Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Complex Ideas in Ecology Made Simple

By Don Driscoll

Have you just published an important journal article? Why not turn it into a movie?

Last year I published a really exciting paper on the matrix in fragmented landscapes in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The matrix is the land in which patches of native vegetation are embedded. More often than not it’s cropland or grazing lands or plantation forests.

My paper brought together a number of ideas about the matrix, and outlined an overarching conceptual model of the conservation value of the matrix. If we’re serious about conservation in production country, this type of understanding is critical to our capacity to save biodiversity in these landscapes.

But here’s the challenge. I think this is both an interesting and an exciting topic, but I know that most people will never read this journal paper. How do I endeavour to spread the information and the value of this research?

It’s a challenge that confronts researchers everywhere when they publish their science. How do we get anyone beyond our small circle of fellow specialists to engage with our science?

Most of the time I don’t have the capacity to do much beyond the research itself, but this time I thought I’d try something different. This was a special paper, in my opinion; it deserved the extra effort.

I decided to make a movie about the science in the article, about the matrix in fragmented landscapes! The “light bulb” moment was that my opening “hook” would be a connection with the sci-fi thriller The Matrix, which has nothing to do with fragmented landscapes but does involve guns, computers and fights – and everyone has seen it.

So, I sat down and nutted out a simple script, dug out my camera then drew my characters in Texta and cut them out. I took over the family dining table for two weekends (and every evening between) of intense focused activity (to the complete exclusion of everything else, except biological requirements), while I painstakingly filmed a short stop-frame animation video. It took heaps longer than I expected – my family weren’t too happy about the loss of the dining table – and it’s rough and ready edges are there for everyone to see. For all that, I’m quite proud of it.

That was several months ago. I’m happy to report that my first foray into cinematography has had pleasing outcomes. My colleagues thought The Matrix in Ecology (the title of my three-and-half-minute epic) was excellent and that I didn’t trivialise my science, so my reputation is still intact. A few thousand people have taken the time to view the video, so it’s been a big success as an exercise in communicating to a broader audience.

The positive feedback has inspired me to make another video on an up-and-coming paper (even bigger than the matrix, but I can’t say anything more about this production at the moment; it’s still hush hush).

Although my first effort took around 50 hours, it was fun to do. It forced me to tell the story of my science in a simple, engaging and bare-bones fashion, and it made me put myself in the shoes of those outside of my scientific circle. Stop motion animation gives you enormous flexibility in the way you can tell the story, but it is very time-consuming.

By comparison, I’ve recently put together a short film that reports on the impact of horses in the Australian high country. I used footage shot on my phone during a weekend bike-trip, and it only took a few hours to edit it together.

If you want to see The Matrix in Ecology, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZwTZ-d1ZRE and keep an eye on my wordpress web site (http://dondriscoll.wordpress.com/) where two new videos are expected by the end of the year.

The bottom line is that I encourage all ecologists to consider going a few extra yards and attempt to communicate their science in some way that is above and beyond the journal article itself. Maybe consider a contribution to Australasian Science? I guarantee you’ll learn something through the experience, reach a wider audience and probably have a fun time.

With luck the experience may also leave you infected with the bug of storytelling (and video making), and who knows where that might lead...

Don Driscoll is a member of the Environmental Decisions Group. He is based at the Australian National University.