Thursday, July 31, 2008

Science Writer Awards 2008

As a scientist I've always strongly believed in the necessity to communicate science to the world at large. Science is often very much misunderstood, and poorly communicated. To many people the words "science" or "scientist" conjour up images of a bespectacled nerd in a white lab coat mixing the coloured contents of test tubes. In reality science affects us all and is of critical importance to our survival in the future... and the survival of species and habitats on this planet, which of course is one aspect of science that concerns me.

So the ability to communicate science and what makes it important is a real asset to a scientist. The recent Science Writer Awards 2008 present a number of excellent essays written by young scientists that highlight just how exciting and passionate science can be. They are all worth a read, as is watching the short video by luminaries in the field of science communication.

In some ways it is a little easier communicating how exciting science can be when you work on crocodiles, so I always admire those who can communicate a little of the passion they feel about their own area of science.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Crocodile defence

It's rather chilly in Alice Springs at this time of year. I know that because I'm here right now, in an airport waiting lounge where staff keep flinging the outside doors wide open, letting in an icy blast of air that just isn't fit to be allowed inside any building. I'm waiting for my connecting flight to Sydney, where I hear it's so cold that penguins have taken up residence on the harbour bridge. I'm not sure if that's accurate, I'm sure I read it somewhere.

I hate waiting in airport lounges, especially when you look up and realise that the board informing you of your flight departure time is suddenly replaced with the time of a completely different flight. Oh no, have I missed it? Did they change it? Can I be bothered to get up from my slightly warm seat to go and investigate the main flight information board that is always placed in such a way that you have to walk over to read it? I'd better finish this blog post first.

I'm going to Sydney to defend the saltwater crocodile. It's another documentary dealing with a crocodile attack, and it's apparently my job to describe the motivations behind the attack from the crocodile's perspective. The victim is Jeff Tanswell, a fine bloke who we met last year in Darwin, introducing him to a crocodile for the first time since one bit him on the head while he was snorkelling off Thursday Island. I get the impression that Jeff quite likes crocodiles, except when they bite him on the head. So, the show in question wishes to reconstruct the attack (again) and it's my job to ensure that they represent what happened accurately. And that means defending the crocodile, because the natural assumption is that the crocodile had some kind of evil intent in its attack. Jeff realises that this wasn't the case, so let's hope that I can convince the production company. I don't think that should be difficult, because the concept that a crocodile is "just human" (if you'll forgive the extremely suspect analogy) and was only being "a crocodile" (to contradict my own analogy within the same sentence!) should be and - indeed - is more interesting than the notion that it's simply a toothy killing machine interested only in biting heads.

But ultimately I have very little control over the finished product. I can only hope that my interview and Jeff's detailed account are both integrated into the final reconstruction. It is not always the case with these things. Having done a lot of reconstructions for various production companies over the years, there is a tendency to push things towards the dramatic at the expense of the accurate. Now I'm all for getting people to watch and learn through devious means, but I strongly believe it can be done without compromising the facts. When it comes to crocodile attacks, we owe it to the victims - and the crocodiles - to get the facts right.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Attacked by a crocodile while editing a film

Ok, that deliberately provocative title should not be taken at face value! However, I figured that "Cleaning the croc pool and doing some NLE" perhaps wasn't quite so exciting. But yes, it's all true. Today we decided it was time to clean the underwater filming pool, as we have a film crew using it next week. Cleaning involves attaching a long hose to the pump, setting it to waste, and sucking out any leaves and other detritus that has accumulated in the filming room. If we didn't do this, entering the water would stir up sediment and reduce visibility a little too much.

Cleaning is much easier on scuba, so tanked up I got into the water and started to clean. Smaug, our large male crocodile, wasn't too impressed by all this banging and splashing that I was doing and came across to investigate. It's quite a shock, even now, to realise that your face is about half a metre from a steel barrier behind which a very large crocodile is studying you intently. I noticed he was attracted to the bubbles that I was exhaling, and hence he was following me round. It didn't take long before his curiosity got the better of him and he struck at the fence with a loud clang. Underwater, a loud clang sounds more like someone dropping a pin on the floor. At least, to insensitive humans such as myself. However, with my face mere inches from his crashing jaws I was in no doubt what was going on! For just the briefest moment, I found myself wondering what I was doing. There I was, 2 metres under the surface with a 4.5 metre (14.5 ft) saltwater crocodile trying to get at me. The only thing separating us was a steel mesh barrier. A very strong one, it must be pointed out, but the feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a hard one for your mind to shake off.

Of course, it all looked absolutely spectacular and I wished I had an underwater camera with me. That is, naturally, the entire point of the facility. It is a completely unique way of seeing saltwater crocodiles. The fish swimming around my head didn't seem too impressed, though - they were more curious what on Earth I was doing down there too. By this time the floor was clean and I was getting cold. Next time I will persuade the film crew to avoid coming at the coldest time of year!

As for editing the film, well that all seems rather mundane after that little story. But we're pretty pleased with it. It's a 3 minute short film about crocodiles, with music and sound effects but no narration. There are sumptuous images of crocodiles and habitats that we filmed in DVC PRO HD late last year, and it's all coming together very nicely. I wrote the music in a few hours, but the biggest challenge was matching it with the images. Our NLE software isn't really equipped for music synchronisation, so I did it the old fashioned way. Anyway, it has reignited our appetite to produce longer films, without a doubt. It also justifies the purchase of our new plasma HDTV because, frankly, it looks stunning on there. It will soon be on display running continuously on multiple HDTV screens at Crocosaurus Cove, which will be great to see.