Answers provided by Writer and Director Annamaria Talas.
What inspired this story?
AT: Like most people, I didn't pay much attention to fungi, let alone thinking of making a film about them. But once I saw Australian photographer's, Steve Axford's amazing mushroom time-lapse images I became spellbound by their enigmatic beauty. Their diversity, vibrant colours, bizarre shapes made me curious. What was going on here? And as I started to dig into Google Scholar I became 'curiouser and curiouser'.
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this film?
AT: When I began investigating this strange realm, it soon became apparent that there was a lot to reveal, as there was a huge gap in knowledge. Little did I realize that I'd chosen such a fast-evolving field of research that I would need to rewrite the script several times before the shoot. Fungi are weird, largely overlooked, and still little studied, without institutes dedicated to fungal research and few scientists willing to devote their careers to revealing their many secrets. But slowly the story is being revealed.
How do you approach science storytelling?
AT: As with my previous films, it became a matter of bringing together different lines of research into a compelling narrative. I firmly believe that context and story-telling are essential to understanding. By unfolding the story over a billion years of evolution, I focused on the fundamental role fungi have played in life on land.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
AT: A one hour documentary is barely enough to go beyond the highlights but our hope is that this film puts fungi on our horizon and from now on, every time viewers look at a button mushroom in a grocery store they’ll see them in a very different way: they are the unlikely conductors of the symphony of life on land. I also hope, the evolutionary and ecological context illuminates just how carefully life on Earth is balanced and makes the audience aware of the dangers of human induced changes. It's more important than ever to understand fungi.
Were there any surprising or meaningful moments/experiences you want to share?
AT: The incredible realization that without fungi, we wouldn't be here. The notion that in our increasingly warming world our mostly beneficial relationship with these organisms could change, turning them from friends into foes. The idea that fungi represent a third mode of life: organisms that are networks.
Anything else you would like people to know?
AT: As we say in the film, fungi represent both a dire threat and a tremendous opportunity to humanity. So, it’s well and truly time to get to know them.
AT: My next documentary is a deep dive into computational sociology that reveals how does success emerge. Why is it that no matter how hard you work, perfect your performance, accomplish amazing things, you can still fail? We’ll show that performance and success are governed by different mathematical laws and we’ll reveal the invisible forces that drive our chances of success day after day. Our aim is to demystify success and offer guidance, rooted in science to navigate our individual journeys to success.
Did the film team use any unusual techniques or unique imaging technology?
AT: The visual highlight of the film is Stephen Axford’s unique time-lapses that are produced in two sheds on his property in tropical Queensland, he jokingly calls his fungariums. In these sheds, Axford creates the perfect conditions for wild forest fungus to grow on wood brought in from outside.
The time-lapses can take anything from a few days to a month, and so require a controlled environment to produce. There are three individual time-lapse studio set ups in the sheds, where the fungus is placed in front of cameras, tracks and lighting, with backgrounds to mimic the forest.
A diverse range of cameras are used from Sony A7r II to various older canon cameras – which all have to be robust to survive the warm and consistently damp conditions that mushrooms love and need. Because the photographs can be taken at slow shutter speeds the lighting is very minimal – cheap LEDs – mounted to replicate the lighting in the forest.
The fungarium sheds have enabled Stephen Axford to record time-lapses on currently over 30 species of fungi and at the same time observe how they grows over many seasons.
Our next challenge was to match the beauty of these specialist images with the rest of our filming. For this it was vital to get on-the-ground in unique environments from lava-fields of Iceland to the deep forests of British Columbia. This is highly reliant on the seasons, so filming took place over a very extended period. We used the latest cameras from Blackmagic and Panasonic to ensure a rich colour depth.
Finally, we discovered some remarkable images from artists Tarek Mawad and Friedrich van Schoor. They spent months projection mapping video images in a forest, bringing magic onto plants, animals and fungi. Their project, called ‘The Bioluminescent Forest’ had just the aesthetic I was looking for: the beautiful mysteries of nature that remain hidden from us. Just like fungi themselves.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.