Beltane Twilight | Research and Film | 27 October 2015

At the Beltane we are all about making academic research accessible to a wide variety of audiences, but how big or broad an audience are you thinking about? What would it take to get your research featured in a film, documentary or radio programme for example? How might you go about working up an idea and pitching it to a producer? How can screenwriters find inspiration to write about research and researchers? These were themes covered at our October Twilight with guest speakers, Stephen Lawrie, Tim Barrow and Lucy Vernall:

Update from Beltane team

  • Training | Voice and Presentation Skills
    Wed 11th Nov, 9am-4pm, Paterson’s Land
    Presentation training with a professional theatre director that focuses on the voice (not slides or content). Suitable for professional and academic staff, and research postgraduates.
  • FameLab 2016 | Edinburgh Heat
    Fri 11th Dec, 2-4pm, Central Edinburgh
    Competition to develop the best new talent in science communication. Suitable for over-21s working in science, engineering, maths and technology.

Two-minute wonders

Very short, informal and PowerPoint-free presentations from anyone who is planning or has run engagement events or activities related to the theme.

  • Selva Athi Narayanan “How I clarified misleading science in films to non-scientific people.” Selva talked about his experience of noticing misleading/inaccurate science in films and using this to explain scientific concepts to groups of school children.

Guest speakers:

  • Professor Stephen Lawrie (Head of the Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh) & Tim Barrow (Lyre Productions)

“Finding the balance: artistic and scientific representations”

Tim is making his 3rd feature film, a love story involving schizophrenia. He didn’t want to perpetuate the myth and stigma surrounding schizophrenia so got in touch with Stephen through the Royal College of Psychiatrists. They met for a chat and Tim and Elspeth (co-star in the film) were able to visit Stephen’s clinics and meet his patients. Both were amazed by how open the patients were to them and began to understand their desire to be valid members of society. There is a slight difficulty or tension between reality and the film Tim wanted to make because fewer people with schizophrenia are in relationships (part of the illness is that they tend to withdraw). It was a valuable process for Tim to talk to people and see these things for himself. Vocabulary is very important around a sensitive subject involving the dignity of people with schizophrenia as characters in the film. Throughout the process, Tim talked to Stephen and ran drafts of the script by him. 90% of the film has been shot now so watch this space!

The topic of scientific accuracy was discussed. Opinion was that wherever possible it shouldn’t be sacrificed and that drama is about using imagination but around firm structures so that the content is not inaccurate or misleading (in an ethical way as much as anything else).

  • Lucy Vernall (The Academic Ideas Lab)

Collaborating with factual producers”

The Academic Ideas Lab initially started as an in-house service at the University of Birmingham and in 2015, Lucy set it up as a business working with academics and producers UK-wide. They match academics with the best TV and radio producers to develop ground-breaking programmes for both UK and international broadcast.

Lucy talked about what development producers in factual TV and radio are looking for, and how to go about working with them on a programme idea. Firstly, coming up with new ideas for radio and TV that commissioners will go for is hard! Teams of people do this for a living so think about what or who you have unique access to and what element of expertise you bring. There are some general hints and tips though that Lucy shared with us:

Interesting to producers:

  1. Access – to place/institution/people that they couldn’t otherwise gain
  2. First – something that’s never been done before
  3. Process – something that looks different at the end to how it did at the start
  4. Event – particularly when it’s on a timescale beyond your control
  5. Name recognition – something the audience have already heard of
  6. Visual impact – brilliant images
  7. Exciting location – something out of the norm
  8. Revelation – something surprising or unexpected
  9. Jeopardy – dangerous or dramatic moment
  10. Relatable topic – everyday things people have experienced e.g. food, parenting, weather
  11. Hot topic – something currently in the media
  12. Massive ambition – something huge or that can be boosted in scale by the producer

Less enticing for producers:

  1. Specialist – something difficult to make relevant to a broad audience
  2. European/international – for UK programming
  3. Overexposure – something that’s on TV all the time
  4. Entirely theoretical – nothing to look at
  5. Not new – where data confirms what we already knew
  6. Timescale – just not the right time for some reason

Don’t be disheartened though – for example, the Great British Bake-off is a massive success but took 4 years of pitching before it was commissioned! Sometimes just dogged determination is what works.

Discussion continued around whether using film, TV or Radio programming to reach a broader audience with your research is truly Public Engagement or Knowledge Exchange? Is the communication flow too one-way? Measures of reach rather than significance are typically used (e.g. how many people watched or listened to the broadcast).