Science on Screen: Four Tips for Translating Big Ideas for Big Audiences

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

Documentary filmmakers are visual storytellers. Many of us don’t have scientific backgrounds — I’m a musician by training — yet that shouldn’t preclude us from making content that deals with science and technology. Who better than a non-scientist to help translate technical ideas to understandable content for a non-technical audience?

When I first learned about the exciting work being done in advanced reactor design, and the potential this work had for fighting climate change, I knew I had to tell this story. Since I was enthusiastic about the subject matter, I did extensive research on the topic of nuclear energy, diving deep into the nuance and complexity of the subject. However, I knew I couldn't get too deep into the weeds of neutronics, for instance, without running the risk of losing my audience.

Toward that end, here are four tips I learned during the process of making my latest film, The New Fire, to help clarify big ideas and present them in an engaging way for a general audience:

1. Keep It Simple. Whenever I'm tempted to dive into a complex concept, I'd repeat those three words to myself. Audiences want to understand high-level ideas, but don't always want to slog through the backstory as to where these ideas originated. I'd ask myself: what is the main point I want to convey here and how can I do so without losing my message?

2. Casting is Key. Find energetic subjects who are great communicators. I was lucky to be profiling charismatic young entrepreneurs who were passionate about their subject, and I made sure to complement these interviews with well-known, well-spoken "talking heads" like Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, and others.

3. Have an Animation Budget. You'll probably need it. And it does wonders for making complicated concepts understandable on screen!

4. Know Your Audience. Your content should be digestible not just for your target audience, but also for a general audience with a passing interest in your topic. I often tell interview subjects to speak to me as though I’m a really bright and interested sixth grader. Identifying your audience and then keeping its sensibilities in mind through production will pay dividends when it comes time to release your film (not to mention on the film festival circuit).

View the official trailer for The New Fire.

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About the Author

David Schumacher
David Schumacher
Emmy Award-winning director David Schumacher began his career as a rock and jazz guitarist after graduating from Berklee College of Music. He entered the world of film and television working with such esteemed filmmakers as Barbara Kopple and Ken Burns and has since developed a client list that includes Columbia University and The World Economic Forum. Inspired and driven, his focus on environmental issues led him to create THE NEW FIRE, a new documentary that upsets the conventional wisdom about "bad old nuclear," and has won praise from critics and audiences worldwide.

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