There are a number of approaches a film maker can take when it comes to making a science – or indeed, any type of – documentary. Perhaps the best-known form of science documentary is that adopted by BBC’s Horizon, the ‘expository’ documentary. The viewer is gradually guided along a journey with the singular aim of answering a specific question. The objectives are clear from the outset and the path largely linear. As such, the form works reasonably effectively as a learning tool but can suffer from being too didactic, relying heavily on a ‘voice of God’ commentary.
In recent years observational documentary has come to dominate television’s savagely competitive arena. Originally this was a beautifully measured approach to film, pioneered by people such as the British documentary film makers John Grierson and Paul Rotha. Their documentaries turned the camera not on film stars and actors but on normal, humdrum members of British society, transforming housewives, glass blowers or ship builders into icons.
Observational films are, in principle, relatively simple to make. Over time a rather misguided notion has surfaced that all you have to do is simply point a camera in the right direction and shoot. Unfortunately, this perceived simplicity gave birth to the phenomenon of reality TV, all but destroying the good name of observational films, resulting in little more than simplistic, voyeuristic gruel.
Freed from the needs and conventions of traditional television, there was a decision to be made about the most appropriate form to adopt for Until, a 30-minute film about the science of ageing and the deep urge humans feel for enhanced longevity. In the early planning stages it became obvious that I was going to take a very philosophical approach to some of the fundamental questions that drive us as animals.
At the core of the film was an idea – if science ever reached the point where immortality was effectively guaranteed, at what age would people choose to die, if at all? This isn’t a question that lends itself easily to exposition (and as a lone shooter, the last thing I wanted was to make a ‘cheap episode of Horizon’), and there certainly weren’t any main characters that seemed appropriate to observe. Ultimately, it became clear that the film was largely a thought experiment and, as such, I decided to take a poetic approach.
Poetic film making is a real challenge. It can veer quickly into the abstract or pretentious, risking losing a viewer with imagery or edits that appear disjointed, illogical or just downright odd. But, if successful, it can raise the level of a film to new heights. The reason is simple: in traditional written poetry, language is used to create collections of words, assembled and structured in such a way as to imbue each line and verse with layers of meaning. Minor revelations and discoveries reveal themselves as the reader absorbs the poem. Like a literary zip file, a good poem will unpack itself within the mind, providing the reader with a satisfying intellectual meal.
In Until my ambition was to attempt layered structuring, to provide the viewer with satisfying juxtapositions of words and imagery that somehow felt more meaningful than they would have had the film been created using a different form.
For example, there is a scene in which young children discuss how long they would like to live. It’s a funny sequence – children want to live for ever and are full of “when I grow up, I’m going to conquer the world” bombast. As their conversation continues, the music shifts to a darker feel as we cut to a sequence in which coffins are being manufactured, crafted by hand. Immediately, we’re struck by associations of death, a terrible juxtaposition with what we’re hearing.
Look closer and you now see a coffin no bigger than a two-year-old child. No longer is the scene about the fact that we will all die, eventually; it’s about the fact that children also die, and that no one – including these funny, lively children with their hopes and aspirations – has the slightest idea how much life they will actually have. Using this combination of imagery and words, I hoped to create a sense of how precious every moment of our life is.
The use of film for communicating science is rapidly becoming more popular – the abundance and variety of science-influenced cartoons, feature films and documentaries shows no sign of relenting. Mobile devices, the web and affordable technology are lowering the bar considerably when it comes to the challenges of content creation and consumption. Scientists are increasingly able to share their stories and passions with the general public at festivals, in schools, online and on the move.
We have an important choice to make about the type of content we fill this growing digital space with. By all means, let this content be based in the beauty of science but, when we can, let’s elevate it to the level of poetry.
Why make Until?
People frequently ask me why I made a film about death. This is confusing because, for me, Until is a film that celebrates being alive.
The gestation of this film was tortured, and it had to fight its way into existence. Back in 2010, with dozens of short films in hand, the urge to tackle a more complex subject grew, and I knew exactly what I wanted that film to be about: mortality.
As a child, I was terrified of death – a formative memory features an anguished mother trying to explain to her screaming son why he will never see Granddad again. Decades later, death held less of a sting, but I was still fascinated with mortality – why do we age, what if we could stop it…? Working within the sciences and keenly aware of the rate of progress, a question occurred to me that would underpin the entire film: If science became so advanced that you could essentially choose to live as long as you want, at what age would you choose to die?
This open, slightly odd question allowed me to probe the scientific, philosophical and human dimensions of ageing. Ask this question to an eight-year-old and their answer tends to differ wildly, often entertainingly, from that of a senior professor. But it was still just an idea and, ambitions aside, I was still a lone guerrilla film maker within the Wellcome Trust (the charitable foundation that publishes Mosaic). Making a film like this would require determination and time.
The hard part was finding a visual metaphor, something to thematically tie the film together. By chance, I was about to make a trip to Newcastle for a series of films on mental illness (Last Chance Saloon), and it occurred to me that starting the film with imagery of a coffin being built could be perfect – a resounding, iconic symbol of death, impossible to watch without feeling acutely aware of your own mortality.
A few awkward phone calls later and I had secured access to a coffin-manufacturing site. What I hadn’t expected was how fantastic this shoot would be. This was death industrialised: people and machines cutting, sanding and varnishing. All day. Suddenly, these rarely seen wooden monoliths were stacked everywhere: rich, deep oaks and glistening pines, all kinds of sizes for adults alongside tragically tiny coffins for children. This wasn’t an opener to the film. It was the film.
To give the film a fully human dimension, I decided to ask the same questions to both the old and the young. Working with a local branch of Age UK and a primary school, the task then was to try and tease out the meaning of life. The people at Age UK were fantastic – one thing that haunts me to this day is that the women dramatically outnumbered the men, a stark reminder of the in-built biological inequity between the sexes.
It was the children of the Eleanor Palmer Primary School, however, that delivered the potential for a beautiful film among the footage. To say more would spoil it, but when the camera was turned off, both the teacher and I were doing our level best not to well up in front of our star interviewees, oblivious of the profundity of what they’d said.
Over the course of a year, in ‘spare time’, the film, now called Until, slowly, slowly came together under the steadying gaze of the wonderful editor Siv Lamark, who helped me create an approach rooted in a mix of science, poetry and humanity. And when the film won the Nature People’s Choice Award at the 2011 Imagine Science Film Festival, I felt shock and delight in equal measure.