1. How did you get from science to animation?
I studied science and law in Canberra. Back then a double degree just meant you got a lesser experience of both. My eclectic science degree is in part a reaction to that. What I couldn’t get in depth, I opted to get in breadth. I leapt from computer science major to molecular biology and along the way managed to talk my way into fish biology and evolution units. Thoroughly engaging experience and, entirely unbeknownst to me then, perfect for a science media career.
It’s worth noting that if you were to look at my class notes during this time, you’d see off-topic sketches in every margin. And a few more on the bar tables, in the university newspaper, on the odd poster, political postcards, a lot of friend’s birthday cards and in our legal workshop yearbook. A sketcher with a sketchy science degree… oh and a LLB.
So a little lawyering and wandering in the wilderness (Europe) later I returned to Australia and talked myself into a researcher and associate producer role with Beyond Productions in Sydney. Back then they made Beyond 2000 which was touted as the most widely-travelled, widely-seen science and technology program in the world. Today they are better known for Mythbusters.
As Beyond 2000‘s TV audience ebbed we took it to the web to keep the brand alive. I was not only writing pop science stories, but more interestingly having to illustrate the vast number of stories that had very catchy content but lacked all useful visuals. I was (in part) getting paid to make pictures. Science and illustration with a wage was a revelation.
And little later I moved to Melbourne where I studied animation and interactive media and have worked in educational and science-related media production ever since.
A career is easy to see in retrospect, as my father-in-law used to say.
2. So the halfway point was TV? How was that? What did you work on?
I spent much of my time in the SBS HR department as employment contracts lawyer talking my way into a job in TV production.
I met an old friend of the original production manger of Beyond2000 who was very conveniently by then Head of Production for Beyond Productions. With a head full of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control which I’d read and reread while in Europe, I had enough visual and technological story ideas to make an impression. My lack of enthusiasm for fast cars obviously counted against me but I also happened to be reading exactly the same book as him and, rather unscientifically, he took this to be a good sign.
TV, particularly in the first year, was an astounding brain food smorgasbord. The production was rather lean so I go to do everything: research, story pitching, interviewing techniques, screen writing, voice over, camera work, producing local shoots, editing. And often (but not always) learnt from the best TV professionals in the world.
I’ll share one of my favourite Beyond mantras: I.B.F. As in “well I’ll be f*cked”. A very Australian and very TV way of asking “where is the moment of astonishment in this science story?.” If isn’t in there, find it. If that story doesn’t have it, find another story. Be hard-headed about your awe and wonderment.
I worked on three seasons of Beyond 2000 and the pitch that became Beyond Tomorrow (in the early 00s on Channel 7 in Australia). I toured US & UK making a one hour prion/BSE documentary which was tastefully titled Brain Snatchers (I preferred Apocalypse Cow). Researched for but wasn’t on the boat for the QUEST. Helped tell the story of farming settlement and metalwork in Stories from the Stone Age. Wrote or contributed to a host of pitches and snagged a original concept credit for Stings, Fangs & Spines (a 5 part series for the Discovery Channel). Was a feature extra ghost, high energy physicist and gila monster bit victim. I even wrote a segment for Golf Australia.
3. Now at Bridge8 working with a futurist. How did you meet Kristin Alford?
Given my Beyond 2000 background, this makes perfect sense to me. We also work in different cities. How futuristic is that?!
I met Bridge8 founder, Kristin Alford, at an Australian Science Communicators‘s conference. She thought that my visualisation skills might proved useful for a review she was conducting of her business. 3 years, 23 animated shorts and a host of other projects later, I’m still here.
Our approaches and experience are a little chalk and cheese. She’s very systematic and I can be a little order from chaos especially in the more creative work. We’re still looking for the ideal project to combine our skills but in the meantime we manage to find collaborative opportunities in an array of intriguing work. Online community building like the Australia edition of I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here and the twitter chat #onsci have been especially rewarding. Through them I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some excellent people, who just happen to be some of Australian’s up and coming scientists and science communicators.
4. What would you love to do if cost was no bar? What kind of projects?
I used to joke that my background made me an ideal choice to make an animated documentary series about bioinformatics patent infringements. Except that wasn’t really a joke. Big complex, largely unseen, multidisciplinary issues like that which impact on our daily lives provide really rich story and visual opportunities.
Better yet. I’d like to try a regular series. Like a slightly less serious and animated version of RadioLab or 99% Invisible.
Sponsors, supporters, fans: call me. We can make this happen.
5. Share yer Hobbies!
My hobbies (drawing, writing, reading) became my work. A dangerous path. Perhaps I need new hobbies. Hmmm. Furniture making temps me. I certainly need more bookshelves. I’m trying once again to reboot my piano playing (dormant for many years). I really should do some more life drawing- though nowadays that counts as a tax deduction.
And a sea kayak might be useful.
Please welcome James Huston to Real Scientists!