The Science of Good Story Telling

Women in Film & Video, Washington DC, Producing Change Since 1979

Producers and reporters of science programs for film and television are always looking for engaging, compelling stories to teach and motivate and to open our minds to infinite possibilities. Scott Gordon, C.E.O. of Word Wizard, is addicted to scientific programming and watches very little else except the News.  That’s why he joined me as we both attended the recent WIFV (Women in Film and Video) event which focused on Scientific Productions.

Main Speakers

Some of the brightest minds in science programming met at the WIFV panel discussion held at Interface Media Group. Panelists included: Karen Heineman, executive producer of Inside Science at the American Institute of Physics; Michael Rosenfeld, head of television and film at Tangled Bank Studios; Jennifer Shoemaker, director of Missions Media at National Geographic Society; Rebecca Howland, producer for Screenscope, Inc; Miles O’Brien, science reporter and producer; and Wade Sisler, executive producer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Katrina Jackson—new WIFV member and PA at Goddard—served as moderator.

The Power Of Social Media

Using social media to promote science programming. (flavor image)

One of the first issues discussed was social media and how to attract viewers to science programming. Attracting and retaining viewer’s takes a sustained social media outreach which, when updated regularly, can prolong the lifespan of a documentary over a made-for-television presentation. Larger shows offer games and interactive media on their websites like Your Inner Fish airing on PBS which allows you to view a 3D body and click on the different body parts to understand how they evolved from other animals.

With the help of the Internet, some science websites and blogs have become so popular that they make it to television. For example, I F$#$king Love science website—beginning as a popular science blog—now boasts a following of 10 million, and is being picked up by the Science Channel.

Dealing with the Skeptics

Mars Rover Curiosity exploring the rocky surface of Mars.

Whether you believe in modern science or not, it is undeniable that the Martian Rover Curiosity, which is as large as a VW Bug, is traveling around on another planet at this very moment; and uncovering evidence of water and perhaps even life itself.  By faithfully and accurately reporting on this modern marvel, the science producers at NASA Goddard, confound the skeptics every day. Therefore Science Producers can deal with the Nay Sayers and sceptics by being certain that science programming can clearly show by what means their conclusions were reached. How an audience perceives a scientist directly affects how or even if they listen. Scientists must be perceived as down to earth, likeable and exciting. National Geographic’s International Fame Lab encourages young scientists to compete in a live panel-judged competition to become potentially a new voice of science.

Producers need to reach out to educators and school systems to assure their products are accepted into school systems. National Geographic also adapts some of its programming to the classroom. Their Engineers in the Classroom program—developed in conjunction with Lockheed Martin—offers specialty lesson plans for grades K-12. Others like Rebecca Howland offer their one program Extreme Realities on PBS as well as on YouTube.

Today, Nat Geo sometimes skips the heavy camera setups and sends explorers to distant locations with only an I-phone to record a story but with the quickly evolving technology, the little guy and the smaller company may find it difficult to keep up in science programming.

Diagram showing the design of the James Web deep space telescope.

And talk about distant locations, NASA Goddard is currently assembling the James Web deep space telescope which will dwarf the Hubble in size and power.  It will travel in an orbit way beyond our Moon, and be as big as a one story house.  Who knows what it will be able to see, perhaps all the way back to the “Big Bang” itself.  You can be sure that it will be ably covered to the scientific community and to the public by the science documentary production team at NASA Goddard.  Thanks to WIFV for the first rate programming.


Keeping Your Budget Under Control

Getting That Green

wifv logo

As we all know, budgeting your work, especially documentary film work, is not easy.  You must first secure the money, not an easy feat mind you, and then be extremely careful to utilize it to its fullest extent. The still-shaky economy makes it even more difficult for production professionals to secure budgets, since people are still hesitant to give money to anyone even if they have a fantastic, sure-hit proposal. Once you do get that hard-earned or begged-for cash, what is the best way to go about using it? One way to find out is at an upcoming panel called Demystifying Media Budgets, which is being presented by Women in Film and Video or WIFV on June 5th at Interface Media Group. Some of the experts on the panel include D.C.-based writer/producer/director Claudia Meyers, owner and president of Double R Productions, Rosemary Reed, Freelancer Sharon Sobel, and president of Film Odyssey Inc., Karen Thomas. While this event promises to provide some great tips on managing money for your documentary and video production work, I had a few tips of my own that I wanted to share.


A Technical Hand

While it makes plenty of sense to go the reliable route of Excel spread sheets, paper receipts and data storage, those methods don’t work for everyone. Some great software alternatives include inDinero, Xpenser and FreshbooksinDinero is a great money tracking and finance site for small business, and ideal for freelancers who want an efficient way to have all their accounts in one place. Xpenser is a nice little tool specifically built to manage expense reports with versions available for all the major smartphones, like Android, Apple, and Windows. FreshBooks is a great program for invoices, with apps for all the major mobile systems, and is a great tool for a media freelancer, since it also helps track un-billed time and tracks different rates for different projects.

Ask Around

This is probably one of the most tried-and-true ways to make sure you’re not over-paying for services. While it might seem unwise to be so transparent about money, it still can pay off to chat with other freelancers and media professionals to see how much they’re budgeting for different aspects of their work. It can be a great way to make sure you’re not getting ripped of by overpaying for something when others are getting it for much a cheaper rate. One of the nice things about the D.C. production and media community is that it’s small enough that everyone is fairly open to helping each other out. Another avenue to use is Quora, a type of online search engine that can be really good for generic questions such as, “How much is too much to pay for ____?” While some of the answers may not be incredibly specific, they can at least point you in the right direction and give you a helpful range to work with.