In my last column, I mentioned judging science videos for the Jackson Hole WILD festival. I normally judge in the Earth and Space Science category, but did not judge in the immersive category because of the possibility a video I worked on would be entered. More than 400 videos were submitted in the festival and I was responsible for viewing and judging about 36 of them in my category.
The winning films across all categories were awarded at the Science Media Awards & Summit in the Hub (SMASH) Summit in Boston, held September 20-22, 2016, by Jackson Hole WILD You can see a list of winners at www.sciencemediasummit.org/2016-media-competition.html. The “Immersive: Fulldome, 3D and Large Format” category was won by David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies 3D. Judging for JHWFF wasn’t my first rodeo with them, or with judging at festivals in general. It’s always a learning experience, and at best, I get to learn lessons about production from the winners whose films I’ve watched. This year was no different, and I tallied some interesting observations as I watched my assigned videos. They’re things that we as fulldome producers can and should consider as we do our work.
Science Content Matters
The most important thing to remember for those of us creating science content is that accuracy matters. We all strive to write the most accurate scripts we can, but all that hard work can easily be undone by problems in production. For example, several times at festivals, I’ve seen shows that were hindered by incorrect visualizations, poor translations, and less-than-understandable narrators. No matter how well the script was written, if the animator creates a scene that is scientifically incorrect or a narrator continually mispronounces words or rushes the narration, accuracy is affected. The audience is left with a poor idea of what the show is trying to convey. I’m sure that everyone reading this has seen such errors in Hollywood movies, but they happen in our own fulldome community as well.
Production is a complex and lengthy process, but there’s always time to do it right. That means, at the outset, use reviewers for your script. Pay them to help you make it better. I know many producers do this, and I’ve even assisted a few as a reviewer. As a scriptwriter myself, I welcome the review process. It’s important because my set of eyes doesn’t see my work the same way a “fresh” set of eyes will perceive it. A few years ago, when I was an editor/writer at Sky & Telescope magazine, every article I worked on passed under three different sets of eyes. We did it every month, on deadline, without fail. We were fanatic about getting it right. I also did the same thing with my last book; I found about two dozen reviewers to go over the chapters and find any problems or mistakes. It was the best investment I ever made. So, embrace reviewers (and reward them). They will help keep the production honest.
Some productions might only have one or two reviewers, while others can involve entire advisory committees. Also, some institutions and production teams can execute on this plan more easily than most. Among others, the American Museum of Natural History, the California Academy of Sciences, Adler Planetarium, and NSC Creative have all incorporated science advisors in their productions, and they can offer insight into how to incorporate opinions from a diverse set of stakeholders. It requires a level of engagement different from working with individual reviewers, but the results can be worth it. Avoid Hype Science subject matter, especially in astronomy, is already pretty interesting, so it really doesn’t require hyping or overstating. It needs a writer than can convey the wonder of the subject without going over the top in the narrative. This is particularly true if there are visualizations that provide dramatic interest on their own. A hyped-up script shouted by a narrator just exacerbates hype. This is an area where reviewers can and should help tone things down a bit.
Use Your Narrator Wisely
Speaking of narrators, it’s really, really, really important to direct your narrator. No matter who it is or how big a star they are. Even the best actors benefit (and usually expect) some direction. I can usually tell when a narrator is not directed in a show, and many times it hurts the production. Narrators are literally the voice of the show. They are storytellers. That means the script is a storytelling device, not a novel or a textbook. And, if a producer wants it to sound a certain way, he or she has to direct them.
Directing a narrator is also important in terms of pronunciation and cadence. One show that I judged for JHWFF was narrated by a person who did not speak English as a primary language, yet it was produced for a mainly English-speaking audience. A number of the science terms were so badly mispronounced that it was laughable. The narrator’s speaking cadence did not fit English, and it made some sentences nearly unintelligible. In another show, the narrator was over-the-top excited about the topic, and the performance overshadowed the truly amazing footage. Such problems could have been smoothed out with direction. (The same solution exists for already-produced shows. It’s important to remember these issues when working with fulldome producers from other countries as they bring their existing shows to English-speaking audiences. Directing replacement narrations is equally important.)
Also, consider doing a scratch narration. It helps a producer/writer know how the words will sound. Mated with a pre-render or preliminary renders, the stand-in narration gives a good idea of what needs to be tweaked in the scene.
Reviewing Visualizations, Scenes, and Choreography
Once you get into production, the storyboarding process is where producers weed out errors in visualization. A reviewer or two can provide valuable input to check out the intended visualizations. A producer may find out that the Moon is too big in the sky or an orbital motion is depicted incorrectly. It’s the point where a pre-viz animation can show if a sequence is going to work or not. It’s also the best time to “re-do” work to correct errors. That’s important because not fixing the problems simply undermines the whole point of creating exciting science content in the first place.
Other Methods of Review
Test audiences come in handy during the production audience, too. Consider using them when you can. For what it’s worth, the entire process of checking your work is heavily enforced in NSF grant-produced work, with multiple layers of review. In those cases, producers are also reviewing for audience comprehension and other factors.
I can’t say enough about reviewing as a production progresses. Many producers know this innately, but it’s not a bad idea to reinforce the concept.
So, the general message here is simple: Science accuracy matters in fulldome shows. We all know this. We all work hard to maintain it. The way to keep accuracy up front is to review, review, and review some more. Good reviewers or science advisors can catch mistakes in early stages. They should review the script, visuals, storyboards, even the mid-point renders.
We are very lucky in this community to have a treasure trove of people who can help a producer avoid mistakes in science explanation and errors in production that affect the accuracy of a show. Just ask any of us who have produced shows; we’ve been there and done that and probably made all the mistakes at least once. Many of who have advised on fulldome shows as part of our jobs or as consultants know that the results are worth the effort. The multiple pairs of eyes you engage early on will be a lifesaver in a production.
In addition to her role as CEO of Loch Ness Productions, Carolyn Collins Petersen is a science writer and astronomy researcher. She is acutely interested in the fulldome medium's ability to provide cinematic approaches to storytelling that engages audiences. She has more than three dozen fulldome shows to her credit, and recently narrated several shows for other producers. She has written three astronomy books, numerous online audio and video series about astronomy and space science, and was senior author for major exhibits at Griffith Observatory, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the California Academy of Sciences. She is a contributor in astronomy and space science for Space.About.com (space.about.com).
Carolyn Collins Petersen studied education and astronomy at the University of Colorado, and earned a graduate degree in mass communications (science emphasis, and minor in telecommunications engineering) in 1996 from CU, where she also worked on a Hubble Space Telescope instrument team. She spent several years as an editor and writer at Sky Publishing Corporation before assuming a leadership role at Loch Ness Productions.She currently serves as IMERSA's Communications Coordinator and can be reached at Carolyn@IMERSA.org.