“The Exchange”: Creative Collaboration between Filmmakers and Scientists

By Carylanna Taylor, originally posted on First Encounter Production blog.

As First Encounter Productions moves into pre-production of our first fiction feature, HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, we are particularly thankful to The Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences  for introducing us to our amazing science advisors, Dr. Ting Wu and Dr Ruth McCole.  

(For more on our collaboration with Ting and Ruth, read my ANYA & Genetics , Ting’s The “Narval” Biology, and Ruth’s “Scientist on Set” ).

As a thank you to The Exchange, I’d like to share our range of experiences collaborating with scientists from The Exchange on two screenplays. I hope our experiences encourage other independent filmmakers interested in science to reach out to The Science & Entertainment Exchange and give them an idea of what to expect.

The Science & Entertainment Exchange is an invaluable resource for anyone writing or producing a film or TV series with scientific content. The Exchange maintains a database of scientists from all specialties who have volunteered to collaborate with filmmakers. When a request comes in, they do their best to pair the writer/filmmaker with an appropriate specialist. They have facilitated over 1,500 consults ranging from quick fact checks to special briefings on projects such as BIG HERO 6, THE AVENGERS, CASTLE, EUREKA!, HOUSE, and DOCTOR STRANGE.

This unique matchmaking service is available to any filmmaker interested in improving the science already in their script/film or incorporating more. Their contact information is readily available on their website.

Our Experiences with The Science & Entertainment Exchange

I first contacted The Science & Entertainment Exchange to get guidance on HUMANS AMONG HUMANS which I co-wrote with my writing/producing partner Jacob Okada. Our original screenplay is about a woman whose struggles to conceive a child with her mysterious new husband lead to the incredible discovery that he and his people are  another species of humans. As a cultural anthropologist, I have a good enough understanding of genetic variation and human evolution to teach a couple introductory lectures. It got us through the first draft, but we wanted to go deeper and give the geneticists in HUMANS AMONG HUMANS a real puzzle to unravel, something that would be plausible, that would feel authentic to a scientist while still being explainable to a non-scientist.

In late 2014, I wrote a simple email to the Director and Program Coordinator with a brief description of the project and our backgrounds and that we’d like to talk with a geneticist for potential collaboration. Within a day, Amy Brown (Program Coordinator) wrote back that she had found someone. I reached out to Dr. Wu.

Over the course of a month, we corresponded by email. I sent a longer description of the project and a list of seven technical questions. Ting answered these briefly and invited us to talk by phone. Our first meeting was by phone in February 2015 and included Jacob, Marie Wu (pgEd), and Dr. Ruth McCole (Wu Lab). On the call, Ting and Ruth surprised us by offering for us to use their research as the basis of speciation in our film.

Soon after, in March 2015, we sent a revised script and then went to Boston to get notes and visit the lab. Since those initial meetings, we have participated in a number of events and kept up an ongoing discussion about HUMANS AMONG HUMANS which has expanded to a broader discussion of how to prepare the public for the oncoming tsunami of genetics information.

The Exchange staff is very accessible. They do much of their work by email, but are happy to chat if you happen to cross paths. I now get occasional invitations to events in New York and Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of meeting the Deputy Executive Director, Ann Merchant, at a pgEd Congressional briefing. We have since crossed paths at other pgEd and Exchange events in New York, Boston, and DC (where she is based).  Last April, I had a wonderful hour-long meeting with Amy Brown (Program Coordinator) at their main office at UCLA. It was clear in speaking with Amy and Ann that they -- and The Science & Entertainment Exchange -- share the desire to increase interest in and understanding of science through film.

Amy later put me in touch with two oceanographers, Randy Patton and Dr. Dale Stokes of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to help describe the underwater environment in a sci-fi adaptation I’m writing called THE LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY (based on an Analog short story by British author, Mjke Wood).

Both oceanographers have been incredibly helpful. I had some specific world-building questions, such as: would it be possible to warm the North Sea through underwater heaters and, if so, what might that infrastructure look like? My initial questions led to a really interesting volley of emails with Randy, including a Word document with references and drawings. He’s instrumental to how I visualize the monumental underwater engineering that sustains Dogger City.

My contact with Dale was briefer, but very positive. He helped me understand what kind of aquatic life might exist in the extreme climate change scenario I was creating. Unlike with HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, once the immediate science questions were answered I had to move on (for now) to other aspects of the script. The oceanographers were very giving of their time and very kind to leave the door open for renewing discussions or a Skype call when the time comes.  I imagine these more targeted communications are common for matches made through The Science & Entertainment Exchange.

By comparison, Jacob’s and my collaboration with Dr. Wu has likely been deeper and more enduring than is typical. In large part that is because her Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), directed by Dr. Marnie Gelbart, is dedicated to outreach and has actively collaborated with producers and writers on GREY’S ANATOMY, ELEMENTARY, THE 100, and others. Her collaborations with writers and producers have been facilitated by The Science & Entertainment Exchange as well as Hollywood, Health & Society at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center which “provides the entertainment industry with free expert information on all aspects of health, safety, and security.”  

How Hard is it to Talk to a Scientist?

It’s easier than you might think.

Yes, my academic training makes it a little easier for me to talk as an equal with a scientist in a different discipline. But it’s not essential.  As an anthropologist who designs research projects based on the scientific method, I consider myself a (social) scientist. I have some understanding of genetics and evolution. I’ve been around academia. I was able to find and read Ting's and Ruth’s journal articles and at least make out enough to ask some questions relevant to the script. I could find and navigate academic literature on global freezes to work up a new backstory for what led to the icy conditions in Dogger City. And the PhD in my signature likely suggests to them that I follow-through on projects, even though I’m relatively new to film. All these things simply add up to establishing a common ground for communication more quickly.

Prior experience or a doctorate are NOT a requirement for having a meaningful, creative discussion with a scientist. For example, my understanding of climate change, ecology, and engineering are pretty rudimentary, but I was able to talk with oceanographers about DOGGER CITY. Jacob’s a filmmaker by training, but he has always been curious about science and medicine. When we were filming our feature documentary, PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON, Jacob familiarized himself enough with astrophysics, chaos math, and orbital dynamics to interview scientists and engineers.  He also holds his own with our collaborators at Harvard, learning enough about gene modification and its ethical implications to converse with Dr. George Church, famous for his role in genome sequencing and engineering, including copying the genes of a wooly mammoth into an Asian elephant.

So, are you now wondering what it would be like to have a herd of wooly mammoths roaming the planet? Good. You could have a great talk with Dr. Church!

Curiosity and an open mind -- not prior knowledge or training -- are essential to having a fruitful conversation with a scientist.

Some Things to Keep in Mind if You’re Consider Contacting The Exchange…

Scientists -- especially the scientists working with The Science & Entertainment Exchange -- are motivated to communicate their ideas and passions with a broader audience than they can reach through their research publications or classes. They see films as a way to do that. They know that communicating clearly with the writer or filmmaker is the first step.

As The Science & Entertainment Exchange’s reputation and reach grow, so do the number of requests for collaboration.  This is awesome for science in film but might mean the one-day turn around I had two years ago would likely be difficult today. Be patient! The Exchange is run by a handful of very dedicated employees. To help them make a quicker and more accurate match, provide specific questions along with any helpful context, such as a short synopsis of the script or relevant scene. The scientists I worked with also wanted to know early on how my particular science question(s) related to the story (is it tangential or integral?) and whether the portrayal of any particular techniques (ex. gene editing) was overall positive, balanced, or negative.

The perfect expert for your project might be at any one of a number of points in their career. Scientists in The Exchange database include semi-retirees, full-time researchers, senior faculty, and experts a little earlier in their career. For instance, a doctoral candidate helped a friend more accurately portray a medical condition in her screenplay. They’re all experts in their own right. It’s all about the right fit.

The scientists in The Exchange believe in the power of movies. They want to help us make movies in which they can believe. Your curiosity and open mind will help foster a meaningful collaboration.

Major Takeaway: Talking with a Scientist can be an Act of Creativity

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that scientists are creative. They ENJOY riffing about a film project and having a chance to think outside the box of their research specialization. Films and TV shows tend to portray scientists as geeky or narrowly focused. Amassing expertise in an area usually doesn’t mean rigidity or lack of curiosity. Quite the contrary. It usually means an ability to learn quickly, consider options, and play.

When you approach a scientist you’re extending an invitation to play. Allow time and space in your discussions with them to brainstorm and come up with new alternatives for your project. If your experience is anything like ours, the result might be surprising: a better story that happens to be more scientifically accurate.

jacob okada