My final film for the Royal Institution features engineer Hugh Lewis and explores the growing problem with space debris. With over 18,000 objects being tracked in orbit and another 170 million too small to be tracked – the problem threatens not only our satellite infrastructure, but the future of space travel as well.
Providing direction to time’s arrow
A short film I made for the Royal Institution that explores the relationship between entropy and time. The piece formed part of the larger Ri Advent Calendar project which explored the four laws of thermodynamics.
Mapping the ocean floors
An animation I produced last year with animator / illustrator Rosanna Wan for the Royal Institution.
Rosanna’s distinct visuals incorporate a hand drawn style that tell the story of cartographer Marie Tharp, whose work helped to detail the complex geography of ocean floors around the world.
Her maps helped to demonstrate that the ocean floor was in fact a complex assortment of peaks and troughs – which went against conventional wisdom at the time. Despite fierce opposition, she stuck fast to her findings and as more data was collated, the tide of opposition turned, paving the way for our modern understanding of plate tectonics.
Directed and animated by Rosanna Wan.
Produced and scripted by Ed Prosser.
Narrated by Helen Czerski.
Video produced for the Royal Institution, for the 2015 Advent Project “A Place Called Space”. The piece is composed from multiple interviews with astronauts that were recorded between September – November 2015.
The film features 4 astronauts (Dan Tani, Helen Sharman, Jean-François Clervoy , Mike Barratt) and uses NASA archive footage to explore the ins and outs of living in space (spoiler alert: it’s fun, but it ain’t easy!).
All interviews were transcribed and then common threads were grouped together and collected on an edit timeline. The audio segments were cut down and edited together, then brought into FCPX where they were combined with video footage. I spent quite a while searching and logging appropriate NASA archive footage. Once the rough form was assembled, I introduced some music and refined the edit to work with the tracks I’d chosen.
This year we wanted to go all out for our April Fools effort, so we decided to make a video to announce this year’s (fake) Christmas Lectures subject and lecturer. You can see the effort below:
In reality, the lecturer featured in the video is none-other than Ri Director of Finance, Michael de Crespigny (at least his name was real) who, may I add, played a fantastic role in portraying a quantum astrologer.
Although we don’t usually make a video announcing the Christmas Lecturer we wanted to create a piece of content that would work for our international YouTube audience as much as those that regularly tune into the Lectures in the UK.
So we set about scripting a piece that straddled the line between nonsense and plausibility, settling on the subject of astrology and making liberal use of the word “quantum” to hopefully pull the wool over people’s eyes.
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 summer I worked with the talented artist and illustrator Andrew Khosravani on what will be the first of a series of animated shorts for the Royal Institution’s digital video channels.
For sometime I’d wanted to re-purpose content from our long-form lecture videos by excerpting audio clips and using these as the basis for animations. Other organisations have had great success doing this in the past, particularly the RSA (check out their RSA animate videos) and so it struck me as a no-brainer when Andrew recently joined our team.
In choosing the right clip, it was important to find an excerpt that was fairly self-contained and that would stand-alone outside of the context of the longer event video. For this first project we decided upon an excerpt from a Q&A event with the Pulitzer prize winning scientist and author Jared Diamond, filmed back in 2013. In the excerpt, Jared discusses how insights from the lifestyles of far-removed cultures can impact the way we think about our own lives, particularly in the context of our approach to risk – an anecdote that has always stuck with me since filming the event.
After trimming and pruning the audio clip to get the flow as tight as possible Andrew set about story boarding the piece and after we were agreed on the direction he set about creating the artwork assets and animation. As you’ll see from watching the piece, the attention to detail is pretty breathtaking, Andrew writes on the Ri Blog,
“Because of the density of the vegetation in the animation, some of these scenes were created with upwards of 1000 layers of illustration.”
All this serves to creates an incredible visual feast, one that really pulls the audio into a rich and colourful visual medium.
Once the animation was finished I worked on the sound design to tidy up the audio clip and add a little more depth and weight to the piece. As you’ll hear it’s all fairly subtle, which was necessary because the visuals are definitely leading here and there’s a lot going on in the frame already.
The aim of this project was always to blend scientific content with an artistic aesthetic in an attempted to reach audiences that don’t traditionally engage with our more science heavy content. The piece was subsequently awarded a ‘staff pick’ on Vimeo and was picked up by several art and design sites around the web, so we were obviously pretty chuffed about that!
We’re now working on our second piece, which sets visuals to an audio piece I made, featuring British astronaut Helen Sharman discussing her dreams about space. We will be releasing this piece in the lead up to the Christmas Lectures – so stay tuned!
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!
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:
Rufus and the racers
Fizzy Bottle Rockets
Singing Wine Glasses
Short animation we just put out at the Ri, written by Alom Shaha and narrated by Jim Al-Khalili.
Art / animation by Jack Kenny and I did the sound design.
There’s an important difference between a scientific theory and the fanciful theories of an imaginative raconteur, and this quirk of semantics can lead to an all-too-common misconception. In general conversation, a ‘theory’ might simply mean a guess. But a scientific theory respects a somewhat stricter set of requirements. When scientists discuss theories, they are designed as comprehensive explanations for things we observe in nature. They’re founded on strong evidence and provide ways to make real-world predictions that can be tested.
While scientific theories aren’t necessarily all accurate or true, they shouldn’t be belittled by their name alone. The theory of natural selection, quantum theory, the theory of general relativity and the germ theory of disease aren’t ‘just theories’. They’re structured explanations of the world around us, and the very foundation of science itself.
There’s an extended blog post on the project here: http://www.rigb.org/blog/2014/november/its-just-a-theory