A personal experience from the 2009 Banff Centre Science Communications Program. (Reprinted from E-cass September 2009, Part III of III)
We were fortunate to have professional help in developing our concept. The program provided access to graphic designers for the website, TV producers and professional cameramen to help with shooting videos, sound experts to help with the podcasts, and not to mention the years of experience that Jay Ingram would draw on whenever we wanted some advice.
Our group developed a podcast on auditory illusions. Sally and Steve parachuted into Banff Community High School to talk with a student. The piece was extremely difficult to produce and edit–vocal skills need both coaching and practice. But we had great fun crouching around the microphone, which prompted our sound engineer to reminisce about 1930’s radio shows.
It quickly became clear that creating a convincing “atmosphere” aurally is a lot harder than you would think. Getting believable reverberation on voices, not to mention the right levels from cut to cut takes some patience. While the final edit was extremely well put together, I think the team agreed we’d like another go at our podcast.
Producing our video skit was an even bigger adventure. From the very beginning, we felt we had a great story: Sally and Steve would parachute into Banff to go climbing, but would find they had forgotten the rope. So they would make one out of the toilet paper that they had!
Making a toilet paper rope is not easy. You have to twist sheets into a string-like form using an electric drill. These strings are then twisted upon themselves repeatedly. You then braid, and then braid again. To create a 14 foot rope took almost five hours! We also found out that you don’t want to use Royale 3-ply! Use the industrial paper with no perforations, it is much stronger.
We filmed at Bow Falls, just outside Banff. The tourists in the area were clearly curious about what we were doing. You can look pretty silly dressed up in painter’s overalls, a Bauer hockey helmet, some glasses and a backpack! Throw in a hefty video camera, sound engineer with a “shotgun microphone” and the onlookers were really intrigued.
Despite our final cut being just under three minutes we needed over four hours at the location. This seemed like a long time to me, until the cameraman told me a 30 to 1 ratio, of footage shot compared to the final cut, is common. We shot 27 minutes of actual footage in the four hours, so our ratio was closer to 10 to 1. There was a certain amount of pride at the “wrap party” that we didn’t do more than 3 takes on anything!
All the different projects were presented during a reveal on the penultimate day. We thought four hours would be too draining, but all the presentations were completely engrossing and time passed almost too quickly. The other projects were: “Carbon Dating Service” a pastiche on a dating service for different atoms (the personalities were taken from the atom’s bonding properties). “Bifurcated”, a website idea comparing the artistic versus scientific viewpoints on different things (water was an extremely powerful example). “ourDNA.ca”, a fun and professional website promoting information about genetics and genetic disorders.
The level of professionalism and creativity in the projects was quite incredible. Yes we had some exceptional help, but the way the teams bonded and made the final products gel was spectacular. By the end of the program we really believed Jay’s comment about this being his most exciting two weeks of the year. Looking back on things, every team can be justifiably proud of what they achieved.
The final day and saying goodbyes was quite emotional. It was almost like leaving summer camp. The intensity of the program was extremely high, both in terms of the energy required and the emotional constraint of not wanting to let anyone on your team down. All self-imposed pressures, but everyone felt them. I left feeling attached to all the people in the program and with a soft-spot for the members of my team. I hope to keep in touch with them in the future.
My wife and I had a rueful laugh together at the end. We had hoped to spend two weeks working together in the mountains. Instead we managed to grab a few minutes together most nights just before going to bed. It was not what we were expecting at all, but it was tremendous fun nonetheless.
Post workshop, the “Out of the Blue” team has been wondering what to do with our idea. Lots of people seem to like it, and our video is on youtube (search for “theskydiversteve”). Still, it’s a long way from astronomy, and it takes a lot of money do these productions well. Despite going for a “hokey” and fun look, we estimated the video skit would cost close to $4000 to do professionally.
How has the workshop impacted my research? I don’t know. I am still piecing together my reactions to it. Peripheral interests have become a lot more interesting and I am also seeing connections I hadn’t anticipated. A lot of research areas seem more exciting than they did before the workshop.
What has changed is my perception of the media and communication. I now spend more time thinking about analogies to explain my work. I’m searching for analogies that explain rather than confuse. Freeing up my creative muscle also seems to have helped. My brain doesn’t seem to work quite the same way it did before the program–I think more laterally now. Perhaps that will be a permanent change, perhaps not.
Ultimately, the program has given me an understanding of what the media needs for a good story and how they need that story told. So, the next time someone shoves a camera in my face or asks me a potentially frustrating question I won’t freeze or bumble. I’ll be prepared.