Greenland's Glaciers: a documentary film

Filmmaking in the name of science… and my future

As with any trade, the more experience you have with your tool the harder it is to produce something great with it. Working as a filmmaker, particularly in science, is posing a lot of challenges at the moment. Some of these challenges can be attributed to my being abroad, working with people who have entirely different expectations, and some have to do with an enhanced awareness of the full potential of my tools; I am a camera-woman, sound-girl, director, producer, interviewer, and editor. It’s exhausting, a little daunting, but extremely exciting at the same time.

I have some major tasks ahead of me: to first produce a short promotional video for the MARUM institute with minimal tools and crew, then to board a research vessel off the coast of Western Greenland to shoot Greenland’s Glaciers, a film that could either launch my career as a science filmmaker or indicate that I should pursue something else!

Over time, however, I have recognized the importance of sticking to a single pursuit, especially one that excites and grabs you. I had dabbled in film all throughout college thanks to local filmmakers Juliana Brafa and Todd Bieber, who produce extremely compelling narrative-driven films, and my professor, Eric Faden, who has professionalized and expanded the film department at Bucknell University. I then pursued acting in NYC for a couple of years, and finally took production courses at OSU, which were extremely useful in terms of getting re-acquainted with the technology. Technological prowess in film takes years if not decades to cultivate, and I am still like a kindergartener struggling to understand the mechanics behind the alphabet.

So far while at MARUM I have shot four interviews – three with international post-doctoral scientists and one with the director of MARUM, Michael Schultz. Now looking at the footage, I notice something wrong with the composition, the lighting, the sound, or even the kinds of answers I am getting; I keep learning this same lesson — ask the same question again and provide some direction, “could you repeat that in one sentence and include the question?” I also find it challenging to ask the right questions when working with people from different cultures, when I am trying to extract key phrases from people who spend most of their time analyzing numerical models, or when my subject is extremely nervous. I also find that if I lack energy, they do too, so I’ve learned to remain perky and to gesticulate when I like where the answer is going. 

Alice Lefebvre Henry

Postdocs Alice Lefebvre (coastal dynamics) and Henry Wu (paleoceanography)

Gabriela MichaelSchultzMed

PhD student, Gabriela Morais (ecological governance) and director of MARUM, Michael Schultz

Albert and I have spent a lot of time shooting “b-roll”, or the footage that will illustrate what the interviews communicate — shots of downtown Bremen, people biking through Bürger Park, the MARUM building, poster sessions, scientists working in the lab, etc.. I’m learning that pans (left to right) and tilts (up and down) are difficult and I have a new appreciation for high-quality tripods. I’m also learning to find the right balance between the aperture (f-stop) and distance from the subject to accomplish a shallower depth of field (less is in focus) with a camcorder, this is better accomplished with high end cameras with large sensors or DSLR cameras. Albert, a former science photographer, has taught me to see the beauty in the details and to compose images with patience. I feel as though Bremen, MARUM, and Albert were meant to be.

Aerial_UBremenDropTower

We shot aerial footage of the campus from this 128-meter drop tower (normally used for gravitational physics research).

Sas_DropTower_ReflectionSas_DropTower_OS

Learning to pan with a monopod, impossible! Resorted to some handheld shots… also not so good. We may have to re-shoot these, and on a clearer day.

I have a lot of faith in myself as a science filmmaker, and since being in Germany I have gained a broader perspective of the role that film has and will play in science communication. I can sense that the filmmaking process, though a little invasive, is very exciting for the scientists as well. When I send an email out to some of the leading scientists of this institution asking for opportunities to shoot, I get immediate responses and people coming up to me wanting to brainstorm ideas. Just the other day I bumped into Gerhard Bohrmann who wanted to stage a computer modeling session on methane hydrates. Michael Schultz, himself an accomplished marine geologist, is truly invested in my project and will inquire about the process in passing.

I got similar impressions from the scientists I’ll be shooting in Greenland — Emily, Jonathan, and Dave. Emily seems especially hopeful that my film will not only inform non-experts on how or why the Greenland ice sheet is melting, but that it will inspire the younger generation to pursue important careers in science. Jonathan, though completely on board, seems a little skeptical at times, which is understandable considering how poorly represented science has been in the media lately. It takes a while to build the trust necessary to produce a truly sincere and intimate documentary but I sense that I’ve successfully built that trust. Dave has shot several of his own excursions and is an obvious advocate of making scientific research accessible to more people through video.

It turns out that this is not just about fulfilling some broader impact requirements as outlined by the National Science Foundation, this is about connecting the people who have the expertise to scrutinize, analyze, and make discoveries about the natural world to the people who live and breath that world. It makes utter sense to me that video has endless potential in accomplishing this!

There are so many independent production companies around here that have transformed the way we access scientific exploration. I’m especially fond of some videos produced by Science Media out of the Netherlands and recently discovered a smaller company in Lübeck, Germany called MedioMix, founded by two PhDs out of MARUM. In the next couple of weeks I will work as an apprentice to a small media company here in Bremen, eventfive, and will learn to accomplish filmic quality shots with a camcorder as I will be using the Sony EX1 to shoot Greenland’s Glaciers (I decided to abandon using a DSLR camera to shoot the film, this is maybe a discussion for another time!).

I’m continuing to enjoy my time in Bremen and promise to provide more anecdotes about my life here next time. Farmer’s markets, Bremen traditions, river culture, and my move to a new flat in the “Viertal” (which literally translates to the “Quarter”) to come!

 



5 comments ↓

#   Adrian Pusca on 07.28.13 at 3:07 pm     Reply

You’re doing well

#   Arwen on 07.30.13 at 2:44 pm     Reply

That is for sharing your journey with us Saskia! I can feel you transforming and growing as a filmmaker!

#   Justin Smith on 08.19.13 at 6:39 pm     Reply

Saskia,

Thanks for giving some insight into your process. You’ve got a fantastic project on your hands. Please consider us a resource if you need any help along the way. We’ve done a fair amount of one person crew shoots in remote areas and can hopefully provide some advice. Keep up the great work!

Justin

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