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How are citizen scientists making groundbreaking discoveries using open hardware in their own backyards? We decided to find out in a recent Open Source Stories film, The Science of Collective Discovery. Open Source Stories is Red Hat’s multimedia documentary series where we get to explore ideas like these.
The start of any project like this is exciting and daunting all at the same time. You have the excitement of being able to tell a compelling story, while being worried about timelines, visuals, characters, crew, shot lists, and the ultimate thought, "Are people going to like this?" That one is always the hardest for me. I want to push everything I do further and further each time, but you’re always going to say, "Is this approach right?" when you try something new. Luckily for this project, we had a great team who I trusted completely, and that made things a whole lot easier as we tried some new approaches to the Open Source Stories series.
FINDING OUR STORY
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to highlight open hardware, and how it relates to citizen science. Dave Baeumler, our associate creative director, put together some essential ideas to pitch the project. With those, we started hunting down subjects.
Casey ( our writer) and Rachel (our producer) starting writing emails and making phone calls. For this film, we phoned more than 15 people to map our storyline. Most of these were cold calls that we hoped would generate a lead. With these calls, we’re looking for themes that we hope to talk about, leads to other possible subjects, and people's personal stories that may be of interest. We also want to know what they’re comfortable talking about to us, and how they’re going to tell us their story. That helps us judge who we think will be good on camera.
I like to treat these calls as a learning experience for myself, as we find our way through stories. We’re constantly building our story after every call or new piece of information that we gather, so we’re kind of writing the first draft of an outline throughout this process. Usually, there are instances that feel like "moments of discovery," or when I feel like we’ve found a piece of the puzzle, that get baked into structure of the story. That way, our learning and general story path sort of plays out for the viewer in the same way.
[Image above] Our original mood board for creating our worlds
CREATING OUR WORLDS
This is one of my favorite parts of the process. Once you have your characters and story kind of mapped out, you can think about how you’re going to show that on screen. I knew early on that we were going to create two worlds for this piece. One in the abstract world of what citizen science can be, and another of what citizen science looks like in practice. It seemed like a natural approach, but how were they are going to look and flow together? As always, it was easier in my head than it turned out to be given the short timeline we had to create the film.
[Image above] Walking Caren through our ideas of how she was going to interact with the dioramas
We started with a science fair idea for our resident scientist, Caren Cooper. The idea was to create dioramas, similar to what you’d find at a science fair or museum. We wanted it to feel as if she was living in the same space as the dioramas, so we shot Caren with dramatic, low-key lighting on a green screen, which allowed us to place different backgrounds behind her depending on the part of the story she was narrating at that moment.
[Image above] Living in a virtual world—behind the scenes as we set up for our interview with Caren
Another one of Caren’s job as our kind of narrator was to set the stage for the next chapter of the story. This more stylized approach would act as an umbrella for the film. From the start, we knew the dioramas were going to be an extensive process, but it just seemed so right. After getting buy-in from our team, we contacted prop houses that we knew or that were recommended by friends. We chose DesignBox, because they shared our vision and were just as excited as we were about the project. After weeks of talking about idea for the dioramas, Eric Kramer, our Motion Designer, and I sat down to talk about style and approach to get some mood boards and 3D renders together for DesignBox.
[Image above] From the first molds to the finished project—the progress of our public lab set.
Fast forward to the day before shooting with dioramas and Caren in our studio. Casey and I were panicking a little. Our story had changed a lot since we’d started the dioramas, and we were on an extremely compressed timeline requiring us to have bids and designs in for the dioramas before we left for our first shoot. And with documentary work, that’s extremely risky, because the story usually shifts due to new information on location or storylines not working out there. There are actually many things that can shift your story. Documentary work is volatile, but that’s what makes it fun.
Okay, back to the studio. Since the story had shifted so much, I was questioning the dioramas overall. Not a good place to be in mentally. So, Casey and I spent the rest of the afternoon testing shots and exchanging ideas until we realized we could have Caren build her world. Boom. It made so much sense then.
[image above] A screengrab of Casey from our day of testing the backgrounds for Caren
After shooting some more tests and reselling ourselves on the idea, I went home that night to write our shot list for the morning. We were lucky that Caren was patient while we worked through these brand new ideas.
[Image above] Caren’s final image from the film
A CITIZEN SCIENCE VIEW
The second world is the view from a citizen science prospective, which was shot on location in NYC. I wanted the film to have a rugged and in-the-moment feel. So we leaned heavily on shooting it almost all handheld, and leaning into the available light at each location. I wanted the camera to walk you through this environment, and let the unprompted actions of the actors help determine the camera moves.
[Image above] Following the process as Eymund sets up his balloon mapping kit
For that in-the-moment feeling, we wanted to keep our lighting very slimmed down for these interviews. In the morning, the sun was creeping in through the wall of windows, so we decided to shoot that interview an hour earlier before it got too bright. So we quickly rearranged some canoes, set up one light, some negative fill, and we were ready to go. This setup was a good way for us to match with the b-roll we would be capturing on each location.
[Image above] Our simple setup for Eymund’s interview—notice the sun starting to creep over
THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER
Building trust between you, your subjects, and your crew is one of the most important parts of this process. Making a documentary takes a lot of patience and communication. And the same goes for the crew; we want everyone on set to know the story and vision we’re going for with each piece. It decreases the amount of long discussions with them on set, so everyone can focus on the content and style. Especially when something changes on set, which almost always happens when shooting these types of films.
[Image above] Rachel and Casey going over production notes on set
We ran into a snowstorm that completely changed the last two days of our shooting schedule. We were hoping it would miss us, but we quickly realized after landing in New York that the storm was going to dump a lot of snow on the city in a couple days. We did a quick gear check to figure out how we could split our tiny crew into two crews to jam two days of shooting into one. Not an ideal situation when you have a bunch of interviews lined up for the next day.
[Image above] Behind the scenes setup of Michael Heimbinder’s first interview
So, as Rachel contacted our subjects to reschedule their times to make it all work, we broke up our gear, our shot lists, and our interview guides to see if we could make two crews out of one. There are so many worries that go into doing something this: are we going to be able to get enough coverage, do we have enough hands to help with gear, and most of all, how being rushed can affect your judgement about what to shoot in the moment.
Needless to say, I was pretty nervous about the whole situation. Luckily, we have a very talented and versatile crew, which was how we were able to pull this off. Looking back, I think it added to the chaotic nature I was hoping for with this world view as well, but without that trust and leaning on each other we would never have been able to jam those two days into one very productive day.
[Image above] Beau and Brett guarding the lens from the snow to get some b-roll
The best part about being the editor is that you get to write the final script. This is not done alone; in our case I worked very closely with Casey and Rachel. This helped me narrow in on the story better, and it gave me the opportunity to bounce ideas off them to create the best piece possible.
One thing about the editing of a piece like this, is that it never turns out exactly how you’ve been editing it in your brain during pre-production. We had an entire intro section written, and we were sure it was going to be a powerful way to open the whole story. We couldn't have been more wrong about that. Sometimes you have to be wrong to figure out the right path for your film. This was one of those cases. So, I went through multiple re-edits to find the beat of the film and how we could best tell this story.
[Image above] The final sequence of The Science of Collective Discovery
Making a documentary is a challenging task, but it can be one of the most rewarding types of films you can make. The raw and real quality you get from documentaries is something you’ll rarely find anywhere else.