Some scientific disciplines lend themselves towards being showcased on the cyberscreen a little more than others. There is no shortage of excellent opportunity for folks in various disciplines of biology, physiology, astronomy and geosciences to showcase their work cinematically through footage of macro or micro organisms, vivid experimentataion or sweeping telescopic views of space. However, those in other disciplines like physics, math and chemistry need to be a little more creative in order to draw and keep an audience. Lucky for us, there are some excellent examples of folks who have done this extremely well. May I present: ‘Chemistry meets Hollywood’ – some fantastic chemistry-themed productions, and the secrets to their success.
Secret #1: Use anthropomorphism to familiarize your audience to the topic.
Here’s a video about the specifics of elements that are either attracted or repelled by each other, the kinds of molecules they form and how many atoms of each are required for certain bonds to be stable. Sound pretty dry? Watch this production and you’ll never forget how many hydrogens bond to a carbon again! This short film produced by the European Commission for Research and Innovation has garnered quite a lot of attention online with its brief, but power-packed message about the interactions between various gasses and solids. In addition to the clever use of human relationships that mirror chemical bonds, this video also shows how the use of color can add a lot of interest and flavor to the film, making it much more appealing to watch.
A second example in the anthropomorphism category comes from Christopher Hendryx, who created the short film ‘Oxygen’ as his graduation project from the Ringling College of Art and Design. Christopher’s combination of beautifully animated characters (he used a number of programs including Autodesk Maya, Next Limit Realflow, Pixar's Renderman, Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere) and finding ‘friendships on the playground’ allows the viewer to relax and enjoy while (almost) forgetting you’re learning about elements in the periodic table.
Secret #2: Involve a quirky character.
The University of Nottingham chemistry video series ‘Periodic Table of Videos’ is extremely successful due in part to one particular character that appears in a great number of their productions. ‘The professor’ (Dr. Martyn Poliakoff) has an excellent rapport with the camera, and his honest and extremely likeable approach (not to mention his crazy hairdoo) really resonates with the audience. How can you not expect to be entertained by a quirky figure such as this? The Periodic Table of Videos recently won SCIENCE magazine’s SPORE AWARD (Science prize for online resources in education), as they have a video for each and every element in the periodic table – and a great number of them are highly entertaining. I should mention here that it is extremely encouraging to see a major research institute hire a full-time videographer (Brady Haran) to create this series. Brady has just embarked on another project, this time with the physics department. In the mean time, here are a few of my chemistry favorites:
The Chemistry of Chocolate and Roses:
Xenon in the Sand:
Secret #3: Use animations and graphic representations
One of the greatest difficulties that I had during my many years of chemistry was in being able to visualize how reactions occur and bonds form. Hand-drawn diagrams and textbook images were simply not enough. Widespread availability of many 3-D imaging and graphic software packages represents a fantastic breakthrough for chemists because it provides such a valuable tool for visualization, hence teaching and learning.
Videos produced by the folks at the Cassiopeia Project use atomic and molecluar animations (created with a variety of programs such as Maya, After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Poser, Motion, Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator) to showcase a variety of difficult-to-visualize-topics in chemistry. These high definition science videos are free for download to whoever wants them – the entire project is supported by a private benefactor with a mandate of making science education accessible. One of my favorites is their ‘Chemical Bonds’ video – their use of animation, music, narration and pace give it both an entertaining and educational feel.
All of these productions show that chemistry can be fantastic fodder for representation in film and video. You've just got to be open to using some techniques and ideas that provide your science with a little Hollywood-style appeal.