New film competition to link arts and sciences


USC is launching its first science filmmaking competition today to promote student collaboration across disciplines and to communicate complex science concepts through different means.

Clifford Johnson, a professor of physics and astronomy, began developing a plan to hold the competition in 2008 after receiving a National Science Foundation grant. He wants students to develop creative methods for explaining complicated science topics through interdisciplinary collaboration.

“The idea was to involve students in making films and training the future scientists, writers, journalists, filmmakers and people from other fields to appreciate how better to communicate science ideas,” he said.

The project also aims to give students the opportunity to learn from each other through the process.

“Through this competition, people can understand each other’s craft better,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there are significant problems with how science is communicated and perceived, and creating films with students from different disciplines can help bridge that gap.

“The point is getting people from different departments — whether you’re a film major, science major, English major or business major — to work with each other when they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Johnson said. “It’s all about cross-collaboration, creating more openness in the future and better communication.”

Johnson, who has co-written a play about scientists, co-produced educational videos and is currently working on a physics-related graphic novel, said conveying information through different media is an important skill.

“The key thing is that the film communicates a science idea, principle or concept, and it can be done in any way that’s a good film,” Johnson said. “It could be a music video, or a standard documentary, a drama, or even an animation.”

Film entries will be posted to the competition’s YouTube page and a jury of USC faculty and outside experts will select winners.

Teams must include at least one student from a science department, the Viterbi School of Engineering or the Keck School of Medicine, and at least one from the USC School of Cinematic Arts or Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Students majoring in science-related fields said they appreciate the chance to share their knowledge. Tammy Bui, a senior majoring in biology, said she thought the program would be very successful.

“Many [science students] love nothing more than sharing what we care about to the surrounding community,” Bui said. “This opportunity will not only allow us to do what we are passionate about but it will, more importantly, allow us to bring awareness to others.”

Some film students, including Brian Lam, a senior majoring in film production, believe there is  little incentive for film students to participate in the competition because of the specialization of the content.

“I personally wouldn’t be interested in a competition like that, because people usually don’t produce films specifically for one festival,” Lam said. “It’s a better investment of time and resources to make a film that can be submitted to multiple festivals or competitions.”

Susan Lee, a senior majoring in health promotion and disease prevention studies, said she would feel challenged to find people outside her major.

“It makes it much more difficult to find team members outside of one’s immediate major,” Lee said. “However, this could very well be a challenge that encourages some to enter, as they look for opportunities to network with new people.”

Prizes for the best three films, including a $2,500 first-place prize, will be funded through the Anton Burg Foundation, named in honor of the founder of the USC chemistry department.

“The prize is not as important as exploring and making a film that you would never have made before, and hopefully there will be a lot of films that people will enjoy,” Johnson said. “Reach out, and go outside of your comfort zone. The kinds of friendships you make doing these kinds of collaborative projects last a long time throughout your career.”

The deadline for competition registration is Oct. 8 and the final submission deadline is Jan. 11.

  • CreativeinScience

    I appreciate this. I’m a creative person and my current job has me working mostly with scientists and researchers dealing with highly technical concepts. I don’t understand 95% of what they’re talking about and find that, unfortunately, many in these fields don’t do the best job at explaining what they do to generate the interest of the layperson. Some have a knack for “dumbing it down”. Most don’t.

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  • Science and Art combining what a great idea.