Before you can tell the world about your topic, you need to know as much as possible about it in order to tell the complete story. Since our theoretical film is about manatees, we need to research and define everything about them, from how they live to why they die and everything in between. Though the story is going to be supported by expert interviews, you need to know what crucial questions to ask to obtain the most relevant answers. You also want to appear credible to your interviewees. Research also helps tremendously in mapping out the logical development of the story during shooting and later during editing.

Learning about the science behind your story should be fun. Think of research as another way to help save the manatee (or whatever your film’s message may be). Once you have learned everything you can about your topic, you can make a film that stands on its own and does not need an audience that already has a master’s degree or doctorate on the topic. Your research helps you act as a mediator between the general public and the array of well-informed experts you have assembled. Because an unfounded or poorly researched film is either weak in its story or is destined to fall flat on its face under public scrutiny, you need to be thorough with your research.

Not only will the facts you gather give your film validity and credibility, you owe it to your financial partners and the species or science topic you are featuring to be accurate. Consider for a moment how embarrassing and costly it would be to make and distribute your film only to be publicly denounced afterwards because some key facts were flawed or erroneously presented. However, if your film is about presenting different and possibly slanted, controversial, or error-ridden theories on a subject, by all means reveal them honestly.

It’s equally important that you find the right sources for your research. If you do a Google search on “manatees,” the first reference will likely include a page from Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. Though it can offer some helpful background information and provide a good overview, don’t rely on it completely for its scientific accuracy. The information comes from a variety of sources and some of it may be outdated or questionable.

Your next series of information hits could be from special interest groups that also want to save the manatee. Their intentions may be good, but beware any source that comes with a vested or slanted interest. If it’s overly biased, it may not present all of the factual information. You also should consider if you want to be associated with that group’s bias. If you use this information, make sure you recognize the bias and tell your audience about it or else you might appear biased or even ignorant of all the facts behind your film. Reasonably unbiased, accurate facts tell a credible story.

Though it is okay to build your general knowledge of your topic using Wikipedia and special interest sites, you also need information that is recognized by the scientific community. Go back to the Wikipedia site and scroll to the bottom of their page. Under “Notes” and “External Links,” you will find more sources of information. Look for sources from government agencies, research institutions, or scientific journals. That is where you will be able to confirm your vital facts. For instance, the scientific Journal of Mammalogy likely offers more unbiased manatee science than a local newspaper that may have sensationalized a story to sell papers.
If you really want the nitty-gritty science on a subject, use Google Scholar for access to technical and research papers. It not only gives you detailed science from peer-reviewed journals, it may even help you identify some great experts to include in your production. Also consider browsing the websites of well-known science communities such as National Geographic, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, or Encyclopedia of Life.

That brings us to the final phase of research: on-camera experts. Revisit all those websites that you may have disregarded because they demonstrate a potential bias. To make a film that presents a balanced story while also introducing tension and conflict, you will want as many perspectives and personalities as possible giving their opinions in front of the camera. If our film only has one manatee scientist telling his perspective on the biological facts of a manatee, it may not engage the audience. However, if we also interview an impassioned person from a protect-the-manatee organization, a water discharge engineer, a commercial sport fishing captain, a manatee rescue veterinarian, and a tourism official, we would likely get diverse opinions from a number of credible and unique characters. Diverse opinions will also add interest and help the conflict of the story develop naturally.

At Untamed Science, we use a spreadsheet to build a list of potential interview contacts and experts and track their contact and biographical information. As our research evolves, we add names that keep appearing in journals, websites, or other media pertinent to our film. (Consider creating a Google Drive document that you can share and edit with the rest of your team; team members who call or email these experts can add notes.) By calling someone on the phone and asking a few questions about the topic, you will quickly get a sense of how they will probably sound in front of the camera. If they sound unsure or hesitant, they might feel insecure about appearing in a film or they might not be a good fit for your project.

In addition to gathering a list of interviewees, you should consider shoot locations. Making a location contacts list is as important as your interview contacts list; you might combine the two. Consider every potential angle you might use to tell your story, and try to brainstorm an image that could correspond with that angle. For example, our list of potential location contacts might look like this:

  • Manatee zoos or parks
  • Manatee tours on boats
  • Manatee congregation locations
  • Boat harbors in manatee areas
  • Manatee research sites and programs
  • Manatee protection group headquarters
  • Water discharge sites in manatee areas
  • Scuba or snorkel tours in seagrass beds

When making your location shoot list, don’t overlook difficult-to-acquire footage that will support your film. For instance, quality underwater footage of manatees might be available from local underwater videographers.

Now that you have developed your research and have a list of experts and potential shoot locations, it is time to start crafting your compelling story. Putting your story together in an engaging manner is perhaps the most important element of your entire production.

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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