The Kewl Doodz 'n' Chyx

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How to make a science documentary

Posted by Martin Poulter on 2 December 2012

It’s great that the BBC is making a large number of high-quality documentaries about science recently, but when you watch them all, you start to see a pattern. You start to wonder if someone can do for this genre what Charlie Brooker did for TV news. (Thanks to Steve for suggesting this idea)

[Speeded-up footage of city streets at night]
[BBC logo]
[Speeded-up footage of pedestrians in a busy city centre]
[The presenter sits among the hurrying pedestrians]

Presenter: In the modern world, it’s easy to take science documentaries for granted. We seem them all around us, perhaps without realising the ingenuity and the agony it took to make them commonplace. This programme will take you through that long, complex, passionate journey, and it all begins with a single step: me repeating what I’ve just said in voiceover.

[Speeded-up footage of a sunset over city skyline]
Presenter (VO): Now I’m repeating what I just said, but in voiceover.

[Portrait paintings and some of Leonardo’s drawings, float in the air and overlap each other]
VO: The question of how to make science documentaries has intrigued some of the greatest minds of all time.

[An oak panelled room. A man in period costume mounts a test tube in a wooden clamp while others look on.]
VO: It was the Gentlemen of the Royal Society in 18th Century London who first had the idea of adding historical re-enactments to science documentaries.

[Establishing shot of the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford]
VO: The finest minds of 19th Cenury Europe came to this building in Oxford.

[Presenter strolling on cobbled Oxford streets]
P: Frustratingly for them, it turned out to be a theatre, where absolutely no research takes place.

[We watch a bearded academic riding a bicycle past the camera]
VO: Experts agree that this mistake wasted years of work.

[The academic is now in his office, facing to the side of the camera]
Expert: Being an expert, not a presenter, I can’t look directly at the camera as I speak.
[We hear the expert continue over footage of him scribbling on a blackboard.]
Expert: It wouldn’t be appropriate. I’m not even a young person.

[Presenter in close up, looking directly at camera]
Presenter: So what are science documentaries made of? If you think “original content”, the real answer may astound you.

[Stock footage: Apollo rocket launch; computer animation of the Voyager mission; Hubble Telescope photographs slowly zoomed into]
VO: Inside, each documentary is densely packed with stock footage. Stock footage binds the content together into a whole, giving it shape and form.

[Stock footage of exotic beetles, Venus Fly Traps and killer whales]
VO: This footage holds the secret to all the diverse beauty of the natural world.

[A Young Female Researcher with a posh British accent appears in close-up, speaking to the side to the camera]
RILF: I’m the most important researcher in this whole documentary, but you won’t remember what I’m saying because you’re thinking about boning me.

[An Eccentric Californian Academic gesticulates manically in front of enormous computer screens. He wears a white coat and faces to the side of the camera.]
Presenter (VO):  New technology developed in the United States may soon fulfill Michael Faraday’s dream of a science documentary for every man, woman and child on the planet.

ECA: We have now the ability to capture science documentaries that are written, filmed and edited in less than fifteen nanoseconds.

[Presenter is in the middle of a desert for no good reason]
Presenter: Would Archimedes recognise his own ideas in the science documentaries of today? Perhaps. But perhaps the greatest achievements of the scientists are documentaries that go beyond the wildest dreams of what they, or we today, could ever imagine.

[The camera lifts up, revealing it’s on an expensive crane for no good reason. Camera tilts towards the sky.]


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