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The Producer's Story:
Seven Rules for Making a (Science) Movie
by David Sington


The Ghost Particle homepage

Filmmaker David Sington can hardly be accused of taking the easy road when it comes to picking topics. Gamma-ray bursts, magnetic fields, Einstein's cosmological constant—these are just a few of the tough-to-visualize subjects he has tackled in recent years. Sington, a veteran of more than two dozen science documentaries, believes there are some simple rules for making any movie, even one that takes on high-level science. Here's his recipe:

1 It's the people, stupid

By far the most important ingredients in any film—drama or documentary—are the people who appear in it. A successful film will have interesting characters with whom the audience wants to spend time. For me, deciding to make a film about something is usually deciding to make a film about someone.

"The Ghost Particle" had its origins in my friendship with physicist Dave Wark, whom I got to know while making a program for Channel 4 in England called "Einstein's Biggest Blunder." Dave told me about his work at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory during a Thanksgiving party at our house. The science was fascinating, and Dave assured me that neutrino scientists were good company, which proved to be the case. Of course, those who appear in "The Ghost Particle" are there because of their roles in the story and their ability to explain the science clearly, but they are also in the film because I liked them and I thought the audience would too.

2 Don't forget the kitchen sink

Unfortunately, however engaging your contributors, it's all too easy to end up portraying them merely as experts, as sources of information. But, of course, scientists have significant others, children, pets, and hobbies just like everyone else, though you would never know it from the typical science documentary. I often choose to film scientists at home with their families rather than in the lab or the office. In my films scientists make dinner for their kids, go jogging, play the violin, and visit the pub.

These activities may not seem very relevant to the subject, but by showing the viewers the people behind the science, the films are given a psychological and emotional depth they might otherwise lack. The kindness of Anna and Ray Davis in allowing us to film at their house on Long Island, for example, provided "The Ghost Particle" with its key scene, without which the film would be much poorer.

3 There's no test

Science documentaries are not about teaching the audience science (at least mine aren't). "The Ghost Particle" is not trying to prepare viewers for a quiz on the basics of particle physics. The purpose of the film is simply to give pleasure to its viewers. But it's the pleasure of finding things out, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of understanding something about the world: the same pleasures, in fact, that motivate scientists to do their science.

Of course, scientists need to know a lot in order to make their discoveries, but a viewer may be able to vicariously share the experience of discovery while remaining ignorant of some very basic science. For example, in "The Ghost Particle" we deal with the nucleus without mentioning neutrons. You cannot understand radioactive decay without knowing about the neutron, but you can follow our story just fine.

4 Make 'em feel clever

It was the great Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch who said, "Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever." This certainly applies to science documentaries. Most science films are built around a puzzle or mystery. In this regard they are like whodunits, and a good science film, like a good murder mystery, should scatter clues that enable the alert viewer to finger the culprit before the denouement. An answer that is a complete surprise, that is a rabbit pulled from a hat, is as unsatisfactory in a science film as it is in "Murder She Wrote".

In "The Ghost Particle", the three-faced nature of the neutrino is introduced in the restaurant scene well ahead of where it is used to help solve the central mystery. My hope is that many viewers will see the connection before it is made explicit—not just because they'll feel clever and enjoy the film more, but also because I know from experience that "getting it" yourself is tremendously empowering. I want viewers to come away thinking not "Gee, scientists are very clever," but instead, "I got that. Being a scientist isn't so hard!"

To me the social value of what I do lies not in feeding the audience scientific information (see Rule 3) but in allowing the audience to see and feel for itself the power of the scientific way of thinking—to experience what it is like to think as a scientist, if only for 50 minutes. A bit of intellectual self-confidence is all that's required to engage with those vital scientific issues, from biomedical research to global warming, that will shape our future.

5 Don't be afraid to be difficult

This is the corollary of Rule 4. If a science film is a mystery, and the pleasure lies in solving that mystery, then it must be a challenge to be really enjoyable. It's like a crossword puzzle: no fun if it's impossibly difficult, but also no fun if it's too easy.

Unfortunately, many television types seem to think that a viewer who is intellectually challenged is more likely to reach for the remote, and so most science films end up being too easy. I don't think people turn the channel because they are a bit mystified; they switch because they are bored, and being spoon fed information, however "amazing" or "incredible," is boring as well as vaguely insulting. Viewers should work a little for their understanding—we all appreciate more the things we've had to struggle for.

6 Don't rely on CGI

Computer Generated Imagery has transformed feature films. But while its effect on drama has often been to liberate the imagination, in science films it too often seems to impose a straitjacket of confining visual literalism. CGI makes it relatively easy to visualize things that are in reality invisible, or to put a virtual camera in places a real one could never go (such as inside a magma chamber deep beneath a volcano). The trouble is, in making the unreal real, the CGI designer is usually forced to rely on a set of tired and predictable visual clichés. CGI invites the visual simile ("the neutron looks like a billiard ball"), but metaphors are often more powerful.

For example, in "The Ghost Particle" the invisible neutrino is visualized as a CGI wave travelling through space (a visual simile), but also as drops of water from a fountain, sparks from a grinder, and (my personal favorite) as a ballerina in a white tutu. This visual metaphor of the dancer, inspired by Wolfgang Pauli's remark in the founding document of neutrino physics that he was going to a ball, doesn't pretend to show you what a neutrino looks like, but it gives the particle a kind of personality, which is something CGI usually lacks.

7 Pick a great team

This is the most important rule of all, the only one you must never break! Filmmaking is a collaborative enterprise that relies on the diverse talents of a large number of people. It's a basic truth that there are no unimportant jobs in our business—even the lowliest runner can wreak havoc with your production—and so it's absolutely vital to work only with really good people. That was certainly my good fortune on "The Ghost Particle." Three stand out: our director of photography Clive North, who has that mysterious "eye" that means the rushes never look ordinary; our film editor Louise Salkow, whose flair and imagination are evident in every sequence of the film; and my associate producer Sarah Kinsella, who always saw the human story in the science and whose warm and sympathetic personality is reflected in the film she did so much to shape.

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Sington

Documentary producer David Sington basks in a shower of a hundred trillion solar neutrinos. Other filmmakers might find the subject of invisible subatomic particles daunting, but Sington couldn't resist it.

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Bahcall and Davis

The people at the heart of "The Ghost Particle": John Bahcall, left, and Ray Davis (with his wife Anna).

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Animation

Keep it simple. You might not ace a physics test after studying this diagram (as seen in the film), but you'll learn enough to follow Sington's narrative.

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Sherlock Holmes

It's elementary: like any good detective story, a movie should let audiences "solve" the mystery for themselves.

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Clive and Kevin

Rule #7 is the most critical of all: work with the best. Here, "The Ghost Particle"'s director of photography, Clive North (left), and sound recordist Kevin Meredith

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The Ghost Particle
The Producer's Story

The Producer's Story
Seven rules for making good TV out of complex topics

Dancing With Neutrinos

Dancing With Neutrinos
The late astro-
physicist John Bahcall recalls his long-
awaited vindication.

Awesome Detectors

Awesome Detectors
When apprehending elusive neutrinos, bigger is definitely better.

Case of the Missing Particles

Case of the
Missing Particles

See the experiments that led to a surprising breakthrough in physics.



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