for more scientific information than they are given.
“Television is a lot about nice pictures, and about conveying the passion and interest of what you do,” was her message to the scientists.
Mr Schwamborn shared his advice with colleagues in the audience.
“Don’t plan too much, but let the media fill the gaps in the programme themselves and make them a part of the group,” was his bottom line.
A month in the Antarctic
Conditions were different for director Mark Terry when he was shooting the award-winning documentary The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning.
“I had the luxury of working with the scientists for about a month,” said Mr Terry.
“I was able to be sensitive to their schedule, instead of just expecting them to adapt to mine.”
Mr Terry spent time at a number of research stations in Antarctica, reporting discoveries from projects being conducted during the International Polar Year.
Research topics included rising sea levels, the melting of polar ice, declining populations of penguins, marine plants and animals and new data on the ozone hole.
Met with enthusiasm
The film took a year and a half to make, including a great deal of editing of the approximately 1000 hours of footage. “I feared that the scientists would feel that they were underrepresented in the film, but they have all been surprisingly encouraging,” said Mr Terry.
The almost two-hour long documentary has won seven international film awards, and was the only film invited to screen to world leaders at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December.
After this success, Mr Terry will be embarking on a new documentary that will take him and his crew to the Arctic on a scientific expedition crossing the Northwest Passage. “I will get to go to areas of the Arctic Ocean that have never been visited before,” Mr Terry concluded enthusiastically.
Last updated: 12.06.2010