Some lessons on using short movies as scientific communication tools

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During the last months, we have invested some of our time in making two animation movies that illustrate some of the issues related to our work in The Agri/Cultures Project. The idea behind these movies is to try to explore different paths for scientific communication and help bridge the gap between the scientists and (the rest of) society.

The two short movies that will be released soon are very different from one another: one explains the complexities, costs and uncertainties associated with GM detection processes and the second one tells a story of everyday forms of resistance to GM crops in Spain.

Below you can read some of the lessons I learned during the movie-making process for scientists aiming to communicate their work to non-scientists.

  1. Try to tell a narrative story: As I mentioned in a previous post, scientists and, let’s say, visual documentarists or journalists communicate quite differently.  While the former use an abstract structured discourse to advance an argument, the latter base their work on stories and characters that navigate those stories. My advice is, as much as possible and even if it’s challenging, use storytelling in your popular communication approach. All people use stories to make sense of the world we live in and thus stories are powerful tools to communicate anything. They mobilise emotions, identities and make the audience feel engaged with the characters in specific situations of conflict.
  2. Think visually (and if you can afford it, involve an artist in the process): The challenge here is not only to tell a narrative story with scientific content, but to use visual symbols to do it (rather than text). This means that if you have written a script, it might be useful if you do the exercise of thinking how this text is going to be seen and evaluate if that actually works (e.g draw a storyboard). Also, you should keep in mind that there are already existing shared symbols and it might be convenient to use them. It is also very recommendable to involve a visual artist in your work if possible, because this is actually their field of expertise.
  3. Accept and assume that this is not a scientific product aimed at scientists. This seems very basic but I think this is actually a very difficult issue for scientists. Although it’s important to maintain a high level of visual accuracy in your story (e.g if you are explaining something about water, you might want to paint water in blue, instead of orange), you might want to conceive your short movie as a very small taste of the topic you are aiming to communicate, with a couple of key messages. This means that it’s important to prioritise the information you want to communicate (and accept you have to simplify a lot). While the movie can offer a starting point to create interesting discussions around a topic, you should accept that the movie itself won’t contain all the aspects to have a systematic scientific discussion or even presentation. This tool is more limited than a text in terms of the complexity that it can capture and its main audience won’t be scientists themselves. In practical terms, this also implies that you should avoid jargon as much as possible and simplify anything that can be simplified.
  4. Share it to a non-specialised audience before releasing it: This can help you further improve the communicative aspects of the movie. Also it allows for modifications (e.g of script, images) at early stages of the movie making process.
  5. Think of the distribution channels as an essential task of the movie-making process: This is actually something we still have not done for our 2 movies, but I think it’s essential and should ideally be thought as a part of the process. I think the key idea is to broadly think of different types of people who could benefit or be interested in seeing and sharing your movies. In our case, this will probably be our diffused networks of fellow academics, students, civil society groups working on agri/cultures, Mexican farmers and journalists.

To conclude, I’d like to mention that I think short-movie making has great potential as a pedagogical tool because it implies digging into a topic and learning to prioritise what is the essential information and how to communicate it. This might be something worth exploring further in the future.

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