The Domino Effect in Nature, and Visual Storytelling

Sep 27, 2012 by

September 26, pharmacy 2012, help 11:11 am

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

My friend Randy Olson, drugs the filmmaker and science-communication evangelizer devoted to prodding folks out of the “nerd loop,” has been at it again — this time running one of his three-day video-making boot camps for graduate students in the TerreWEB program (on communication of global-change science) at the University of British Columbia. One student, Megan Callahan, came up with a particularly effective video on the interconnections in ecosystems. Randy sees this film, describing the domino-like relationship of species in an ecosystem, as the best single video to emerge in his years-long coaching effort. I’d like to get your view, and I’m sure he would, too. Here’s his “Your Dot” post, along with a link to more on his blog, The Benshi:

Randy Olson on Simplicity and Broad Communication:  Of Dominoes and Blue Men

Effective broad public communication is a bit like mathematical proofs — it’s about doing things in the simplest way with the fewest steps.  Some people have a knack for it.  Most don’t.

In the last eight years, I’ve run 11 three-day intensive video making workshops with science graduate students and undergraduates (six times at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, once each at the University of California, Merced, the University of Southern California, the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, the University of Tromsø in Norway and the University of British Columbia last week).

The workshop usually consists of 25 students, each of whom presents a three-minute “pitch” for a one-minute video on the first morning. They vote, the five most popular are selected, everyone else is randomly assigned as crew members, then they get a little more than two days to make the videos with no budget, just their own ingenuity and me squashing their grandiose visions down into something realistic given the constraints.

While the resulting videos haven’t been Oscar contenders, there’s never been a crew that ended up with something that everyone felt was a failure. That’s the power of teamwork, combined with the importance of the selection process (the students instinctively know which pitches are cool and likely to work).  Most of the videos aren’t great (what can you expect given the constraints, especially considering that almost none of the students have ever even shot a camcorder or used Final Cut Pro editing software). But they all definitely work and are a huge amount of fun to view as a group at the end of the three days of hustling.

Yet every once in a while a student comes along with that knack, and manages to solve the communication challenge elegantly.  Last week with the University of British Columbia’s TerreWeb program we had the best group ever. The student teams produced five excellent videos, and one was, to my mind, the best video ever (for my detailed account of the workshop click here).  It’s nothing too flashy, and again, you have to keep in mind they had no budget, no training, little time.  But this group had a director — graduate student Megan Callahan — with a clear, simple vision built around a concept that resonates — the “domino theory” — which is often mentioned when people talk about the interconnectedness of species.

Have a look at this video, and realize it is also the product of “natural selection” — meaning that to date we’ve had roughly 250 student pitches that have resulted in 65 videos.  Out of that pool of variation, which is getting to be a significant sample size, comes this one video that manages to land on a simple concept that plays to the strengths of the film medium — namely that it is visual.  Notice how little narration there is, and that you could turn off the volume and still pretty much absorb what it’s about.

Previously the best video ever came from a complete knucklehead undergraduate party boy who had zero intellectual interest in the nature or the exercise — he just had the filmmaking instincts to come up with a simple, punchy concept (before he abandoned his crew to go to a music festival).  It’s a relief to see that good concepts can also arise from good students.

And on a final note of simplicity, here’s a very simple, elegant, perfectly executed short video built around a single funny, highly likeable actor dressed up as a blue man for water conservation who gives a pitch-perfect performance:

It’s a piece that has both emotion (or at least faux emotion) and humor — the key elements of broad communication.  It’s proof that “environmental filmmaking” doesn’t have to be the clumsy, preachy, dullness that it generally is.

You can learn more about this British Columbia workshop and Randy’s film-making philosophy in his latest post on The Benshi.

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