Newsletter | Spring 2016 ⋅ Number 69

Education Corner

Jed Dannenbaum, Ph.D., is a film producer, writer and director with an emphasis on nonfiction.

His "making of" programs—on movies directed by filmmakers such as Woody Allen, James L. Brooks, Cameron Crowe, Jonathan Demme, Nora Ephron, Michael Mann, Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese—have appeared frequently on HBO and Showtime, and on DVD. Examples of his work can be seen on the DVD and Blu-ray releases of Almost Famous, Collateral, Everest, Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice and Public Enemies.

Jed's historical documentary Dawn's Early Light, on newspaper editor/civil rights advocate Ralph McGill, was a national primetime PBS special, with Burt Lancaster as the voice of McGill. Other documentaries include Sister Aimee, on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and Moving Toward the Light, on the making of a public work of art. Jed also produced the fiction feature Blue Heaven, a drama of domestic violence that was distributed in the US and seventeen countries internationally.

Co-author of the Simon & Schuster book Creative Filmmaking From the Inside Out, Jed has also written a history book and numerous academic articles. He has interviewed such prominent figures as Julian Bond, Tom Brokaw, Jimmy Carter, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Milos Forman, Gene Hackman, John Lasseter, Hugh Laurie, George Lucas, Steve Martin, Paul Newman, Nick Nolte, Itzhak Perlman, Steven Spielberg, Jessica Tandy, Twyla Tharp, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Reese Witherspoon and Andrew Young. His interview with Anthony Minghella was incorporated into the book Minghella on Minghella. As an academic speaker, he has given presentations on "Story", "Non-fiction Storytelling", "Nurturing Creativity", "The Creative Mind","Teaching Creative Thinking Across Disciplinary Lines", and "Intuition and the 'Aha!' Moment: The Origin of Breakthrough Ideas."

Jed is currently Principal Investigator on a grant from the National Science Foundation to document a five-year pilot program for 1st through 5th grade students in underserved communities to interest them in engineering careers. He is also writing a book on the history, science and art of stories and storytelling in our lives.

RCSB PDB challenges high school students to create short videos that tell a molecular story of health and disease. This year's focus is the structural view of sugar metabolism and its complications leading to diabetes. PDB-101 offers many resources to help teams learn about the structural biology, from Molecule of the Month articles to paper models.
To help with the storytelling aspect, we spoke with Jed Dannenbaum, a Professor of the Practice of Cinematic Arts at University of Southern California.

Many challenge participants will be first-time video and molecular artists.  How do you recommend beginners get started in the creation process?

Creativity starts with what matters to you personally—your view of human nature, your aesthetic taste, your values, what you care about passionately or are outraged by, etc.

When you begin, don’t judge your ideas, just brainstorm and write down what comes into your mind. Try to remember what it was like to be a child and make up stories and games. Think of being creative as play, searching for things that will fascinate and surprise you and give you a feeling of delight! The animators John and Faith Hubley captured this beautifully in their film Windy Day (1968) by recording the voices of their daughters Georgia and Emily and then adding evocative visuals:

Everyone is creative, but some people spend a lot of time being creative or do it as their profession, and so they get better at it. Such people generally report that they start with a free-flowing, intuitive approach, and then return to that material later to decide what has promise, what should be put aside but kept, and what can be discarded. Then they repeat this cycle several or many times. Eventually they enter a third stage, where the thing they are creating is fairly fully formed, and the challenge becomes revision, fine-tuning, and editing the work down to what is essential. As Pablo Picasso said, “art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

As a shorthand, we often refer to “the filmmaker,” “the inventor,” etc., but creative people don’t work alone. They collaborate, and get inspiration from the work of others. Filmmaking, when it’s done on a high level, is a profoundly collaborative medium, where many people make vital creative contributions. The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro described his creative process as "trying to express something within me: my sensibility, my cultural heritage, my formation of being. . . . so that through the light and color you can feel and understand, consciously or unconsciously, much more clearly what the story is about." Good collaboration is a joyful experience, and puts meaning back into the overused word “synergy.”

When students complete schoolwork, their audience is usually a teacher already familiar with the topic.  In the video challenge, the audience is the general public.  What strategies can teams use to convey scientific topics to lay people?

It’s important for filmmakers to always have a specific audience in mind, preferably one made up of people that the filmmaker understands well (through personal life experience or in-depth research), and who are available to view and respond to the work in progress. That’s the audience you care the most about connecting with and, in an educational context, affecting their attitudes and behavior.

It’s then possible to think about secondary audiences — you might visualize them as circles that overlap with your primary target audience. For this contest, depending on what you’re trying to convey, it might make sense for example to focus on high school and college students as the primary audience; secondary audiences might be older and/or younger siblings, parents, school administrators and teachers, medical professionals who give advice to students, etc.

Scientific and medical topics are particularly challenging since it’s easy to forget that film is a visual, story-based and emotional medium, and the filmmaker must think beyond just a list of facts. For example, everyone knows that smoking tobacco is extremely harmful. Making a video that states that fact won’t be effective in getting people to stop smoking because they have already “priced in” that knowledge and have found a way to rationalize their behavior, e.g., “I’ll quit when I graduate” or “when I have children.” So how do you make a video that is effective? Here’s an example of one from Thailand that had a huge impact on rates of quitting:

Two minutes worth of video are judged, which can seem like a very short or very long time.  How much information can (or should) be conveyed in this period of time?

As the Thai video illustrates, if you have a simple, emotional story, it can be conveyed effectively in a short amount of time. Think of how the story can be broken down into a beginning (young adults smoke casually and unthinkingly), a middle where something disrupts their world (a young child asks them something that surprises them and they respond intuitively as caring people), and an end (the child gives them something that makes them pause, think, and perhaps question their own attitudes).

It seems like an empty cliché to say that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but that simple idea contains a lot of depth, describing pretty well nearly all the stories we know: 1) we enter the world that the protagonist(s), a world they think of as normal; 2) something happens that disturbs that world or the protagonist’s perception of it; and 3) they respond to that disruption but in the process are changed, for better or worse.

The problem comes when filmmakers don’t think through, or lose track of, what they’re trying to do. They attempt to convey everything they know, and the result is that the viewers can’t follow it or just don’t care enough to try, and tune out. The playwright Arthur Miller said “When I finally know what it is I'm trying to say, I type that sentence and paste it to the typewriter, so that all the ideas I write are filtered through that.” Do that for your film, and keep referring back to it to see if you’ve deviated or digressed from that core theme or, conversely, whether your understanding of your story has evolved and deepened.

Think of film as an inspiring, motivating, or even a transformative experience, not as a lecturing tool. Scott Pelley of the long-running news show 60 Minutes said: “We emphasize the telling of a story as opposed to an issue. Once in a while a producer will come to the door and say, ‘Clean Coal.’  And I'll say, ‘That's an issue. Go find a story.’”

How do you make sure the visuals are keeping the viewers engaged throughout the video?

Visuals are not just one aspect of filmmaking, they are its essence. The word cinema comes from the Greek word meaning movement, and the word movie is a shortened version of motion pictures. But of course they quickly evolved to become not just a recording of people or things moving, but a way of telling stories with moving images, silent other than the musician in the theater who played along with the film.

Play the Thai video again and analyze it. How much dialogue is in the film? How much of what informs and emotionally moves us is conveyed by the facial expressions, body language, thoughtful pauses and telling gestures of the people who are approached? It’s the way they behave that tells us that they have a new, troubling insight into themselves and their own contradictions.

In nearly all of the best movies today, there’s still the essence of silent filmmaking, and what the characters are thinking and feeling isn’t conveyed through their dialogue but through such things as eye direction, tone of voice, posture, blocking, movement, camera framing, lighting, art direction, wardrobe, sound, music and editing. In the movie WALL·E, the first dialogue between WALL·E and EVE is 22 minutes into the movie. The first human dialogue (other than holographic billboards) is 39 minutes into the movie. Watch the following clip of WALL·E meeting EVE and pay attention to how you manage to follow everything that’s going on, despite not understanding what they say:

To prepare to make this movie, the creative team watched every Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton movie (shorts and features) every day during lunch for about a year and a half, to understand more deeply the techniques of pure visual storytelling.

What is the role of narration in a video?  Are there other ways to convey information?

Personally, I never use narration; to me, it feels heavy handed and inelegant. If there’s some piece of information that must be conveyed in words, I would rather use an on-screen graphic (again, see the Thai video as an example). If you are interviewing people for your video, try to make sure the interviews are both extensive and specific enough that you can use a character to explain anything that needs explaining. If they ramble on, take them off screen and edit their audio track so that they get the idea across clearly and succinctly.

But there are no rules in storytelling! Every definition of good storytelling has many exceptions. Can you make an effective story-based film with no characters, using nothing but narration and simple graphics? Yes, absolutely, and here’s a good example:

If you think the video works well, try to analyze why!

What sort of influence can a video focused on the science of diabetes or HIV have on a viewer? What are the potential benefits of connecting the molecular science of insulin and diabetes with the social message of knowing the risks?

In the specific instances of diabetes and HIV, figure out the story you want to tell in conjunction with the impact you want it to have. Are you trying to prevent those diseases from occurring? Or get people who have them to take their prescribed medication and take better care of their overall health? Show medical professionals how to be communicative, empathetic and persuasive? Inspire students to consider careers in medical or molecular research? Show the harmful effects of the disease when it’s unchecked — in the case of diabetes, potential blindness, for example — or paint a brighter picture of someone changing their behavior and greatly lessening the risk of developing diabetes?

By now you may realize that you don’t want to make a film about “the science of diabetes or HIV,” you want to find a story that will illuminate some aspect of those topics. As an added challenge, you need to figure out how information about what’s happening at the molecular level will enhance the story and move it forward rather than feel like a tangent.

Whatever story you tell, be sure to research not only the “facts” but the world of the story, the actual way that people like those in your story experience diabetes or engage in behavior that heightens their risk. There’s often a temptation to scold and finger-wag, which is highly ineffective. But if you tell a story that’s emotionally truthful and impactful, people will come away with a visceral feel for the science and medicine involved even if it wasn’t the full textbook explanation.

As David Kaplan, a physicist and the producer of the documentary movie Particle Fever, acknowledged: “We didn't explain the Higgs [boson] in any real thorough way. But people came out of the movie and said, 'My God, that was the best explanation I've ever heard!' If you go back, it wasn't. We tricked people into thinking they understood a lot more than they did because they digested it in an emotional context.” Make sure your audience digests your film in an emotional context. Be sure to test it out before you finish it! Find out if viewers follow it, care about the people in it, are moved, and feel like they’ve gotten insight into the scientific and medical as well as the individual and societal contexts. Then you’ll have created truly effective cinema.