Answers provided by Director Nicholas Brown.
What inspired this story?
NB: This story was inspired by the book “The Serengeti Rules” by Sean Carroll, who had started his research after making a trip to the Serengeti and his kids asked him “how come this place has so much more wildlife than anywhere else?” He didn’t learn the answer until he started talking to the people this film is about.
Describe some of the challenges while making this film.
NB: The science behind the film is intensive, controversial and in many respects brand new, so we had to learn a lot about ecology in a short period of time. (In development we had three PhD’s on our research team). This is also a story with a lot of characters and storylines that cover the entire globe. The hardest part was deciding what not to film! We also were unconvinced there was a way to knit together all of these diverging threads in different ecosystems. In the end we narrowed it down to just 5 scientists and locations, and that is the story that emerges.
How do you approach science storytelling?
NB: We feel it is essential that audiences be given an emotional connection to the story, especially when the subject matter is as intellectual as this is. In this case we used dramatic reconstruction to draw people closer to the key characters. We hope that you, the viewer will fall in love with nature just as our characters did. We also feel the science is easier to comprehend if you have a fully rounded human being that you can identify with and follow through the story. We let our characters tell their personal journeys without resorting to narration. This unfiltered approach is a way of showing the audience respect, and trusting that they will figure out the difficult
bits on their own.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
NB: In some ways the film is already having the impact we hoped for most, and that is inspiring younger people—especially those aged 10- 21—to fall in love with ecology. Biodiversity loss and extinction are depressing issues, so it is important that we project a story that also has some hope. We notice that young audiences are really latching onto this positive message. Ultimately, we hope that the science and the people will inspire everyone who watches the film. The best quotes-- and we’ve heard this more than once--come from 11 year olds saying, “When I grow up I want to be an ecologist!”
Were there any surprising or meaningful moments/experiences you want to share?
NB: Early in the process we knew we had to film the man who got this story going: Bob Paine. We’d set a date to make him the first person we would interview. But not long after agreeing a date, Bob called us to say that he was ill, but was still eager to take part in the film. Then, just a week before the interview, Bob’s daughter called to say he might not live to see the morning. We were shocked, and more than a little depressed. We cancelled our plans to film Bob, and were considering cancelling the whole film when Bob emailed. He said that he wanted to film with us no matter what. He wanted to get this story out there. On the day we arrived, Bob had just a matter of minutes per day where he was even awake and able to speak. He gave us 20 minutes per day on two consecutive days to interview him. Can you imagine, being on your deathbed, in agonizing pain, willing to talk to a film crew? You see, for Bob his work was so much more than a job. It was his passion and his mission, and he wanted to share what he had learned right up to his dying breath. He passed away less than a week after we finished the interview. The film is dedicated to his memory.
NB: The next step for us is to get this film distributed as widely as possible. We have plans to get it into schools and classrooms. And we hope to find distribution to the widest possible audience.
Editing: What are the specific editing challenges you had to address?
NB: We decided early on that we wanted the audience to have a direct cinematic experience, unfiltered by a narrator. This meant working with days if not weeks worth of interviews, and threading together a story that we hope people can follow with ease. Science, especially when it is new, is not always easy to explain or understand. Often there isn’t even a language for what you are trying to get across. We literally had to coin the term “upgrading” (instead of phrases like “trophic cascade restoration) to make the film understandable. Interestingly, the term “upgrading” is starting to crop amongst scientists now.
Where there any unexpected surprises or breakthroughs during this film investigation? “The Serengeti Rules” is based on the book by Sean Carroll. At first glance, it was hard to see how this book—which journeys from molecular biology to medicine and finally to ecology—would make a film. Feature documentaries work best when they follow a single narrative thread—and better yet, a single character. Once we narrowed this story down to 5 scientists, we had the first glimpse that we might be able to tell this story with a film. What kept us going was the importance of the subject matter. The breakthroughs happened over the course of 50 years and 5 lifetimes of intensive study. Ultimately, the discovery these scientists made is profound, and it will change how conservation is done from now on.
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.