Films of Fact
Films of Fact is an exhibition about scientific films and television programmes. It deals with when they started and the four major genres that developed up to 1965. In the Victorian era, there were two great media of science engagement: the printed book and the public museum. Science and invention gave birth in 1895 to cinema, a new medium that was soon challenging these older media. Today there are nature and technology films, those on science’s social mission, and those that simply convey the content and excitement of science. Each of these types of science programming was invented at a specific point in the last 110 years. And, if you go back and look, you can see how each was the product of particular historical circumstances.
Nature films are the oldest science film genre. The first examples were shown at the Alhambra Music Hall, London, in August 1903. After the ballet and the conjuror came the scientific films. The programme alternated greatly magnified shots of cheese mites and other organisms filmed down a microscope with whimsical animal films featuring the antics of frogs and tortoises. Nature films immediately became established as a popular genre of science on screen, as they continue to be today.
Film-makers also turned their cameras on the new technologies that were transforming life in the early 20th century. Then, from the 1930s, documentary film-makers began to use self-consciously artistic styles of film-making they had learnt from Russian films. These new documentaries used artistically angled shots, deliberate contrasts and rapid editing to celebrate innovations such as telephony, aircraft, electricity and express railways. Enthusiasm for technology has continued to be a strong feature of scientific films and TV.
The economic Depression of the 1930s affected both scientists and film-makers. This gave birth to a new kind of documentary, which used science to identify social problems and also proposed scientific planning to solve them. Nutrition was the key example. The 1936 film Enough to Eat? summarised the shocking conclusion of John Orr’s study Food, Health and Income that half the British population earned too little to afford a properly nutritious diet. Science films with this kind of moral message became rare during the Cold War, but resurfaced with the rise of the environmental movement from the 1970s.
Both programme producers and scientists had an influence on the development of science on television. Although TV broadcasting had started in 1936, its real development came in the 1950s. At this time, producers were developing the medium so that it played to the strengths of live broadcast. And, as television became a mass medium, scientists increasingly tried to influence how it represented science. The conclusion to discussions between scientists and broadcasters came in 1966 when Aubrey Singer, the Head of the BBC Science Department, ruled that 'the televising of science is a process of television … therefore … priority must be given to the medium rather than scientific pedantry'.
* The First Science Films - a YouTube video from New Scientist
* Histories: Microscopic stars of the silver screen - an article from New Scientist
* The British Film Institute
* Screen Online
* Luke McKernan’s Blog review