Are Scientists or Moviemakers the Bigger Dodos?

Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson says that academics must be more like Hollywood in how they share their love for science

Marine biology professor-turned-Hollywood filmmaker Randy Olson contends that people missed the message in his first two films because film is not their language. (Emmett Schmotkin)

Randy Olson, a tenured marine biology professor-turned-Hollywood filmmaker, has caught some flack for allegedly “dumbing down” science in his two movies. In his new book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist, he challenges that claim and teaches others how to harness the power of arousal.

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You were a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire and you left to pursue filmmaking in Hollywood. Why?

Storytelling. As I look back on the past 30 years, I realize that the single biggest thing that drew me into science were great scientists who told great stories that caught my attention and enraptured me. I went off and did science for a long time and thoroughly enjoyed it, and then I really enjoyed eventually telling my own stories. I got so wrapped up in that that I got sidelined into a whole, separate aspect of that which is telling the stories for their own sake. That’s what drew me into filmmaking in the early ’90s. The deeper I got into that, the more serious I became and finally decided to go to film school in the mid ’90s. That’s when I changed careers.

But you started making films before you changed careers.

Yes. Shortly after I became a professor at the University of New Hampshire, I began making films. In 1989, I had my first kind of life altering experience where I began to see the power of video as a communication device. Not so much to communicate information but rather to grab people’s attention… to arouse and fulfill. Video and film have enormous arousal potential if used properly.

What’s this “arouse and fulfill” thing?

It’s such a simple pairing of elements yet it’s just endlessly difficult and important. The vast majority of academics can’t even figure out how to do the arousal part. All they know how to do is stand up and spew out information. Having lived in Hollywood for 15 years, I can say that the vast majority of Hollywood people only know how to do the first part. They can arouse the hell out of you, but when you finally get interested in what they have to say, you find out they got no clue, no substance, nothing to fulfill with. The goal is to hit it on both of those points. Get the audience really interested and then give them exactly what they’re interested in. The further I’ve gone in this process, the more I’ve come to realize that those two elements are really 99 percent of the entire dynamic of how to communicate.

When you originally went to Hollywood, did you want to make science films?

I was interested in eventually fulfilling, but for the near term developing my capabilities for arousing. So I headed off to film school to learn comedy filmmaking. I have a kind of crazy sense of humor at times, and I enjoy comedy. When I started making films, I began with humorous films. So I was headed in that direction, and I was interested in the power of both humor and film to arouse people’s interests and stimulate their interests in subjects. I did have the long-term interest in circling back around to the science world and, of course, all those years of training and knowledge, I wasn’t about to throw that away.

In your film, Flock of Dodos, you refer to yourself as a dodo.


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