SciCast – Film School

Practicalities — Producing

In Hollywood film-making, the Director is the person calling the shots, telling the camera operator what to point at, bossing the actors around, and so on. In SciCast film-making, groups are small enough that, usually, there’s no specific director, and everyone mucks in.

But in movie or television production there’s another senior person involved, too: the Producer. What do they do? They ask questions. Specifically:

Does the film make sense?

Few SciCast films are entirely ‘sensible’, but nevertheless — it’s important that it should make sense to the viewer. Just like the ‘Director’ job, SciCast teams rarely have a ‘Producer’ as such. So, during the whole process everyone needs to put themselves in the audience’s shoes, and ask if the film makes any sense. If you’ve seen it so many times you can no longer tell, you need to ask someone else.

The basic questions to ask are:

  • Can you follow the story?
  • Can you see what’s going on?
  • Can you tell what people are saying?
  • Does anything make you say “What was that… oh, right, I see now.”?

Fix this sort of stuff, and you’re most of the way there.

Of course, it’s easier to make your film make sense if you have bits of spare material you can add or take away — that’s why filming around your idea is important, rather than just filming what you’re sure you’ll need.

Notes for teachers and group leaders

If you’ve been following along, you’ll have gathered that your rĂ´le is to provide the means and opportunity, but not (necessarily) to take control. Your students will likely be terrific at originating ideas and solving technical problems, and they’ll already know far more about the grammar of making films than you or they expect.

So the most valuable contributions you can make are to:

  • Stand back. Let them get on with it.
  • Watch their backs. Keep them safe, keep an eye on the clock. Help head off disputes, too: it’s not uncommon for a bit of creative tension to arise. We’re not convinced that’s a bad thing, either — SciCast is as much about finding ways of collaborating, expressing ideas, and listening to each other as it is about science or film-making.
  • Think like the viewer. This is what a professional TV producer does: they constantly try to second-guess the film, judging whether it will make sense to a first-time viewer, and trying to spot what might make it clearer, funnier, more impressive, more entertaining, and so on. If you keep a bit of distance, you might provide the fresh eye your students’ film needs to go from ‘good enough’ to ‘terrific.’
  • Suggest and coach. People get very possessive and personal about films they’re making, so pointing out even glaring flaws directly can be problematic. Be tactful!

Scale and ambition

It’s not uncommon for groups to head off on flights of fantasy, dreaming up stupendous films they can’t possibly make. We’re the last people to wish to stifle creativity, but we don’t want our film-makers to experience a crushing failure, either.

If a group waits too long before picking up a camera and getting on with it, their film tends to have become outrageously embellished before they’ve even started. On the other hand, grabbing the camera without thinking ahead doesn’t work either, so you need to strike a careful balance.

In our training workshops — with all age-groups, including teachers and professional science communicators — the most important question we ask at the planning stage is:

“What’s the first thing I see?”

Once a group can answer that clearly and specifically, expressing a shared idea of how their film starts, they’re ready to pick up a camera. After you start filming you can follow your nose to a great extent, but describing the first thing the camera is pointed at is key.