Using Film Professionally in Research

The first films I ever made were recordings of lectures at London Universities. In the early years of my PhD, I was surrounded by people whose talks were going undocumented. And this was my lucky break — I needed quick money to supplement a small (but gratefully received) scholarship from the Science Museum. I soon found I could use these skills to create mini videos about my own work — mainly on eighteenth-century transplant and notions of grafting — so I made a couple of short documentaries. I found my skillset growing and within a year was fortunate enough to be collaborating with institutions like the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Imperial College, London. My film-making skills improved alongside my humanities Ph.D., and in 2012 I set up Smart Docs — a company helping academia, healthcare, and the cultural sector to use film in a way that responds directly to the priorities and requirements of these highly specialised professional contexts.

Effectively having two careers running concurrently meant I never knew how to introduce myself. It was almost a crisis of identity — was I an academic of some sort, or was I a film maker? On the one hand I was a trained cultural historian, and not a trained film maker (I have only had four days of intensive training with a friend of mine who was at one point a BBC Director); on the other hand, I was making films professionally and had long-term work arrangements with prestigious institutions. In a world glutted with film makers, certain kinds of institutions were choosing me over hundreds of other options, and in some cases specifically seeking me out. I never dedicated a penny to marketing, partly because this privileged position of having clients meant I never needed to, and partly because I felt this would confirm my position as a film maker and a businessman when, really, I really identified with my academic colleagues.

As my business expanded, I started to see a distinction between academics and a film makers come into sharper focus. Lots of film work meant I needed to hire others to work alongside me. In most cases, I found these people had the technical skills but no idea how to talk to my academic colleagues much less how to help them frame their work for specialist audiences. They often didn’t consider the audience of the film at all, or how to allow the research and institutional requirements inform their approach. The only exception to this was a remarkable woman I trained myself from scratch and a gem of a man who works with me still. After one unfortunate experience, a client complained that one of my film makers wouldn’t listen to her requirements and instead insisted that no one would watch his film if he didn’t make it ‘BBC quality’ (whatever that means). The job was the recording of a patient focus group as part of a research piece on new methods of cancer diagnosis for a well-known teaching hospital. The client needed a clear recording for her research purposes, but the professional film maker made assumptions — without even asking — about audience and tried to push for additional money for equipment so he could produce a public-facing film to ‘tell a story’.

This experience, for me, confirmed that there are many ways to employ the medium of film, and using it doesn’t necessarily make you a film maker. Professional film makers are in fact highly specialised. When academics enter into a collaboration with a film maker, we bridge two islands. The academic island, with its people busy writing, publishing, teaching, researching, grant-writing, and so on is quite different from the film maker’s island with their story telling, technical skills, and expensive equipment. By bridging these islands, you can develop a magnificent relationship and produce fantastic productions and compelling narratives. Working like this might satisfy a specific grant condition or constitute some kind of artistic engagement, but the limitations are considerable. Not only are such relationships difficult to manage, they have very specific applications and, without extremely close handling, are realistically limited to promotional or journalistic outputs.

Bridges not only signify connection, they also imply separation. I eventually found a solution to my identity crisis. I occupied the academic island. This was where my training and experience put me. That I used a camera was deceptive because I didn’t share the values, interests, or motivations of a film maker. I came to recognise the value of my work was in how I drew on my knowledge and experience of the university context. I specifically addressed priorities like impact, engagement, and project legacies, and did so in a way that went beyond spouting such buzzwords. I knew how to frame a project, what kinds of images and sounds had to be represented, and how to demonstrate engagement and outreach; how to use film in ways that fulfilled the requirements of grant proposals, and how to frame projects and departments in ways that looked good to potential funders. My technical skills had simply developed over time, but the professional aspect — the expertise for which I could command a fee — grew around my experience working in research-led institutions. When it came to my business, it dealt with a very specific niche need no one else seemed to be addressing.

The association of cameras and editing software with the profession of film making, I would argue, risks blinding us to the potential utility of film. It’s as if pens and computers were associated with authors, and everyone thought these tools were solely for the use of this group.

Following this line of thought, I eventually started to think more deliberately about film as a tool for research itself. At its most basic level, this could simply be a case of arresting and expressing evidence, data, or text. It could also be a medium in which text can be analysed and criticised. I am not a film partisan; I consider it essential to use film rigorously in a proper context. Certain ways of arranging material are simply easier in text. My thesis was a conventional, written document, and I valued the capacity of text to structure and present argument. It is easier in writing, for instance, to present different points of view and argue; expressing the relationship between two complex clauses in an argument is, in that medium, as simple as writing ‘and’ or ‘but’. It is more difficult — though not impossible — to form these kinds of expression in film. You can, however, express ideas that are difficult (or simply less efficient) to put into words.

Here are three examples.


Example 1: Encounters on the Shop Floor

Some forms of knowledge are difficult to put into words. This video I produced from material captured at a workshop at Blythe House for the V&A (VARI). By editing together the reflections of representatives from multiple academic disciplines with images of the craftspeople participants at work, I was able to represent the sophistication of the knowledge makers embodied, particularly within their hands. It is part of a larger VARI project — Encounters on the Shop Floor — about embodied or tacit knowledge in craft and industry; a project that fundamentally challenges distinctions between intellect and affect, the brain and the body.

Example 2: Skin

I created this film to explore how we experience the skin. It explores the dimensions of time and scale. I prompted my then PhD supervisor, Steve Connor, to talk about how he experiences the skin at different orders of magnitude — up close, and far away, emphasising his experience of his own skin and reconciling this with its status as a biological material. Seen from close up, the skin is a depersonalised and dynamic material. It can be cut, it can heal, and scars can form. Even without manipulation, it’s always changing, developing wrinkles, spots and blemishes, wrinkling and tightening depending on hydration. We never really know something ‘like the back of your hand’, as the idiom goes because the back of the hand is never the same from one moment to the next. Seen from far away, however, skin is associated with identity, which etymologically invites us to think about a material that doesn’t change (French identité or Latin identitas — ‘quality of being the same’). Skin is both highly personal and entirely impersonal; we recognise a person by their outer layer, even as time goes by and age renders the skin unrecognisable on a material level.

Unlike The Knowledge of the Maker, this film used the capacities of the medium of film in order to deepen engagement with the material of the skin. It relates to my PhD work and, as such, the cultural significance of skin grafting — what it means to move from skin around the body, or even from one body to another. Although it can be viewed as a fascinating material, the skin can be seen as constituting a person, a skin graft could even be said to change the individual. I explore this point by playing with scale and framing. I filmed the interview with a macro lens, focusing solely on a section of Connor’s cheek. The image and sound is technically synchronised, but it doesn’t appear to be so. And it’s difficult to place the slab of undulating skin you are presented with; you can’t really tell it’s a cheek.

The film makes some sense alone, but read in context with my PhD thesis, it relates to ideas of grafting in Levi Strauss, and Derrida. Materials have meanings, and moving materials around alters and extends those meanings. Skin grafting, then, is an operation with far more significance than a simple movement of material from one location to another. Like all grafting, it is a form of writing and creation.

Example 3: Mapping and Space Production in South-West Greenland

Stine Alling Jacobsen is a PhD candidate investigating the mapping and space-production practices around the cryolite mine in the Ivittuut area of South-West Greenland.  She analyses maps, diagrams, photographs, and film from between 1850s-1990s, and aims to understand how these texts inform the historical and cultural significance of the site.

By analysing cultural representations of the site, Jacobsen aims to understand how information is represented, transformed, erased, and distorted as old documents are superseded by new, and as she takes into account a variety of narratives (including Denmark's colonial, industrial, and scientific initiatives, different scales of time and space, and her own presence).  In this way, she is able to draw on recent conceptual history challenging the validity of 'progress' narratives, and work with a non-linear notion of history — a history understood in temporal and spatial entanglements.  Film, with its capacity to represent, distort, superimpose, and play with the dimensions of time and scale, allows her to pose more precise questions around these timelines, lifetimes, and ruptures.


The tools of the film maker are quickly becoming less expensive and easier to use. It’s now a realistic prospect that academics working in a range of areas might learn to use film in ways that enhance their own research. And this does not have to rely on complicated equipment or even particularly difficult editing. Something comparable happened in photography not very long ago; we still find immense value in professional photography but we no longer need to call on a separate professional for all of our needs. Similarly, there isn’t quite the same need for a professional typist as there once was. As far as film is concerned, this opening up of possibility has only arisen in the last three to five years. It has given us options. Keeping in mind a handful of easy-to-remember (and breakable) rules about image composition, we can film away with our smartphones now just as we’ve been able to snap and type away for many years. I am also enthusiastic about exploring other ways to present material, especially exploring the capacity of motion capture and virtual immersion, creating environments where different visualisations and representations can be layered, explored, and experienced in a virtual environment. As technology becomes easier to handle, I am enthusiastic about exploring what it might afford to academics, most particularly in the humanities. (And furthermore, in Virtual Reality, we can place the ‘reader’ inside of the text, exploring the part of individual perspective in the documentation of historical events, recordings for anthropology, even the creation of other texts in the humanities that are sensitive to multiple temporalities).