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!
Over the last year at the Royal Institution we’ve published two series of a video project called ExpeRimental which aims to promote the practice of science based activities in the home with children.
Where these videos differ from many ‘try this at home’ series is that they place an emphasis on pedagogy, providing support to parents to help them encourage their children to behave like young scientists, in essence to get them hypothesising, changing variables and testing! Each activity featured also makes use of cheap and ordinary household items to make sure that they were accessible to everyone.
I worked closely with director and film maker Alom Shaha on this series who oversaw the development of the content and scripting. There were a lot of challenges we faced in the production of these films, most notably working with non-professional presenters (often parents) and of course featuring young children on camera!
We learnt that the most important element in keeping the young participants enthused was to keep the energy up but also to limit the time they had to spend on camera. As such we’d usually ask the adults to take the youngsters out for a walk whilst we set-up and it was also important that the kids knew nothing of the activities we were filming, so as to achieve as much a genuine reaction on camera as possible.
Naturally many of young children were quite camera shy to begin with, so I found a good way to reduce this was to allow the kids to take control of the equipment, allowing them behind the camera or to listen to the feedback of the microphones. I think this helped to normalise the pretty alien experience of having cameras and lights set-up and pointed at them in their home environment.
In order to edit these pieces successfully and to maintain a sense of ‘actuality’ we tended to shoot with a three camera set-up, including a ‘master-wide’ and two roaming handheld shots, one which would preference the adult and the other the children.
Where first series explored concepts and phenomena in Physics, the second explored chemistry and chemical reactions. A few of my favourite videos can be seen below: