I recently had the opportunity to produce a documentary about the concerning shortage of early career pollinator taxonomists in Europe. The film was made to complement a Science for Environment Policy (SfEP) report that I co-authored, about the important role of pollinators in the survival of the global ecosystem, and highlighting the vital role of monitoring them, to understand the causes of their declining numbers1. As a former TV documentary producer, and now science communicator, it is always enjoyable to revisit my filmmaking skills. But, for anyone contemplating making a film – whether it’s the first — or the twentieth they have made — it is always a little daunting and exciting to figure out where to start, and who will be your charismatic interviewees that compel your viewers to watch the film to the end?
The first task, after deciding on the outline of content for the pollinators report, was to come up with a list of topics for our client that the film could focus on. Our client, the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General, chose the decline in taxonomy — the classification of species — as a scientific discipline for the narrative focus of the film. Experts in this discipline are vital in monitoring pollinator populations in different habitats over time, to record the causes and effects of pollinator decline. This topic encompassed both professional and citizen science monitoring projects, as both are needed to understand the immense diversity of pollinators present in Europe, whilst collecting robust data over space and time to inform pollinator conservation measures.
On a budget
Budget constraints, coupled with a request from our client to feature scientists from across Europe set the parameters for the content of the film. Working within these constraints required careful consideration of how the film could be made — assessing content versus cost for each of the potential shoots we were planning.
For example, changing the logistics of a particular shoot, by asking an expert to travel to a more convenient location, saved a great deal of time and money. It is all too easy to become fixed on an approach when setting up a film, but sometimes, out of necessity and with flexibility, creative solutions can be found which end up working better.
To free up some additional budget I managed to negotiate a discounted rate with our camera hire company and due to the environmental nature of the films they part sponsored us to complete the project. Further savings were made when instead of hiring a sound operator to work alongside me on camera, I gave my colleague Michelle, a science writer on the report, on-the-job training on how to swing a boom. Michelle’s lesson, learned from one of our outdoor shoots, is to always wear long trousers when filming outdoors in a field to avoid biting insects! Similarly, I regretted my lack of hat on that shoot, as there was little shade. Preparation is key — always look at the weather forecast beforehand (and out of the window on the day) and bring all that you may need, including lots of water whatever the weather.
Securing the right interviewees for our film meant finding people who could tell the story of pollinator monitoring in Europe, covering both citizen science involvement and the need for professional career taxonomists. A longlist of potential experts had been recommended to us by our client, and this made the process somewhat quicker. However, we still needed to speak to these individuals and ascertain what they had to say on the topic, and how comfortable they might be at articulating their viewpoints for a non-specialist audience.
We were pleased to secure interviews with our scientific advisor for the written report, Adam Vanbergen, Director of Research, Agroecology, for the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique, in Paris. In addition, we spoke to a pollinator expert based just outside Barcelona in Spain — Constanti Stefanescu, who manages a long-running citizen science butterfly monitoring programme. Constanti also helped us with another of the sequences on our wish list, filming a group of citizen scientists conducting a butterfly monitoring transect (a fixed-route walk on which butterflies are recorded). On this shoot we interviewed some of the dedicated citizen science volunteers, who, for a number of years, had been regularly monitoring butterfly populations near their homes across Spain. Their voices spoke of the joy of conducting butterfly transects, walking in the natural environment and contributing to a long-term scientific project.
The last two contributors we needed to secure for our film, were a late stage career bee taxonomist, and a new entrant scientist considering taxonomy. I focused my research on locating a female bee expert, to give balance to the film as both the other experts were male. These enquiries led me to Professor Concepción Ornosa Gallego, and her PhD student Daniel Romero in Madrid. I knew from my initial conversation with Concepción, that she was perfect for the film and keen to be involved — she preferred speaking in Spanish, so we recorded her interview in her native language, with Daniel kindly translating.
This was the first time I’d conducted an interview in this way, and it certainly made things a bit tougher in the edit. However, it worked well on location, and Concepción spoke eloquently about the current barriers discouraging young people viewing taxonomy as a good career choice, and how these might be overcome. She also showed us how difficult it can be to identify one species from another — when it comes to the thousands of bee species that exist, the anatomical differences can be tiny. This is in contrast to butterfly species, which are much easier to identify and lend themselves well to citizen science monitoring programmes.
We had a number of locations open to us at the University of Madrid — Concepción’s office, the ‘type’ collection of pollinators housed at the university and the botanical gardens. This gave us a range of filming options on the day, an important insurance for inclement weather when a recce trip prior to filming isn’t possible and there is only a limited time period for the shoot to take place.
Daniel’s interview gave the viewer the perspective of an early career scientist, who is currently choosing which path to take. Pollinator taxonomy was an option; however, he explained that the lack of jobs in this area, and difficulty in getting publications in this discipline in publications (which aid career development) put him off this choice. This is an issue he believes should be addressed to encourage more young people to enter this discipline. With many late career taxonomists set to retire, without more career entrants, we could be left with a dearth of expertise in identifying and monitoring pollinators, which are vital for the health of our ecosystems.
Having a balance of experts, early career scientists and volunteer citizen scientists, gives the viewer a range of relatable voices. It is important to reflect the diversity of the viewing public within your film as much as possible.
The interviews and actuality footage were secured, but the film still needed something to add visual interest and colour, which, when you are discussing pollinators, should be the critters themselves, pollinating in all their wondrous forms. The film was made with the available light and a standard camera, which is great for filming interviews in brightly lit rooms, or in a sunny garden or field, but not so good for filming small pollinators on the wing. Luckily, there is a plethora of amazing Creative Commons footage available on a number of websites, shot by members of the public or budding natural-history camera operators. This footage added the movement, colour and beauty of the pollinators to the narrative voices of the interviewees.
The editing and post production process are as important as all other aspects of making a film. I edited this film, but benefitted in doing so from the input of other members of the SfEP team, as well as several of the client’s team. These varied opinions help produce a good product. However, it is always good to remember the mantra of professional editors ‘that the client is always right’. This doesn’t mean that you cannot offer your perspective to them, but ultimately, they know their end aims and audience best.
The written facts that were chosen to appear over some parts of the film, were an important aspect of the finished product, as was the subtitling. The latter was the very last thing that was added, and it was rewarding to see the final subtitled product delivered to the client. The client and contributors were pleased with how the film conveyed the message about the import of monitoring of pollinators, and have distributed it amongst their networks, and at conferences.
The film highlighted the need for understanding and classifying pollinators whose enormous economic and social importance is crucial for raising awareness about the cascading effects that will ensue from their absence. However, it is worth noting that the current lack of evidence for some groups of pollinators should not delay the urgent work of putting in place solutions we know will help: creating and preserving bigger, higher-quality and better-connected habitat for pollinator species.
You can watch the film below:
Nicky Shale, Science Writer and Communicator
1This report was written for the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy environmental information service, jointly run by the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol and Ecorys, a European research company.