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    Making Science Films Popular: A Chat With Alexis Gambis of the Imagine Science Film Festival

    Written by

    Michael Byrne

    Let’s face it. The phrase “science film” doesn’t exactly conjure up arthouse-level creativity. It probably brings up memories of 20 years out-of-date VHS tapes explaining photosynthesis (or whatever else your teacher couldn’t explain well-enough) in as dry a fashion as humanly possible, with perhaps some dry-erase/chalkboard illustration. At best, it means NOVA, which is a pretty good best.

    Want tickets to the ISFF? Sure you do. Give an RT here for a chance to win.

    But we have long since graduated from the kind of science films that tended to fill our schoolhouse days to the sort of mind-expanding science-meets-creative thinking filmmaking showcased at the Imagine Science Film Festival. The first film festival started by actual scientists, it kicks off tomorrow night in New York and will showcase 140 science films over 10 days. See a full list here. (We’re flattered that two of our documentaries – A Death on the Frontier and Edward Teller’s Strange Loves – are appearing).

    Alexis Gambis, a former geneticist, is the founder and director of the festival. We talked a couple of years ago about the ISFF, but since then it’s exploded in scope, growing to 140 films and numerous satellite festivals. Seemed like a good occasion to catch up, so we chatted over the weekend about the fest’s blowing up, why voiceover sucks, and the future of science journals.

    Do you think there’s a hidden desire on the part of scientists to be portrayed or revealed through art?

    Being a former scientist in genetics, there’s a lot of frustration from scientists about how they’re perceived. They all have this creative drive, you know. We speak a lot to those people. Being in a PhD program you often feel like you’re in a one-track thing. There’s not many options of what you can do later: you become a PhD, you do a post-doc, you become a PI (principle investigator). And so it opens up these possibilities of having a creative hobby on the side. We get a lot of PhD students, young scientists, that are involved with the festival.

    It’s interesting. Between science and art, there’s never an agreement about how much science should be put into a film. Sometimes it seems like too much science or not enough science. What is the right amount? It leads to interesting conversations, sometimes heated. I think we’re tapping into a nerve.

    Still from “The End of Time”

    What makes a good science film?

    I think the most important thing about any kind of filmmaking you do is that the story be the main drive of the film. You should never be in a situation where you’re lecturing. [Science] should be organically intertwined into the story. So you’re almost unconsciously learning something about science without being hit on the head with it. Storytelling. Film is also a medium where there’s so much visual potential. Visual excitement and imagination is a key ingredient.

    I think there’s a misconception that to make science exciting, you have to bend scientific accuracy. There’s like that belief that science is not exciting enough in order to portray it in film. And you have to bend it or exaggerate it. My belief is that you can make films that are compelling and not have to stretch the science.

    What makes a bad science film?

    What bothers me the most is when there’s voiceover. It drives me crazy. Voiceover over images of landscapes. When there’s no real narrative framework. Also: animation. I feel like it removes you from the science. I’d rather have like stop-motion. These animations are sometimes too much for my tastes. It’s almost like saying ‘I can’t really explain this, so I’m going to make this crazy animation.’

    Sensory Overload (Interacting with Autism Project) from Miguel Jiron on Vimeo.


    “Sensory Overload,” by Miguel Jiron

    Can you talk a bit about the growth of the festival? We talked a couple of years ago when Imagine Science was not nearly as huge …

    It’s grown considerably. This year we have 140 movies; two years ago we had around 50. So it’s tripled in the number of films. I think there’s about 26 countries represented. It’s mostly shorts — we’re very interested in short content. And now we have these kind of showcase feature events, like opening night we have a film called The End of Time which is a Canadian film which kind of compares old traditional cultures to like the technology today. It’s a masterpiece. It played in Toronto and we were able to get the US premiere. And we have a film about math, called “The Color of Math.” It’s about how math and creativity are link, and it goes around interviewing these really eccentric mathematicians and explaining how there’s a lot of different ways of approaching. There’s different philosophies. It’s been called the best math film ever made. And there’s a retrospective of Gattaca with scientists talking about genetics and the future of the genome.

    There’s a few science film festivals that exist out there but they’re pretty traditional or limiting in the sense that they show a more general stereotype of what a science film is. And there’s a lot more to explore about science and film. A lot of the festivals are more TV-based stuff, usually content that’s going to end up on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. It’s not always the case, but it’s usually more like talking heads and lecture-type documentary.

    I think we’re kind of tapping into something new. Instead of showing films that are like documentaries or showing like science-fiction films, we group all of these films together into different themes, like we’l have consciousnesses or the brain and we’ll mix different kinds of films together to explore the many different ways of tackling a subject: fiction, animation, sci-fi, documentary. There’s not much out there that does that. There’s a lot of people making science films; science is a broad subject … science is just very pervasive. [As submissions,] we’re getting these almost home videos made by scientists.

    How does something that’s already this huge grow and evolve even more?

    We have now these satellite festivals, where we bring the festival on the road. We just had a festival in Dublin. So that’s one aspect. We’’re trying to bring the festival to other places. Another thing we’re trying to do is start a video journal, where we link scientific articles with artwork and videos. An online journal. That’s the big thing we’re hoping to disclose at the festival. I think we’re going to start early next year. Long, long term would be to actually create an Imagine Science lab where artists and scientists collaborate together on real scientific projects. Funding is always an issue, but the video journal I think is the most realistic short-term goal we have.

    See a schedule of films at ISFF 2012 here, and highlights here.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.