I first stumbled upon the work of John Pavlus at Small Mammal Films this past summer - and instantly fell in love with their 'Life is Learning' film featuring one of my favorite creatures - the nudibranch Aplysia californica. I was drawn to John's creativity and astounding diversity of science-based short films - it was difficult to choose just a few of them to feature. John's approach focuses on creativity and storytelling - rather than generating 'pixel perfect' scientific representations, which he feels can be boring and weightless.
"I like physical processes and real-world visual metaphors much better, so when I'm brainstorming video concepts I watch a lot of indie music videos and old industrial films on the internet for inspiration."
CB: What is your training in both science and filmmaking?
I went to film school at Ithaca College, but have no formal degrees or training in science or science communication. I'm not sure how objectively necessary either of those two things are, though. An open, curious mind is the most important thing, and I built that up naturally as a child of two librarians who watched a lot of NOVA and read my dad's popular science books on chaos theory and quantum mechanics. Early in my career I was an associate producer for productions with National Geographic Explorer, NOVA, Science Now and the Science Channel, which helped to shape the kinds of projects I work on today.
CB: How does one begin to carve themselves a niche in making these kind of science/technology type of films for a living?
(NB FILMMAKING AUDIENCE: This is AWESOME ADVICE)
Just do it, trite as that sounds... it's taken me a long time to learn(and I'm still learning) that the only way anyone will know that you can do this well -- and then perhaps pay you for it -- is if they see some evidence of it! Also, if you want to make films about science and tech, you should DO that as much as possible -- not films about hamburgers or used cars or whatever while you "wait for the right opportunity to come along." Whatever you do tends to make more of itself. It also helps that I also make my living as a science-tech-design journalist. Having two streams of income lets me be more choosy about the kinds of video projects I take on.
The best advice about "carving a niche" is not to try to be too strategic about it, I think. Take on (or pitch) projects that you want to do as ends in themselves, not as stepping stones to some invisible idealized other thing, and things will naturally trend in the right direction. And starting small is good. Small budgets (in my experience) usually mean less micromanagement from clients and more opportunity to be creative. I benefitted from that with Scientific American, my first client, where I was able to create two original series (Instant Egghead and The Monitor) and cover CES -- stuff that,years later, I'm still proud of.
CB: Do you have any projects on the horizon we can be looking out for?
I'm discussing another project with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (who commissioned the Life is Learning (aka NUDIS and NEURONS) app promo featured below), and I'm also creating an interesting film this fall with Autodesk's Sustainability Workshop aimed at getting young engineers excited about energy literacy.
And now for the films...
LIFE IS LEARNING
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) hired me to create a promotional film for the iPad-app version of their quarterly biomed magazine, HHMI Bulletin. They wanted to use a prominent HHMI investigator in the film and suggested Dr. Eric Kandel; I was familiar with his Nobel-prize-winning research on learning and memory in Aplysia sea slugs, so I knew I'd need to find a way to work them into the promo for sheer visual appeal (and to satisfy my selfish curiosity) -- they're so beautiful and gross at the same time. App demos that just walk you through the features are dull as dirt, and since Dr. Kandel had never used the app before, I figured that showing him "learning" it for the first time (we filmed him interacting with the app spontaneously and unscripted) would be a better way to demonstrate the user experience than by rotely ticking off the features.
This was a personal project, not commissioned by anyone. I had wanted to make some sort of tribute video to the Shuttle for months and months before its final mission, but I just kept procrastinating. I knew I wanted to use Lykke Li's "Sadness Is a Blessing" as the music because it perfectly captured my mixed feelings about the Shuttle -- an amazing piece of engineering, an indispensable part of NASA's scientific mission and a source of wonder, but also something that had gotten people killed and had outlived its usefulness. When I happened across an old, peeling mural of the Columbia astronauts in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I felt like I had all the pieces.
VOYAGE TO A NEW SOLAR SYSTEM
After seeing my science news series "The Monitor", NPR's science desk paired me up with Robert Krulwich to collaborate on an idea he had about "flying into" ultra-high-resolution images from the Hubble space telescope. In the beginning I wanted to trick out the film with a lot of flashy graphic effects like "The Monitor," but Robert knew better and forced me to keep it simple and let the gorgeous images be. But simply zooming into flat photos Ken Burns-style wasn't going to create the quasi-3D effect we wanted, so I added banks and barrel rolls to the "camera movement" of the frame to make it behave as if we really were piloting a spacecraft, which turned out to be surprisingly effective. It really does feel like you're flying into it, even though the image is totally flat.
A SHORT FILM ABOUT ENTROPY
Ars Technica asked me to help judge a user-generated science-explainer film contest and create a short film to promote it. Explainers are my favorite kind of science film to make, and I wanted to choose a topic that could be visualized in a way that was "easy" -- ie, no fancy special effects or equipment required. Entropy was a good fit because it was so abstract -- a good challenge -- but also because the basic idea was very intuitive. Acting out everything backwards and then reversing the footage in editing (so that paper un-rips, glasses un-break, etc) is the oldest film school trick in the book, but it was the perfect way to set up the concepts of increasing disorder and the arrow of time with a "payoff" at the end...
You can see more of John's wonderful work on the Small Mammal website, including his amazing representation of the Antikythera mechanism in LEGO (not even kidding). Thank you for your time John, and I'll look forward to viewing your next projects!