Show Emotions to Tell Science Stories: Begin in the Middle

The storytelling masterclass that is 7 Days Out is simply displayed in its opening sequence of “NASA’s Cassini Mission” (Season 1, Episode 3).

Below are short descriptions of each shot*, from open to the series opening credits. If you have not seen this episode, don’t worry – the “spoilers” are subtle. If you know everything about the Cassini mission, don’t worry – you’ll learn things.

  1. sunrise on Cassini broadcasting cone
  2. wide shot of Cassini and Saturn backdrop
  3. radio receiver w twilight
  4. JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] interior – glowing nameplate
  5. Cassini team at computers
  6. two controllers speaking to each other
  7. close up controller
  8. signal of some sort on computer screen
  9. more controllers
  10. close up [head] controller
  11. spacecraft closeup, blurry Saturn in reflection
  12. wide shot backlit Saturn, craft lower left
  13. JPL controllers
  14. Cassini mission screens
  15. [JUMP CUT] Cassini entry – dramatic
  16. controller with hands in anxious prayer position, eyes focused on monitor
  17. top half of [chief engineer]’s head, showing intense focus in eyes on screen in front of her
  18. wide shot Cassini glowing entry
  19. broadcast cone to space shaking
  20. observant crowd reacting w surprise (in dark, outside?)
  21. close up crowd with concerned looks
  22. younger scientist outside on earpiece and mic, in convo, holding her ear; tight zoom showing wide eyes, taking info, downcast concern
  23. wide shot crowd outside presumably looking to screen 
  24. select few in crowd, transfixed, looking worried 
  25. screen shows Saturn and “Cassini Moments”
  26. time lapse crowd moving to chairs, oblique shot of “Cassini” on screen left
  27. asteroid drifting down from right
  28. spacecraft in atmosphere shaking, air resistance 
  29. interview [head] controller
  30. broadcast cone in atmosphere, bright flakes coming backward
  31. white screen to black
  32. opening series credits [first shot happens to be radio dish, daytime]

All of this happens in just under 1:40 – that’s 100 seconds of gripping storytelling. It delivers the core story and is shot through with emotions. It clearly sets up that something is happening “now,” and these people are focused on that something. And you are joining them in that experience.

Note that subtlety – you, the viewer, are going to experience something, along with these people. This is not an introduction that invites you to (passively) “watch some people do a thing.”

This style of storytelling flies in the face of many “rules” of communicating science (to scientists) – be objective, remove all human personality: it’s all about the science.

By avoiding that purely content-objectivity approach, director Andrew Rossi and his editing team are telling us a story about humans that (happen to) do science. This is not a story about those scientific findings (alone).

Thank goodness.

The best nonfiction reads, or views, like fiction.

That is, a good documentary is structured like a movie story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there are characters who go through changes on this journey.

The job of a documentary filmmaker then is to sequence shots from several cameras, across several points in time, to create a storyline. This may feel a little different than what a story writer/filmmaker does, because of course fiction artists only capture the parts of the character within the narrative, right?

Not necessarily. In the words of Robert McKee, considered a guru of screenwriting:

From an instant to eternity, from the intercranial to the intergalactic, the life story of each and every character offers encyclopedic possibilities. The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.

Structure is a selection of events from the characters’ life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.

Robert McKee, Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. 1997.

McKee’s definition of the role of the storyteller does not matter whether the story is fiction or nonfiction. That it is a story governs the artistic choices. His second quote above is exactly what Rossi has done in this example:

In this opening 100 seconds, we see characters in the midst of their life stories, in a strategically edited sequence that arouses emotions. This is a story opening.

Scientists are not un-used to this narrative structure, even in their highly objective research articles. The “abstract” provides a snapshot of the paper in a tightly worded block of text at the very beginning.

But in this screenwriting style, which is a modern literary style given the medium, something different is happening: we are being introduced to the whole story by seeing its middle. This is a master class example of in medias res, a technique I have covered in a previous post that I puckishly titled “A Series of Pictures Make a Movie” (written before I ever watched 7 Days Out).

As I noted there, starting in the middle grips you immediately into the action and all of its emotion. You do not necessarily know who these people are (I imagine in this particular case, only the filmmakers, the JPL team, their families and colleagues would know who these people are). Yet they are doing something that clearly focuses their attention and bleeds emotion.

Humans resonate with emotions. When humans see other humans emotionally charged, viewers perceive a shared experience with those people. This is how film powerfully attracts viewers and how stories forge powerful memories.

We feel that characters on screen are us. And we are emotionally invested.

Middles are typically shot through with action – the Aristotelian three act play makes clear why:

Act 1, beginning – set up

Act 2, middle – conflict

Act 3, ending – resolution

So naturally the middle pieces seem to move faster.

By putting the middle up front, you attract attention from shot 1. Done well, you can keep this attention throughout the piece. As I noted in my previous post, to really create a memorable story that grips the audience throughout, regardless of content, “copy and paste” that middle portion to the very beginning:

Act 0, “cold open” – people in the midst of some action (actually Act 2 before you know it)

Act 1, beginning – set up

Act 2, middle – conflict

Act 3, ending – resolution

In film and television this is referred to as “cold open” because the audience is dropped in the middle of the action without knowing where they are. They start cold, no set up.

Think of some of the most gripping openings in film or television you can remember – chances are they used a cold open structure. Shonda Rhimes has built ratings-grabbing empires from deft cold opens. Every James Bond film uses it so that you are invested in the main character whether or not you have ever seen him on screen before. You could say George Lucas’s Star Wars is the ultimate modern example of a cold open … he started with Episode IV.

So Rossi’s treatment of the Cassini mission drops us in the middle of the action of this particular episode. Which is clever along two fronts:

  1. The general structure of 7 Days Out documents the lead up over seven days, then occurrence, of a large event. All of the episodes start off in the middle – the event itself.
  2. The Cassini mission itself is documented in its literal final days. So the audience, unless they have been involved the entire time, find themselves in the middle of something that has been taking place for a while. This again is a structure shared across his other episodes: a dog show or a fashion show that has taken place for decades; a horse race or a gaming tournament that has happened before; a lauded restaurant re-opening after a renovation; then a sort of space odyssey sailing off into the … deep.

Movie buffs would call this approach a teaser. Literary scholars call it in medias res. Researchers call it an abstract. I call it brilliant:

In the middle of its ending, the story begins. That compels attention.

In closing, I noted in the first post in this blog series that my wife and I came into this particular story from very different contexts: she did not recall ever hearing of a Cassini mission; I had once upon a time dreamed of myself working on it as a planetary scientist (I literally watched the launch live from my dorm’s TV room in college, back in 1997).

She was the perfect example of a cold open viewer – no context to what was about to happen. I was theoretically the opposite, knowing full well how this story ended … at least in terms of its content.

But here’s the thing: I was gripped as though I was seeing this for the first time. Because I was – I did not personally know the people behind the mission and I had certainly not been in the same room as them, ever. I was witnessing this for the first time. Cinematically I was experiencing it for the first time.

Both of us, my wife and I, exited the opening 100 seconds with jaws agape and hungry for more. Hungry for resolution. My wife, wondering what was happening to the spacecraft, and both of us wanting to know who these people were.

That is how you make a science story gripping: tell a human story with all of its emotions.

Coda

Like all Netflix content, there is an episode blurb. My wife typically reads all of these. I only read them if I have seen the piece before. I like to maintain a lack of knowledge to enjoy (and study) the narrative technique, starting cold.

Here is what that episode blurb says:

Emotions run high as a NASA team prepares to crash the Cassini probe into Saturn after a 20 year mission — gathering precious data until the end.

Well, now, this opening is more clearly the middle of the ending; reading this provides most of the context that I had knowing of the Cassini mission fate. But notice how this blurb captures the scene, literally starting “emotions run high” …

In the next post, I’ll dive into how the main characters of this story are presented throughout the narrative. All four of them are shown in this opening sequence. If you want a spoiler on who they are, see shots 1, 10, 17, and 22.

*I watched these with no sound. Being a presentations coach, I can capture a lot of detail from a series of images (in this case, very short videos). But this is also how many filmmakers construct their story during production. They build a storyboard that typically uses drawn pictures of what the shots will show. Having worked with documentary filmmakers myself, I know that when they edit they use this perception of the various shots. So in a sense, you can construct much of the feeling of the sequence from what you can see without hearing a word. As I’ve said before, the art emerges in editing.

PS: this blog post too follows a loose in medias res – I present the action, then background on story structure, return to what that action shows, then conclude as to this approach’s accomplishment.

Here are the other installments in this series, as they appear:

Prologue

Begin in the Middle (this post)

Let Characters Tell the Story

Editing Renders Memories

Want to know more tips to improve your presentations? Contact me to learn more about my workshops and 1-on-1 coaching services – I look forward to helping you Put Audiences First.

nasa-jpl backlit saturn

3 thoughts on “Show Emotions to Tell Science Stories: Begin in the Middle

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