Not all of us can be scientists—but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate science. In #scicomm, non-sci creatives get a big picture, meta-view of the research process. Ben Jaszczak shares his observations on PIRE.
The Initial Conversation
Me: This research is so hard to write about. I'm either going to jump down the rabbit hole of every detail of every discipline and country or it's going to be so streamlined it might miss the big picture.
Allison (editor): That's the beauty of unscripted. You get to write it the way you want to.
Me: I was thinking about writing from my perspective directly, but I was there as the videographer. I really was there to document the meeting, not contribute. So it would be this strange observation of the observer. That sounds so meta.
Allison: That is really meta.
Everyone laughs; you too, readers.
Go ahead, have a giggle. I can wait.
Allison: You should totally write it from your perspective! I reserve the right to final edit on your piece, so pile together a mess of paragraphs and we will sift the good stuff out and post it.
The Video Guy
Now, that's not verbatim, but it captures the spirit of why I'm writing this way. I'm writing as the cameraman about a trip I did down to Villahermosa, Mexico with dozens of researchers all collaborating on a single project.
The entire trip was hot and humid. So naturally, sweating went with everything. Filming and sweating, eating and sweating, sleeping and sweating (not really, we had air conditioning.) It didn’t matter much except when it came to interviews. I would always try to look focused and attentive but my eyes were stinging with salt as I sat or stood motionless. I couldn’t wipe it away or swat at flies because if I moved the camera would shake in the middle of someone’s answer. I can only imagine how everyone I interviewed must have felt, wondering if they looked as uncomfortable as I did, and they had the dread of being filmed in such a state. That said, my interview setups were particularly odd looking.
I had to pack all of my equipment into my backpack and carry on suitcase along with my clothes, so I stripped everything down to the necessities which meant no tripod. David Flaspohler, an ornithologist from Michigan Tech, helped me devise a setup with a shopping cart we found to remedy the lack of foundation. I used a gorrillapod (a small, flexible three leg stand. No, it’s not a tripod. Not really.) and propped the camera on the cart. I used the same rig again when I interviewed Cindy Fiser. I swear I could hear people laughing in the distance while we pushed this bright red shopping cart over roots and into the woods. Where the shopping cart wasn’t an option, like the hilly overlook of the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, I shot handheld.
My daily gear for the week included a Sony FS5 with the kit lens, along with two prime lenses, four small rolls of colored gaff tape, a wireless lav, a condenser microphone, a gorillapod, three SD cards, a hard drive, earbuds, and a floppy field hat. I also packed two lithium camera batteries. ‘Lithium’ is important because the plane out of Hancock, Michigan was too small for my carry-on, so my luggage had to go into cargo. Since lithium is a fire hazard in cargo, and I didn’t want my camera damaged, I had to repack everything on the plane (thank you again Nick Bohmann for your patience.)
NSF’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE)
Before leaving for the fourth annual PIRE meeting in Villahermosa Mexico, I met with Kathy Halvorsen, the lead coordinator for the PIRE project and researcher at Michigan Tech, to plan out the goals for this video. She narrowed the audience down to scientists and the general community. It’s a big target, but scale is appropriately one of the challenges that the PIRE group is taking upon itself to address, so it makes sense that their audience is similarly broad. My job was to pull a thread through the project and the meeting in Villahermosa, and film what I saw, so more people could understand and support this research.
The scale of this research has its own scope. That’s where I am challenged with the scope of video, as well as this piece. Every time I have tried to rewrite this blog I’ve always tripped myself up at this point trying to convey the essence of PIRE without writing an anthology of explanations.
It is vast. Every variable has more variables. When it comes to location and culture, the biofuel PIRE project spans two continents, six countries, and three languages and thirty-six organizations.
The biofuels being researched source from corn in North America, eucalyptus in South America, and palm oil in both. Their work covers both NGO and government policy for each separate country, and each country's environmental policy and implementation varies. Impact is also a diverse subject because the various ecosystems and economic systems affected are geographically unique.
Sciencing and Filming
So, instead of continuing to barrage you with details let’s look at this the way I saw it while scrambling to find the thread as I filmed the week. I see it as linear solutions built on each other, read like an unbroken stream of consciousness:
PIRE’s search for alternative sources of energy is motivated by one goal; to minimize climate altering pollution and avoid the exhaustion of the limited resources we depend so heavily upon, however, in order for an alternative to go mainstream there must be resources large enough to take the place of fossil fuels while simultaneously proving to be efficient enough to justify the effort needed to implement new energy standards, and for a new standard to take root the production of alternative energy has to be economically viable for communities that can geographically support renewable resources while simultaneously mitigating the caveats of new fuel sources as to avoid irreparably damaging fragile eco/hydrological systems that stand to be overrun with expanding energy industries.
Filmmaking has a similarly linear process, but I’ll use punctuation to lay it out. To start, observation comes before action. If I start filming and editing without a plan my job quickly becomes nightmare. So whenever I shoot a spot/promo/video there are always two questions that I am trying to answer before I film: Who should be watching this, and what are they supposed to do after they see it? Similarly, research uses goals to set parameters and maintain focus. And as a researcher weighs different methodologies to test a hypothesis, I have to ask what kind of message and tone will reach my audience and drive them to action.
That leads to finding the right people to represent these points for my audience--authorities on the subject who also engage my audience. Just because I have found the right people does not mean they will give the right points. If I don’t communicate the needs of the audience along with the purpose of the video, how could they? So I have to communicate both from the value I see in their perspective while simultaneously communicating the needs of the narrative.
The needs of the story are pretty universal, at least for the work I’ve done so far: get to the point, do it quickly, and say it like you mean it.
Video is a remarkably emotional medium, and making it often feels like recreating a human interaction, which can be messy if the subjects on film appear detached or uninterested. Once the recording is locked in for editing, I get to see how well I planned everything out. Like research, the end production will usually reflect the preparation you put into it. Editing is an equally important process, but it’s boring to talk about, so I’ll just stop th--[recorder click]
I was fortunate enough to spend a week with researchers who were very enthusiastic and ready to share their work. I saw a researcher giving a presentation hold on to the microphone for dear life as he continued over his allotted time because he wanted to answer every question. After repeated time warnings the microphone was seized and the day’s schedule saved from the Kanye of scientists (He wasn’t really the Kanye of scientists, sometimes I just think I’m clever.) For precise planning this was problematic, but it made for great interview subjects.
I think sharing is a natural compulsion of the observer. Interaction is a present and continuous exchange of observation and sharing. Observation as a concept refrains from action until some critical point when enough information has fully fermented and is then ready to share. By the time it is ready, research or film, a lot of pressure has built up. That pressure is the energy and excitement to share because the time for being passive is over. What I saw in Villahermosa was the uncorking of the final full research meeting for PIRE.
Many of the researchers I met were observers through and through, but there is a lot of pride in the work that is hard to miss. The researchers were always happy to talk about the importance of their work.
That is, when they weren’t looking at birds.
Almost anywhere we walked, David Flaspohler, an ecologist from Michigan Tech, would see some incredible bird through a mesh of branches and then identify it. Eventually, I might see where he was looking. When we went to Comalcalco to see these incredible ruins half the group stopped on the path to look at a toucan for about fifteen minutes. Again, ten minutes later I found it.
Just outside our hotel was David’s greatest discovery. There was a party on the last night to celebrate the conclusion of the final PIRE meeting so I asked David where it was. He said he knew and then took me outside because there was something I should see, a potoo with a chick. It was a remarkable find because it looked like a dead branch, and like a dead branch it never moved, which was pretty cool.
If you’re a snowbird such as myself, going into intense heat and humidity can really affect your motivation. It pushes you to compromise, as most discomfort does. So when I began to get a grasp of all the moving pieces within PIRE, I was a little astounded at the lengths they had gone to consider so many factors within such a diverse range of disciplines. Scale is intimidating. It can make everything feel like compromise compared to what is possible.
Scaling isn’t far from an existential crisis. At least that’s how I sometimes feel trying to put such big concepts into a short film from a limited perspective.
Taking on the challenge of a multidisciplinary project that also happens to center around the fate of the world might take you out of your comfort zone, but that is a small price to pay when you get to use the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco as the backdrop for an interview, especially when the interviewee’s chosen subject of discussion is the collapse of Mayan civilization and how it relates to our future.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.