The winners of Science Magazine’s fourth annual ‘Dance your PhD’ contest were announced last week. As usual, the productions in the top spots are creative, quirky and have great entertainment value. However, as someone with experience in both dance and film-making, I can say without hesitation that the contest is about video production as much as it is about dance. Let’s look at some of the winners and the reasons behind their success:

The grand prize winner is Joel Miller, a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia. His piece tells a love story (story is paramount to any video production) between titanium and bone, and was actually completed without a video camera at all! Joel and his colleagues shot over 2200 still photos of their moves and compiled them together, generating a stop-gap animation that creates a fantastic illusion of seamless flight across the screen. It’s a very clever use photo-video compilation, but what about the dance? There’s actually very little dance in this film. The ‘moves’ come from the animation of the still photos, which are of course just that: still photos. So overall, the success of this piece comes from using video animation to simulate movement. Clever video? Absolutely! Dance? Not really.

Microstructure-Property relationships in Ti2448 components produced by Selective Laser Melting: A Love Story from Joel Miller on Vimeo.

In my mind, the grand prize should have gone to Cedric Tan at the University of Oxford in the biology category. Cedric’s video not only incorporated a great story (I repeat: story is paramount to any video production), it was all about the dance. The epic mating battle of the fruit flies stars three dancers who undertake extremely clever choreography to depict various stages in the process. My favorites included the mating head bob and the males fighting rollovers. This video also makes use of many great editing techniques including integration of a comic book template, effective mixing of color and black and white footage, and clever use of fast motion.

Dance your PhD 2011: Smell mediated response to relatedness of potential mates from Cedric Kai Wei Tan on Vimeo.

Kudos in the social science category went to Emma Ware from Queen’s University. This moody depiction of mating rituals in pigeons was boosted by smart use of filters and lighting, and simple costumes. I found that there was a bit too much factual information in the subtitles here, which detracted from the overall feel of the story.

Dance your PhD 2011: A study of social interactivity using pigeon courtship from Emma Ware on Vimeo.

FoSheng Hsu of Cornell University earned praise in the chemistry category for a great dance routine coupled with fantastic use of superimposition and color. FoSheng is clearly a gifted performer, although the production would have benefitted from greater explanation of his research.

The Holy Grail to X-ray crystal structure of human protein phosphatase from FoSheng Hsu on Vimeo.

All of the winning entries this year incorporated many interesting video-editing techniques into their productions, coupled to a great level of imaginative dance. They are a pleasure to watch, and it’s nice to see some substantial prizes going to all of the top four. Joel will be awarded $1000 and a trip to Belgium to be crowned the winner at TedxBrussels November 22. The other 3 entries receive $500. Congrats to all!