VIDEO: The Lamp that Saved 1,000 Lives

I recently made a short film for the Royal Institution that tells a story of the miners safety lamp, also known as the “Davy Lamp” – invented by Sir Humphry Davy in the 19th Century.

The lamp was designed to allow miners to safely light their way in the mines using candles or oil lamps – which were previously at risk of igniting flammable gases that leaked from the coal baring rocks, often leading to devastating explosions and large loss of life.

Find out more by watching the video!

This is the first time we’ve explored an archive story through the format of Andy’s Tale’s From the Prep Room series and I really like how the historical narrative is combined with the usual demonstration elements of the series – it’s something we’ll think about doing more in the future.

Riffing off the film’s subject matter, I thought I’d experiment with shooting most of the film in candle light in a pitch black environment – which was made possible by the low light capabilities of the Sony A7s, combined with a very fast vintage lens (Takumar 50mm f1.4). I really love the intimate setting that this creates and it also helped to hide the fact that we shot this in a very dull location (the Ri’s windowless basement lab used for school workshops).

Slow motion footage was captured on the Panasonic GH4 at around 100fps – watching the flames billowing out of the gas filled tube is particularly mesmerising!



VIDEO: Slow motion chemistry and explosive BBQs!

Some recent work shot over the summer:

Slow Motion Contact Explosive

Working with nitrogen triiodide is pretty nerve racking stuff – it’s prepared wet and left to dry, after which it becomes an extremely sensitive contact explosive. So with some careful tip-toeing about we set-up some high-speed cameras to capture the violent, but undeniably beautiful reaction in extreme slow-motion.

Extreme Physics BBQ

What happens when you pump mains electricity through a piece of steak? We teamed up with the BBC Brit Lab channel to cook meat using some extreme physics, including bottle rockets to grill prawns and parabolic reflectors to sear meat – the results were surprisingly delicious!

Video: X-rays reveal dance of electrons!

Short animation I produced in collaboration with Design Science and Dr Adam Kirrander from the University of Edinburgh.

The piece explores work being conducted by Adam’s team which hopes to ‘freeze’ the rapid motion of electrons. The principles at play here are not dissimilar to those used in early high-speed photography, but in this case involves measuring how atoms diffract rapid pulses of x-rays. The technique is hoped to revolutionise the ways in which we study and understand chemical interactions, such as the breaking and formation of bonds.

This was my first full scale animation project and I learnt a lot in the production process – individual scenes were animated in Apple Motion and then exported and compiled in a FCPX timeline. There are lots of hand drawn elements within the piece, some of these were drawn on paper and scanned in – while others were drawn in photoshop with a graphics tablet – the leaves and eye at the end were drawn multiple times and then animated – that was a lot of fun!

There were some little touches that I found made a big difference visually, such as adding a subtle background texture and applying a faint vignette with blurring around the edges of the frame – this helped to draw attention to the centre.

The voice over was recorded on a Marantz PMD 661 with an AKG D230 – it wasn’t recorded in the best environment, so I had to work to tidy it up in Ableton Live. Subtle sound design also helped to bring a bit more depth to the animated scenes, this was also composed and produced in Ableton.

Video: Structure and Order – A Century of Symmetry

Chemical crystallographer Judith Howard reflects on the beautiful aesthetics of crystallographic exploration and her career, including time spent with Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin.

The end of the video provides links to some of the other videos in the crystallography collection!

Crystal Clear: Exploring Crystallography on Film

X-ray Crystallography – ever heard of it? Perhaps not, but it’s arguably one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 20th Century. Why? Well, it’s an incredibly powerful technique that allows us to look at really small things, like protein molecules or even DNA! Once we know how these molecules are assembled, we can begin to better understand how they work.

How does it work? Essentially you take your sample, crystallise it and then fire X-rays at it. You then measure the way in which the crystal scatters or diffracts the X-rays – the resulting ‘diffraction pattern’ is what you need (and a bit of maths) to work back to the structure of the molecules that make up the crystal. So in theory, as long as you can crystallise your sample – you should be able to work out the molecular structure!

To find out more watch this simple animation we recently published:

The technique was developed over 100 years ago and it has led to some incredibly important discoveries, including the structure of DNA – since it’s inception, work relating to Crystallography has been awarded 28 Nobel prizes. To mark the continuing success of Crystallography – we received funding from the STFC to produce a series of films that helped explain and celebrate this technique.

The above animation was scripted in house and animated by the awesome 12foot6 – it also features the voice of Stephen Curry, a structural biologist based at Imperial College London.

Understanding Crystallography

I produced and directed this two-part series, working with Elspeth Garman of Oxford University and Stephen Curry. The two pieces aim to explain how the technique works and what’s needed to grow your crystals and subject them to X-ray analysis. The films take us from a microbiology lab at the University of Oxford to the Diamond Light Source, a huge facility that hosts a particle accelerator designed to generate incredibly powerful beams of X-rays.

As always, the hardest part in producing these pieces was in deconstructing the explanation of what is a very complicated process… hopefully we pulled it off – see for yourself below!

Part 1 – why proteins need to be crystallised and how this is done.

Part 2 – what it takes to shine x-rays at your crystals and how we work back from diffraction patterns to determine structures.

Crystallography and beyond

Producer Thom Hoffman also worked on this project – he produced two pieces, one exploring the history of farther and son team who helped develop the technique

and the other looking at the application of this technique on the recent Curiosity Mars rover.



Video: Exploding Baubles at 34,000 fps!

Christmas is over – but here’s a very quick film I put out just before the holidays:

The glass baubles (unused props from the 2012 Christmas Lectures) were each sealed with a tiny amount of water inside. As the water was heated under pressure it boils at a higher temperature and when it does evaporate within the sealed space, the internal pressure builds until the glass structure fails. At this point the water (heated beyond it’s normal boiling point under atmospheric conditions) flashes into steam with explosive force and the bauble is shattered into a shower of glass fragments. All this happens extremely quickly, you hear a loud bang and then see a shower of glass – far too fast to be seen by the human eye (or a camera shooting at 25 fps).

Enter Phantom

It requires the muscle of a specialist high-speed camera to really catch a glimpse of what’s going on here. For this film we used a Phantom v1610 – which provided extremely high frame-rates, just what you need to get a better glimpse of the action! However, even at a blistering 34,000 fps you can see just how quickly the explosion event occurs – within the space of 1 -2 frames! A rough calculation shows just how fast this is, with one frame at 34,000 being the equivalent of around 29 microseconds in real time, that’s 0.000029 seconds!

You can see the unedited footage below:

As you increase the frame-rate on these cameras, you’re reducing the amount of time each individual frame is exposed, so you need to shine a lot of light on your scene with the higher frame-rates in order to see anything. As you go up to the higher frame-rates you’re also capturing a lot more information and to handle this the camera usually has to lower the resolution – this provides a rather agonising compromise between capturing something at very high-speed and retaining acceptable image quality.

Regardless of this, the results were simply breathtaking and why wouldn’t they be? It’s like being able to slow-time down and observe our world from a totally new perspective. Watch this space for more high-speed footage over the coming year.


Too Hot to Handle: The Science of Fire Breathing

Fire breathing is not a hobby I’ve ever attempted to take up and that’s probably for the best – both for my own wellbeing and for that of those around me. However, I did recently have the pleasure of meeting Tim Cockerill – someone who has taken this up as a hobby and luckily is rather good at it. Actually, he’s ‘Doctor’ Tim Cockerill, because he’s also an entomologist, that’s correct, a fire breathing entomologist!

Anyway, we decided to make a short and simple film exploring the science behind his act, also known as the ‘human volcano’ – essentially a film that would look at the process of combustion and how this relates to the methodology of fire breathing.

We also made good use of our GoPro and strapped it to his head to get some awesome point of view fire breathing shots – you can see these in full below:

There was a bit of a struggle in deciding how to explain burning, we wanted to avoid the use of the ‘fire triangle’ – (often taught at school) because we didn’t want to make something resembling a dry educational film, but at the same time we didn’t want to get too bogged down in the chemistry of oxygen and how this relates to its reactivity.

In the end we settled for explaining what ‘burning’ really means – I think the word often leads us away from understanding / remembering what it means to burn something. Essentially it’s just the name we give to the chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel, a reaction occurs and new products are formed (and energy is given off in the form of light and heat). In this case the fuel Tim is using is a hydrocarbon which he reacts with the oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water (and the fire ball!)

So yes, we haven’t gone into the chemistry of oxygen and why it’s so reactive – but I think our explanation is sufficient for the purpose of the film – we wanted to attract people with the thrills of fire breathing and use this as an in-route to explain some of the underlying chemical principles.

I think it’s really easy to forget simple things like this and we often assume we know what we mean when we use an everyday term like burning. It’s only when someone calls you out and asks you to explain what’s going on that we may stumble and realise we don’t actually know as much as we assumed we did. The YouTube Channel Veritasium does a great job at highlighting common shortcomings and misconceptions when it comes to explaining everyday phenomena (watch the video ‘Misconceptions About Temperature’).

Flame’n Elements

Flame Tests with Group 1 Alkali Metals


I recently shot a short series of flame test films demonstrating the different coloured flames produced when burning group 1 alkali metals. The films were shot at the Royal Institution and produced for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Learn Chemistry site.

Here’s what happens when you burn Caesium salts:

Metal salts were disolved into a methanol solution (the fuel) and this was soaked into the wireframe structures of the element symbols (Rb = Rubidium, Cs = Caesium etc.) – these were then lit to produce some really beautiful flame colours, ranging from red (Lithium) to blue (Caesium). Each element has its own unique colour or spectrum – almost like a signature colour which is directly related to its chemical properties.

Rubidium has a sort of red-violet colour:

By burning the metal ions, we’re exciting electrons causing them to move into higher energy states. These are fairly unstable states to be in so the electrons eventually move back down into lower energy states and as they do this they emit light. The wavelength and resulting spectra of light given off during this process are specific to each element (giving a range of pretty colours!) and can be used to identify different metals from one another. If you have a spectroscope (an instrument that essentially lets you look at the make-up of light) you can see the individual spectra given off by the flames.

The RSC has published some learning materials around these videos which will give you a much clearer idea of the chemistry at hand if you’re interested.

Aside from shooting pretty flames, these films also gave me opportunity to play about with titles and compositing – using the flame footage as flickering colour fills for the Element names.

I really like this effect and hope to experiment with it further in future films.

The flame test demonstrations were originally featured in the 2012 Christmas Lectures – which you can view here (around 30 mins in).

Christmas Lectures 2012 – Behind the Scenes

The Modern Alchemist

One of the great pleasures of working at the Royal Institution is witnessing the frenzy that goes on behind the scenes in the lead up to the Christmas Lectures. This year the lectures cover the chemical elements and are presented by Dr Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge.

The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine
The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine

The lectures themselves are available for a limited period on iPlayer, but will also be available to stream indefinitely on the Ri Channel, the team behind them have done an incredible job and so they’re well worth a watch – you don’t necessarily need any scientific background or knowledge of Chemistry to enjoy them!

Naturally this year’s subject lends itself well to the presentation of scientific demonstrations and there has been plenty of opportunity for loud bangs and fire spewing explosions. However, the lectures have also provided chance to perform some very rare and unusual demonstrations – and it’s these that have formed the subject of a couple of behind the scenes films produced for the Ri Channel:

Reacting Caesium and Fluorine (First time on camera)

Fluorine and Caesium are the two most reactive elements in the periodic table and so for the lectures, Peter was very interested in trying to react them both together. However their extreme reactivity also means that they’re both very dangerous to work wit, so it was important Peter found the right person to work with! Enter Dr Eric Hope a Fluorine specialist at the University of Leicester and so on a grey day in November we travelled up to see how this reaction might work and I think it might be the first time it has ever been caught on camera!

What was particularly nice about this meeting was that Peter had never previously seen Fluorine and Eric had never seen Caesium! This demo features in the second lecture, ‘Water: The Fountain of Youth’.

Cloud Chamber

I was so pleased I got to see this demo with my own eyes, I’d previously heard a lot about cloud chambers and seen a few bits of ropey footage on the internet, but never actually seen one in the flesh (so to speak). It’s essentially a particle detector with a sealed environment that is supersaturated with alcohol vapour and as charged particles zip through the vapour they ionize it, allowing condensation trails to form.

It’s an absolutely beautiful thing to look at, as it makes visible the background radiation that exists all around us and on the last day of recording I was lucky enough to capture this close-up on camera:

This demonstration features in the third lecture entitled ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’.

Testing Hydrogen Balloons

Lastly, the Christmas Lectures wouldn’t be complete without some sort of gratuitous explosion and so here’s a little film about testing different sized hydrogen balloons:

24 Films for Advent…

…or how to kill yourself slowly before Christmas.

Advent Tilt

With the 2012 Royal Insitution Christmas Lectures exploring the chemistry of the modern world, we wanted to produce a suitable project to promote the lectures online.

So for the last two months I have been working frantically to create 24 short films, each asking a bunch of well known scientists, science communicators and famous faces what their favourite element is – the films are being released daily and are housed within a beautiful interactive advent calendar built by Archive Studios. View the advent calendar here.

Trailer for the series:

It’s a bit of a silly question so the films are all a bit tongue in cheek to a certain extent, but there’s a nice variety across them – from simple pieces to camera, to more involved short films centered on specific elements. The films also include a lovely animated ident produced by the friendly folks over at 12foot6.

The idea for the series came from a question posed to interview candidates for the Christmas Lectures Researcher role – who were asked what their favourite element was and why – the answers given were often surprisingly personal and often witty, it seemed like a great way to explore the elements from a very personal perspective.

We’ve worked hard to produce a nice variety across the films to avoid repeating the same format – hopefully this will encourage people to keep checking back on a daily basis! The series also includes a huge range of individuals including, amongst others: Brian Cox, Mark Miodownik, Dick & Dom, Helen Czerski, Dara O Briain, Liz Bonnin, Andrea Sella, Jerry Hall and this year’s Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers. We hope there are a few surprising faces amongst the line up.

My favourite films of the series so far are…

Andrea Sella in the glassblowing workshop:

Helen Arney’s Boron Song:

Jerry Hall talking about Copper:

Helen Czerski’s piece on Calcium:

Tech stuff:

The films were pretty much all shot on a Panasonic AF101 – using a range of lenses, however mostly with a Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm lens. For a couple of the films I was lucky enough to work with BBC producer Tom Hewitson, who brought with him a Cannon XF305. Sound was recorded via Sennheiser ew100 G3 wireless radio mic set and also with a Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic. Edited on FCPX and exported as 720p, h264. The films can also be viewed on YouTube and on the Ri Channel.

Hope you enjoy them!