Advice for Scientists Interested in Filmmaking

These suggestions were compiled from the workshop “How Filmmakers and Conservationists Connect People, Nature, and Climate”, held during the North America Congress of the Society of Conservation Biology on July 17, 2012.


General advice to scientists for approaching a film project


Cut the fat.  Get to the point and don’t waste time.  What you think might be really important (and it might be for your PhD) might drag your story down and not be as important as you think it is for the given audience.  That thing you think is amazing might bore a lay to tears or be a red herring that spins the story off on a tangent. Take your story and cut in half.  Now cut that half.  You don’t always have to be so drastic but you get the point.  Keep it tight, on point and don’t waste time in the weeds.


2-10 minutes is shorter than you think when you start putting a video together. Keep it under 4 minutes if it is for an online audience. Keep focused on the main, important details to tell the story and don’t try to throw in the kitchen sink or you will weaken your message, not strengthen it. If you must discuss everything, make either a longer video or a series of shorter ones on the topic. Again, if for an online audience, go with the shorter series of videos.


Have a story in mind.  And tell that STORY.  Just giving information is not going to get views.  Ask yourself: What is the problem?  Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What is the conflict and resolution? What marks the beginning, middle and end?


You don’t have to be a professional filmmaker but that doesn’t mean you can make a lousy product. Make it good.   Nothing beats good quality and nothing turns people off more if that quality is bad. The audience might not fully understand why but they know good and bad.


For distribution, the internet offers alternative platforms for sharing film products. Be creative and explore some crazy ideas and connections. Just don’t give away your valuable asset for free.


Look at the winners of film festivals pertaining to your topic, and of course, the Academy Awards. The International Wildlife Film Festival, Banff Mountain Film Festival, and Educational Film Festival, are other good film festivals.


Most major cities have a guide to video production for that area. San Francisco has the “Reel Directory”, San Diego has the “San Diego Film & Video Resource Guide”, LA has “LA411”, England/Europe has “Kemps”. They are chock-full of good info and a good starting resource.



Advice for scientists who wish to work with filmmakers


Have your 2 minute “elevator pitch” dialed in when you are talking to a filmmaker or journalist. What would you say if you find yourself sitting next to them on an airplane?  What would you say if you were cold-calling them?  Have that short and sweet.  And again, it starts with STORY and then quickly moves to “Why would your grandmother or kid care?”


Be honest and direct. Let them know your story and your affiliations. Email a query to them first, but then follow up with a phone call, if possible. If they are interested, they probably will call you back. Make sure to tell them why your idea is so different/spectacular/visual/necessary/compelling, etc, and what you have as well as what you lack to tell the story. Keep initial contact to a few paragraphs – or no longer than one typed page.


Scientists need to let filmmakers/journalists in. Filmmakers and journalists will ask for the world.  “Can I get on the restricted area?  Can I have all your research to read or see?  Can I use that? Do you have footage of ______?”  Give them your time and give them access to new knowledge and science breakthroughs. On the other side, filmmakers need to respect scientists and the work they are doing.  If scientists let you into their world, don’t trample it.


Scientists should do their homework and know who they are working with.  What kind of stories do those filmmakers make?  Do you share the same or at least similar point of view?  Make sure the filmmaker is going to respect and project the facts and story properly.  Certain filmmakers are topic specialists, much like scientists. Finding a good fit can be mutually beneficial.


Take your time.  Journalists are often on deadline but you can say “Hold on, let me get back to you.”  Hang up, find out more about the person calling you, collect your thoughts and then get back to them as promptly as possible.


Be mindful of a range of opportunities for collaboration. For example, scientist may have access to funds and resources for film that filmmaker would not have, and vice versa.



For more resources:

COMPASS (hyperlink =

KQED / QUEST (hyperlink =

National Geographic Mission Programs Media Guidelines (hyperlink =


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