How do you think making films about environmental science differs from other topics?

Even seasoned professionals may shy away from making this type of film. For example, it took me six months to convince Toby Shimin, an editor with whom I had worked for 20 years, to help with A Sea Change. Why the reluctance?

"Science," she muttered under her breath, "I can't do science."

This from a woman who had worked on everything from Holocaust survivor stories to Reporting America at War. But Toby’s reaction is hardly unique.

A major challenge in making such a film for a general audience is that many viewers had a poor experience with science in school. Old feelings of confusion or boredom come rushing back, creating all kinds of barriers to engaging with the subject matter. While I suspect this may be more true for the United States than for Europe, one has to find a way of addressing the issue.

The mind of a scientist can seem unfathomable to some people – as if scientists were aliens with arcane, inaccessible thought processes. Barbara Ettinger

So filmmakers have to ask themselves: how do we engage and satisfy hundreds of thousands of viewers who had miserable experiences in science classes, or simply feel intimidated by scientists? In our case, we tried to take science out of the classroom and make it relevant to people’s everyday lives.

Making a film which involves science can be intimidating for a number of other reasons. The mind of a scientist can seem unfathomable to some people – as if scientists were aliens with arcane, inaccessible thought processes. For those not steeped in science, researchers' observations may appear to spill out fast and furiously, flowing into some surprising place that could not have been forseen five minutes before. Scientists relentlessly prod and explore and test as part of a continuous quest for evidence. They are truth-seekers who doubt the truths they reveal.

In addition, anyone who commits to making a film involving environmental science can expect to have their work subjected to unusually intense levels of scrutiny. So on top of all the usual challenges – of narrative, imagery, character, pacing and suspense – you have to brace yourself for the possibility of controversy.

What’s the best way to keep the audience’s attention when they may have been put off science at an early age?

When New Yorker environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert first heard that we were making a film about ocean acidification, she warned us that "this is not an easy story to tell".

Why not? First of all, no one can spell pteropod – the creature which is necessarily the central character in any drama on ocean acidification. But never mind spelling it; few even know what a pteropod is. It is a challenge to make a pteropod a sympathetic victim.

I made the decision from the start to make this film a narrative tale about a nearly universal relationship: a grandparent worrying about the fate of their grandchild.

In this case, it's a grandfather concerned about the future facing his grandson in light of disturbing global environmental crises. I set out to build a story that would hold people’s attention in spite of the complex scientific issues that the viewer would have to confront. I made a conscious decision to revisit the grandfather/grandson relationship roughly every ten minutes, as a technique for releasing some of the pressure on the viewer to absorb each round of new information – and as a way of continually "touching base" with the overarching narrative.

So far, it’s been exciting to hear from diverse audiences how much they have become immersed in the story, even as they are learning about the dangers we face and taking stock of what actions need to be taken. Though the outlook is pretty dire, the audience does not have to run from the movie theatre screaming, or trying to forget what they've heard.

It should be said that this film was not made for "green" audiences that are already highly informed about ocean acidification. It was targeted at a general audience not yet aware of the threat – one that may come in perplexed by the various things they've heard about climate change. It's our goal by the time the film is over to motivate viewers to get engaged and to support the urgent policy decisions needed to limit global carbon dioxide output.

What motivated you to make a film about ocean acidification?

Our choice to do a story on ocean acidification was made in an instant.

Sven and I had just completed a documentary about a grassroots fight against a multinational polluter that was threatening the small city of Hudson, New York, in the region where we live. The film was titled Two Square Miles. The film covered a long, protracted battle whose expected outcome had seemed nearly certain at the outset – the polluter would win. We filmed for four years; eventually the citizens prevailed and we emerged with a film. But we were exhausted and swore we would take a year to recover. We wanted to pursue the gentler activities of life, perhaps those activities more suitable to our age group...

Never mind spelling it; few even know what a pteropod is. It is a challenge to make a pteropod a sympathetic victim. Barbara Ettinger

A month into our voluntary isolation we both came across Elizabeth Kolbert's article in The New Yorker, entitled The Darkening Sea, about the threat of ocean acidification. Shaken, I asked Sven, my husband and co-producer, if he had ever heard of ocean acidification before.

Sven knows everything. Yet he had never read about this issue before. We grabbed our computers and Googled "ocean acidification". In November 2006 there was a single, half-page of entries. One of those few links described a conference about to take place in Seattle, US, led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) oceanographer Richard Feely, presenting the latest research to scientists and fishermen. We called Dick and he encouraged us to come to Seattle.

At the end of Dick's presentation we were fully convinced both that the problem was real, and also that few people outside the world of ocean science were aware of it. We came to understand the urgent need for communicating science to a broad audience. Scientists want their work to be readily available to, and understood by, the rest of the world. But that is not their job; nor are they often comfortable with that role. So we decided to end our hiatus and move forward with another film.

How did you go about creating the film?

We’d seen enough formal interviews in labs and studios to convince us to try something different. We wanted the audience to enjoy the company of our scientists, to see them in a more relaxed, informal environment. We wanted viewers to sense their humanity as well as understand their work. One strategy we settled upon was to film nearly every interview outside, walking and chatting – usually with the ocean as an ever-present backdrop. When we did film indoors, we focused on experiments-in-progress to keep the action flowing.

You may be familiar with the saying, "lawyers were children once, too". Well, scientists have families as well – and the work they do is at least in part motivated by the desire to make a better world for them. Elias, Sven's six-year-old grandson, became the film's window into universal values of compassion and legacy. Playful scenes of grandfather/grandson rapport are developed into deeper themes of social inheritance, moral responsibility, and the desire of parents and grandparents to want the best for the next generation.

Our overriding goal was to engage a general audience and contribute positively to a global dialogue. We also had some more specific and pressing goals, such as improving the US's chances of participating meaningfully in COP-15, the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. For us, these were ambitious dreams, ones which continue to drive the project as we move closer to our first major screenings.

What were the key challenges?

The main logistical challenges in this kind of project are finding enough funds and courting the right talent. Movies cost money... lots of money. Our timing was fortuitous, as the bulk of our fund-raising occurred while the economy was still strong – and after the box office success of An Inconvenient Truth proved that there is a wide potential audience for documentaries about the environment. As a result we were able to get a number of large grants from foundations, since we decided to make this film in partnership with a charitable organization.

With money in hand, we were prepared to bring together the talent necessary to make a really good film. As the director, once I had developed a clear, general understanding of the arc of the story, I was conscious of the need to find a cinematographer with strong experience in filming children, which is a very special skill. And as always, I wanted to work with an exceptionally talented editor. As mentioned earlier, my editor and friend Toby Shimin thankfully overcame her initial reluctance to work on this type of film. She and I have a long history of working together on successful creative projects. With Toby on board, I was convinced I had the right team.

What's the most surprising thing you learnt in the process?

I started out very concerned about the fate of our oceans, and mainly expected to become more knowledgeable about the issues as filming progressed. What I didn't expect was that my concerns would become more severe the more I learned. Each discussion with a scientist or fisherman indicated that the situation was even more drastic and catastrophic than I initially thought. It was difficult at times to see over such a dark horizon.

So when we started to stumble upon some "change agents" like Andrew Beebe in Mountain View, CA, who installed the seven acres of solar panels on the roofs of the Google campus and Eystein Borgen in Bergen, Norway, whose company, Sway AS, is designing floating wind generators for the North Sea, I was delighted. The deepening gloom began to lift. Though the world faces an uphill battle to restore our oceans to health, there are at least some inklings of hope. It was striking how almost all the people who were working on solutions seemed to be young, or at least young-ish. And they saw things on a big scale. They had stellar track records in previous endeavours, and they were "charged up" to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead. They were craving more public and political support for their agenda, and so we hit it off.

What are your plans for "A Sea Change"?

Right now our focus is self-distribution. We've begun by offering the film to festivals. Our East Coast premiere is in Washington, DC, and we have a West Coast premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival. We're approaching both the larger festivals and the more targeted, environmental festivals. And now some of them are starting to approach us.

We know from our sneak previews at the American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting and the Seafood Summit that our core audience responds strongly to the film. So the next step are "alt-theatrical" screenings we plan together with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These screenings may be planned around events they already have in place, such as the Alaska Marine Conservation Council's climate-change awareness teach-ins. Or the screenings may be part of our World Ocean Initiative, in which our goal is an event on every continent (at least), to highlight the international nature of the problem.

In April, we'll be showing a segment of the film at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna.

In the fall, we'd like to set up screenings on campuses across America and beyond. Part of our goal with A Sea Change was that the film spark awareness about ocean acidification before COP-15 takes place, to help insure that the US becomes an active, if not leading, partner in climate change discussion on an international level.

If a distributor approaches us regarding traditional theatrical release, we'll certainly consider it; however, independent documentary makers are moving more in the direction of the collaborative, progressive screening. It's both more cost-effective and a better way to ensure the film will be used as an educational tool, a place to start to discuss and encourage action.

We'd definitely like a broadcast, if we're offered that chance. Broadcast is the best way to reach a mainstream audience. And we're considering streaming the film online down the road; possible outlets include Hulu and Netflix.

What tips would you give to researchers looking to communicate their work on camera?

The question which always should come first is: "who is my audience?"

If you were a researcher aiming to communicate with other scientists, you would make a radically different film from those trying to make a popular presentation. If the goal is to reach a broad audience, I would caution against all forms of preaching – of telling the audience how to think or feel.

I also encourage people to make sophisticated work, rather than thinking you have to "dumb things down." There is so much media out there today in so many forms – from podcasts to feature films – that audiences have become increasingly demanding and discerning about what will hold their attention and their interest. To sit down and watch a 90-minute documentary without interruptions – without changing the channel or surfing to another site – is a big investment of time and attention nowadays.

I would also encourage filmmakers not to shy away from sentiment or humour, when the material calls for it. Since it's commonly assumed that scientists are cold and unfunny (stereotypes I know to be untrue), these qualities were all the more welcome and effective in the context of this project.

What are your tips for filming science?

Science presented on film must be visually compelling, with a sense of drama. The actual science can be highly dramatic but when conveyed in academic terms, it loses its force. Fortunately, the natural world is stunningly beautiful from the micro- to the macroscopic level; so in this film you will see a lot of both.

Music can also play a crucial role, enlivening and animating some of the more technical material, as well as sweeping through the course of the film to add coherence and focus attention on key moments.

Characters, of course, must feel authentic. If the filmmakers don’t understand what the experts are saying, there is a good chance the audience won’t either. You also at times have to nudge interviewees to use plainer language or distill their point.

This responsibility to simplify and clarify is sometimes a challenge. In the course of shooting, a documentary filmmaker will become more engaged and more informed about the topic. More obscure details become fascinating, while the basic elements of the story become increasingly taken for granted. The goal is to try to take the audience on this same journey, starting with the most elemental facts, then gradually introducing more complex notions into the mix of information.

By the time we had conducted our fourth or fifth interview, we started to find everything compelling and absolutely necessary... and this led to a difficult time in the editing room. Fortunately, our editor had not been on the road with us, and so had more objectivity about what would resonate for those who were watching for the first time. In the end, we mercilessly cut many scenes we had adored while filming, but which proved superfluous once we returned to the editing suite.

Lastly, I always try to remember that first and foremost it is about the story. Make sure to build a strong story. One of our favorite scientists said to us: "I always ask myself, 'will my mother be able to understand what I am saying?'" That is a good test.