What we do
A conversation with Swansong Film’s Niamh Heery about the work she and Eric Dolan are doing with CÚRAM, Ardán, and the National Talent Academy Animation (NTAA) to bring scientific research to the screen via animations to make it more accessible.
Niamh founded Swansong Films in 2005 with Eric Dolan, where she works primarily as a documentary and drama film maker, but also as a youth and community work film maker. Eric has always jumped on board with her as a producer or to do VFX (visual effects) work on various projects where help is needed. They also come together to work as partners on work they are both interested in, for example the Science of Screen project – A Tiny Spark – in 2018 and the current 2022 / 2023 project.
Niamh originally studied media and communications in Tallaght , as well as a BA in Visual Arts Practice in IADT, and she then went on to complete her Master’s in Production and Direction in the Huston School of Film at the University of Galway. Eric’s background is in animation VFX (visual effects) and he’s worked with major production companies including Windmill Lane and Piranha Bar as well as high-end commercial and feature film work. Their collaboration works well, where on some productions Niamh can lead production and Eric can get into the ‘fun VFX and animation stuff’, then Niamh can lead on the documentary and drama projects she enjoys, and Eric supports with VFX.
This is the second Science on Screen initiative that Swansong Film has worked on with CÚRAM and Ardán (previously known as Galway Film Centre.) Niamh had seen Alice McDowell and Mia Mullarkey’s work from 2017 – Feats of Modest Valour – so she and Eric applied for the commission in 2018.
Their successful commission in 2018 resulted in the animated production of A Tiny Spark.
Noting the success of that piece in festivals locally and internationally, Niamh could see firsthand the power of mixing science and creativity to reach audiences in a different way. Niamh spotted the 2022 competition, this time to create two short animations with CÚRAM, Ardán, and the NTA for Animation.
The production of such a piece for Science on Screen draws on the creative strengths of filmmakers and combines it with key medical research that is being done to develop better new and medical devices.
Within the allocated budget, animation teams were asked to collaborate with CÚRAM researchers to create an animation that is a minimum of 40 seconds in length, that works for a public audience, which provides a platform to explain fundamental scientific concepts used to develop effective treatments for chronic illnesses.
The goal with the Science on Screen initiative is to give audiences the opportunity to gain a better understanding of these concepts, and also to provide a tool for scientists to engage with the public on the core concepts involved in their research and its relevance to future treatments.
The question they asked themselves was, “How can we narrow this crazy world of science down to match a narrative?” The Swansong team looked at macro and micro systems, as well as at drone imagery and at ecosystems and how they are observed from a big aspect down into the smaller details.
The idea they started with was to be able to see things happening from above – inside the human body – and then how all these systems work together. In the end they chose a landscape version, and zoomed in on one person, and looked at what was the issue that was happening to them, and then zoomed further inside the body to see the science behind the issue, and what’s the medicine that can fix it.
With that simple concept, they were able then to structure a narrative with characters to make a very short animation – 50 seconds – one minute, moving from a wide shot of the landscape to a medium shot to see the person and issue, and then a closeup of the inner workings of the body and the medicine.
Preparation for production included writing a script and creating a mood board, and then completing a panel interview with key stakeholders from Ardán, the NTAA, and CÚRAM. From there, Niamh and Eric could delve further into the detail of the animations before getting into production mode.
Production was relatively smooth, as the Swansong team had a lot of the prep done beforehand, and with the aid of feedback from the researchers, the team could get the correct terminology finalised.
“Getting the voiceover right is key in a production like this as you only have 50-ish seconds in which to explain a difficult concept, so getting the script right for that was key.” This also included explaining to the researchers that the text couldn’t have a big paragraph of scientific research in there, it would need to be edited down to the bones of the idea to work well. Niamh noted that CÚRAM are very good with this process, as they have public engagement people on hand who can help to simplify the language.
Once the script was finalised, the Swansong team moved into preparing the story board, and once that was greenlit by all the collaborators, Niamh and Eric provided style frames (animation stills) of some of the characters and some of the medical devices, to show how the final look of the animation would be. The style frames allowed the researchers to visualise the final concept to give feedback pre-production.
What were the approximate number of hours spent on pre-production, production, and post? Pre-production and planning took about 20 hours, then actual production took approximately 250 hours, and post-production required about 40 hours of time to finalise the animations for public viewing.
What was a key insight that you took from working on a similar Science on Screen process back in 2018?
According to Niamh; “Speaking, listening, and communicating is key. You have to ask questions, and ask for lots of plain language explanations, then sit there and listen and take notes, because you’re not the expert, and if you do that at the beginning there are less mistakes to tidy up later on in the project, when it’s harder to do. Once you have that framework, CÚRAM are then very open to new approaches, and provide freedom to create.”
“The 2018 piece (A Tiny Spark) was documentary mixed with quite lyrical 2D animation, as it is quite abstract and difficult at times to play and portray the experience of someone having a stroke, so animation was great for that. But this time around it was very precise work to leave more room for the medical devices to be showcased.”
In 2018, the work was different, as they travelled to film festivals and had A Tiny Spark screened on RTÉ. This time around it has been more about creating pieces that are part of an overall project that can be shown as a tool at conferences to attract funding and push the devices into the market, as well as public engagement with what the device itself does.
The organisation of the whole project was great, CÚRAM had the team of scientists on hand to help, including Professor David Brayden for the PEP BUCCAL Project from UCD, Dr Eoin O’Cearbhaill, for the Stent Coating Project from UCD, and Claire Riordan, the CÚRAM Education and Public Engagement Manager.
From a project management perspective, Kenny Gaughan and the team at Ardán was brilliant to help with all the contracts and documentation and generally being able to bounce ideas off each other in terms of managing the types of documentation that were needed for the whole project scope.
The NTAA (National Talent Academy Animation) mentorship with Pa Lynch as an advisor for filling out the audio and soundscape of animation was key, as that was a whole new world of work to learn. The NTAA is led by Deirdre Barry as Programme Director, with Joe Orr as Animation Course Coordinator.
Funding is always the main issue, according to Niamh, when working professionally in this industry. The process of applying for funding, waiting for decisions on funding applications, and managing that whole process is the time-consuming part a lot of the time. Where Eric is a freelancer, she noted, and can work on other projects and productions in VFX where he is in high-demand, Niamh focuses a lot of her in-between time managing the production itself from pre to post, and that is a full-time job in itself.
From ideation, to applying for funding, to producing the piece to all the work that comes after, it takes time. With the Science on Screen project, she noted, what was great was that as soon as the project idea was accepted by the teams involved, the funding and the process of work was already in place.
Niamh has a feature script in process right now – A Means to an End – an eco-drama about a small village in north rural Ireland that is fighting a fracking operation. They are waiting to see if that goes into further development. Again, it all depends on funding. Beyond that, Niamh continues to work on other smaller commissions and youth and community filmmaking projects which always inform her work.
Always juggling several projects – Niamh noted the only time you’ll be focussed on one project is when you are in production mode – otherwise you are always juggling some aspect of pre or post-production.
Overall, they found it a very positive experience working on Science on Screen. In Niamh’s words, with science and animation it is like two different places in the mind coming together to explain something.
“It’s fun, it’s challenging, but it’s cool to see a film pushing a scientific idea forward in its development.”
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