Posts from March 2013


We’ve (finally) cut a showreel. It features Richard Dawkins, Dava Sobel, Steven Pinker, David Attenborough, Jem Stansfield, Bruce Hood, Alok Jha, Matt Parker, Jon Butterworth… and a lobster.

Showreels, it turns out, are hard. In our case, we’re aware that many potential clients come across our work via some of the more straightforward films we’ve made. It can be tricky to convince them that’s an aesthetic or narrative choice rather than an indicator of our range or inclination, so we wanted a showreel that demonstrated:

  • The spread of people with whom we’ve worked.
  • Our eye as photographers.
  • We’re really good at detailed, close-up, practical science.
  • Punchy editing.
  • Some serious content.
  • …and a sense of whimsy and wit.


Voice and Tone

“Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans at MailChimp” – Kate Kiefer Lee at Confab:

She described part of her job as being “to guard MailChimp’s voice, and keep it consistent across a huge range of content.” She said that the voice stays the same, but the tone changes all the time. Emotions are key to her belief on how important this. The way we write copy on the web affects the way people feel. And, she said, if you get it right, you can “get people to do stuff” — visit websites, buy products, subscribe to services.

via currybetdotnet — Martin is bravely attempting to live-blog the Confab conference, which I’ll confess I only heard of via his blog (RSS: not dead yet, whatever Google thinks).

This is good stuff. I forget, sometimes, that I learned to write primarily by writing for others. Most of the time when you’re writing for speech it’s important to have a voice in your head; when scriptwriting that has to be your character or performer’s voice, not your own. Scriptwriting is an acting job too.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that every organisation should be concerned about its voice and tone. It sounds like Kiefer Lee did a good job of articulating how that can impact the organisation’s bottom line. Read the rest of Martin’s post for some good practical advice.

Another terrific source on this is an interview with Mars Phoenix twitter writer Veronica McGregor, which still ranks as one of the STEM engagement projects I most admire.

Why filming is slow

Learning to light continues to be one of the most fun parts of my work. This tutorial doesn’t do anything beyond basic three-point lighting for a three-camera interview, but it’s weirdly compelling:

I like it partly because it illustrates why making films can be slow. That’s a lot of work, people and gear to make an interviewee and their interviewer look good.

If you’re looking at films you’ve made or commissioned and thinking “we used great cameras, why does it still look rubbish compared to broadcast?” — this is why. Prep, gear and crew all cost money: sometimes they’re worth it.

Too much information?

Here’s a summary of Dr. No:

The Western world falls under the shadow of a great and mysterious evil. The source of the threat is traced to a monstrous figure, the mad and deformed scientist Dr. No, who lives half across the world in an underground cavern on a remote island. The hero James Bond goes to the armourer who equips him with special weapons. He sets out on a long, hazardous journey to Dr. No’s distant lair, where he finally comes face to face with the monster. They enjoy a series of taunting exchanges, then embark on a titanic struggle. Against such near-supernatural powers, it seems Bond cannot possibly win. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to kill his monstrous opponent. The shadowy threat has been lifted. The Western world has been saved. Bond can return home triumphant.

I’ve chosen that version from The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which uses this particular form to illustrate that Dr No shares the same core story as Gilgamesh, written four or five thousand years earlier. Cute.

My point is slightly different, in that you’ve just read a 135-word summary of a 110-minute film. You can comfortably read 135 words, aloud, in under a minute. I just tried, and not just reading but performing that paragraph I clocked myself at 42 seconds. Whatever, the implication is that the running time of Dr No comprises roughly 1% information. What’s the other 99%?

Aesthetics. Emotion. Character.

My hunch is that most fiction fits the same sort of pattern. Where it doesn’t — Game of Thrones, anyone? — we get easily confused, baffled by the number of ideas and suffocating under the proliferation of cast. So, by way of comparison, how do we go about planning science media?

We pack as much information in as possible. In a demonstration lecture we rely on the ‘demonstration’ to drive attention, and shy away from the ‘lecture.’ We run away from aesthetics, emotion and character, which leaves only exposition — and we’re at least dimly aware exposition is the dull bit. Best throw in another explosion.

So we flit from one set-piece to another, relentlessly seeking pace!, excitement!, fun!, inspiration!

Dr. No contains its share of fun, excitement and pace. They’re not without purpose, and we’re not wrong to include them in our work. But our choice to shy away from aesthetics and emotion and character does not always serve us well. We should be good at those things too, and deploy them when they can be effective.

There’s a terrific example to be had in Brian Cox’s recent series Wonders of Life, which took Brian’s trademark emotion and returned an aesthetic sense we’ve not seen in science documentary for some time (if ever, frankly). I’ll have more to say about Wonders of Life in subsequent posts, it’s a fascinating case study. I wasn’t a complete fan.

Graduates in STEM ‘need to rise by half’

The majority of future STEM jobs will be in engineering, requiring almost one in five 21-year-olds to enter the profession between now and 2020
(— via Times Higher Education )

This is reported from a Social Market Foundation report, *In the Balance: The STEM human capital crunch”. The SMF’s own press release leads with the, to my mind, even more explosive:

The Government’s aim to rebalance the economy away from financial services is inconceivable due to a 40,000 per year shortage of home-grown graduates in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors

Their argument appears to be based on last year’s RAEng report Jobs and Growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy (link currently goes to a PDF). I haven’t seen much discussion of that report, despite how crucial its conclusions appear to be.

If this is even vaguely correct, those of us working in STEM engagement and education are tackling not a minor, trivial, spare-time sort of problem, but a major national crisis. Surely.


The timescale being discussed is ‘by 2020’: people who’d graduate from straight-in 4-year degrees in 2020 have already started their GCSEs. Heck, they’re the generation who might still remember my CITV science shows from when they were 9. You know, before science was removed from children’s TV altogether. And they’re the last year group to fall within this study — everybody for the years before 2020 is already in the pipeline. We can fret about conversion rates, but the ball is already in the roulette wheel and where you place your bet is somewhat irrelevant at this point.

I’ve been meaning to write about this — shout about it — since I first heard of the RAEng report last November. I’m still stunned that nobody seems to be running around screaming that the house is on fire.

I’m particularly baffled that the engineering sector doesn’t appear to see this as a crisis. As their crisis. Why aren’t they frantically looking around the sector, wild-eyed with terror, desperate for anything that might make a difference?

Have they given up? Do they not want to invest? Do they think the Big Bang Fair and Queen Elizabeth Prize have them covered? Perhaps they don’t think this is a tractable problem?

I’m genuinely confused.

Hard and soft lights

This piece from Zacuto covers material that should be familiar to most film-makers:

Film Lighting Tutorial: Qualities of Light from Zacuto on Vimeo.

…but the sequence which goes hard light → hard shadow on scrim/Hitchcock gag → using that scrim to turn the same hard light into a soft source is very nicely thought-out. Sometimes demonstrations are about finding the minimal sequence of operations which makes your point.

5 Tips for Writing Effective Scripts For Clients

5 Tips for Writing Effective Scripts For Clients:
The narration is the voice of your client. The personality in that voice is the key to how well it resonates with a specific audience. Unless you’re video is to be played at a conference of English teachers, perfect grammar is not always required.
— via Masters of Motion, which I think used to be Canon Filmmakers.

Solid, practical advice. If you don’t find scriptwriting challenging you’re doing it wrong.

Relationships and audience scale

This is interesting:

It’s not about content: Part I:
I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.
— (Via Jeff Jarvis/BuzzMachine)

This tallies with my current thinking, that the revolution we’re living through (and shaping) revolves around audience scale. I see lots of projects which are rooted in managers trying to come to terms with mass audiences. ‘Mass’ in the television or newspaper sense: writhing mobs of millions of people.

From my experience, it takes several years of working with these audience scales before you even begin to get comfortable thinking about them, let alone understand them, and I’m not sure anybody truly does understand them. Without that background, too many web media campaigns are ill-conceived and badly-run, as people chase some weird chimera of what they imagine mass media should be like. But they’re chasing the wrong goal anyway, as are the people who relentlessly clutch at the glory days of broadcast and yearn for their return. It’s not about millions of people any more.

In the blunderbuss days of broadcast ‘millions’ was about as precise as targeting got, but maybe only 10% of that audience really engaged with the content. The rest were collateral damage, and with the aid of precision web munitions media we can try to zero-in on the ‘real’ audience and avoid wasting everyone else’s time. That ‘real’ audience, the people you can engage and connect with, may be a thousand people or a hundred thousand. Unless you’re Coca-Cola it’s probably not ‘millions.’

But that core audience is tremendously precious, because they’re your customers, your collaborators, your partners. They’re the people who receive your message and act upon it.

Jarvis is right: it’s about the relationships, and the content you produce as a way to establish those relationships.

The trouble with notes

This is why film-makers always cringe when anyone with the word ‘executive’ in their title gets to see a rough-cut:

I once worked on a series which had more BBC executives attached than we had production team making the show. We also had a four-day turn-around from shoot to delivery of edit (and another three days to transmission), every week for six weeks. That was fun.

How long should a film be?

This came up on a science films mailing list the other day — how long should a web video be, and what evidence do we have? My response: sheesh. You’re joking, right?

  • It’s not about how long films should be, it’s about how long this film should be. It’ll vary for every film, and every format. One of the big advantages of the web over broadcast is not being stuck with fixed durations.

  • Evidence? You want evidence? That’s ridiculous. Or at least, it’s a research project, because the question boils down to: does video work as a communication tool? To which we know by inspection that that answer is: “yes, except when it’s no.” If you want solid evidence for how effectiveness correlates with duration, you’re going to be waiting for a long time. And you’d still only be looking at correlation.

  • How long for whom? Different audiences and different audience contexts have different needs. For whom are you making the film, and how and when do you expect them to watch it?

  • What are the trade-offs? A subject for another post, another time, but: it often takes more effort and skill to make a good three-minute film than it does to make a six-minute film on the same subject. If 100,000 people watch, that’s two-thirds of a person-year you’ve avoided wasting. But it might cost you twice as much to make. Where’s the balance for you and your audience?

  • What’s the purpose of the film? this comes back to audience context, but: is the film intended to provide a talking point you hope people might discuss at the office water-cooler or down the pub? Is it detailing a specific idea or technique of particular interest to the viewer? Is it to be watched in a professional context, providing a briefing on a specialist subject? For each of these situations, your audience makes different judgements about their acceptable level of investment.

  • If you do find some data about retention rates versus film duration, how does that control for some films being plain less good than others? When was the data captured — viewing habits are changing so quickly, it had better be more recently than, say, 18 months ago, or it’s irrelevant.

  • What’s your success metric? Audience reach? Recall?

Asking how long a film should be is exactly equivalent to asking how long a piece of writing should be. Sane answers come down to things like:

A film should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer.


Good films can sustain for longer than bad films.

…both of which are based on aesthetic judgements, not empirical evidence. And there’s the problem: if you try to reduce communication to hard numbers, you’re rather missing the point.

Obligatory marketing message: one of the things StoryCog does is work through this sort of issue with clients. We make films, and we do that consulting thing too.

The auteur theory of science communication

Lining up a shot
Prof Steve Haake, producer/director Anna Starkey and camera op/exec. producer Jonathan Sanderson discuss a shot. Photo by camera assistant Ed Prosser while filming Steve’s Engineering Sport series for the Ri Channel.

On his famous seminar Story, the irascible (some might say ‘charmless’) Robert McKee spends a good old chunk of time poo-pooing the whole idea of auteurs in film. They’re defined thus:

auteur n
: a film director who influences their films so much that they rank as their author.

It’s not quite clear from my notes why McKee goes off on such a rant. Probably a Hollywood thing. Or perhaps because it’s French. But it’s a reasonable point anyway, in that the obsessive controlling narcissism shared by directors and writers that everything must be done their way is, for the most part, to be resisted. Even heavily-stylised films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (which I finally watched and loved this week) don’t spring solely from the creative genius of their director.

He had help. Bet you.

Yet, somehow, science communication seems to have latched onto thinking that one individual can do it all. They can present! They can write! They can make the oh-so-critical choice of material! They can market themselves! They can find the relevance to all different kinds of audiences! They can sing! Dance! Fly! Every communicator of science worth their salt can do everything, and their every action is surrounded by magical unicorns!

The perceptive reader will have gathered I’m not a fan of this way of thinking. There’s a basic arrogance to science, I think because it’s so damned hard that everything else must be easier. Right? And to be fair, I do find scriptwriting easier than I found statistical dynamics.

Marginally. Ever so very slightly.

But I think the real reason is a disconnect we have as audiences. When we watch a film we know that the actors are meat puppets — playing a critical rôle, sure, but if the film’s worth watching there are other strong voices in play, those of the director, writer, cinematographer, production designer, and so on.

What’s obvious for movies isn’t always so clear for TV, particularly when the camera is addressed directly. The myth of the author-presenter is so strong that we remember Bronowski, Burke, Attenborough, Johnny Ball. Yet we’ve no idea who worked with them to realise “their” series, nor what their level of creative control was. Brian Cox did not spring fully formed from the loins of Carl Sagan.

He had help. Bet you.

So — communicators of science: work out what you’re good at. Get help with the rest. Not coincidentally, StoryCog can help. Jonathan’s currently working with a former chemistry prof to build his website and marketing message, and just last weekend Alom helped former FameLabbers refocus their performance voice.

We’re really good at this stuff. Some of it. For the rest, we get help.

Drop us a line.


StoryCog is a communication consultancy and film production company; see more about us here, or explore the links above left. The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, though they're quite likely to represent the company's position too.


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