Workshop: Envisioning Environments—Visual Media for the Environmental Humanities
“And action!” Katie Ritson, the master of ceremonies for the evening, claps her hands. Gradually, people unglue from the buffet, where they have been busy chatting and grabbing drinks and snacks, and they move to the conference room to find a good place to sit. For some, this means the front row, as they are eager to have a clear view of what they’re about to see; others hurry to find a place somewhere in the back, out of sight. There is a lot of nervous laughter and chuckling. The reason for all the excitement is announced on the folded leaflets lying on every seat: “ProEnviron presents! Short Films from the Envisioning Environments Workshop.”
For most of the doctoral students here, it is the first time that they’re seeing a film they have produced on a big screen. It is also the first time that many of the fellows and other staff members have the opportunity to learn about the work the doctoral students are up to. One hour packed with 12 short films kicks off. The topics and the styles of the films are as variegated as the group of people who have produced them: from nuclear fusion in US American popular culture, to oil production and pollution in Ecuador, to indigenous food cultures in Canada, to earthquake memories in India. The audience’s reactions are equally varied, oscillating between amusement and concern. At the end of the evening, most of us feel like we’re walking out of the cinema after a good feature film—our heads full of images, sounds, feelings, and a decent amount of food for thought.
Cut. Rewind to just one week earlier. It’s lunchtime at Schloss Fürstenried, a 300-year old palace erected by the Bavarian monarchy and located in the southwest of Munich. About 15 PhD students and their five workshop conveners gather in the venerable dining hall to kick off the workshop Envisioning Environments—Visual Media for the Environmental Humanities—this year’s retreat for the Rachel Carson Center’s Doctoral Program Environment and Society. With our stomachs comfortably full, we take our seats in the “blue hall” with its startling purple walls and golden stucco—already a visually stimulating atmosphere. Our curiosity now piqued, we wonder what exactly awaits us over the next three days.
As is usual in our meetings, we begin with short individual presentations of our research topics. But, this time, everyone in the room is engaged in identifying possible storylines that will make for an appealing visualization of the various projects. The storylines are meant to serve as a first inspiration and starting point for compiling short movies on our research topics. Conveners Henrike Rau and Ricca Edmondson then take over and embed our first reflections in a more theoretical discussion. Many environmental challenges, they tell us, are themselves not visible to the human eye, or unfold over extended periods, making it important to overcome that invisibility with sound reasoning in environmental debates. By the end of the day, we’ve all started to think visually, not just for ourselves, but also for our projects and possible audiences.
Day two starts off with bees, honey, and a lot of maple syrup—at least on screen, as Gregg Mitman introduces us to the basics of storytelling and pitching, in a screening and discussion of selected short films on environmental issues (see some inspiring examples here). That afternoon, armed with a good, strong cup of coffee, we have an intensive working session to draft a storyboard for our short movie based on the many visual ideas we have gathered from the day before. The room is buzzing with ideas on how to compile a compelling narrative, as we all experiment with the material we’ve gathered during field research, or found online and in the archives. But there is still something missing: How to turn our thoughts into something that others can see and listen to?
The next morning, HFF Muenchen’s Lion Bischof guides us through the jungle of film-editing software, equipping us with the practical skills most of us still need to actually compile a short movie. We witness our fellow students’ evolution through different stages: from starting from scratch to the first moments of success. By the end of the workshop, many of us already have incredible audiovisual stories on our screens—stories that we couldn’t have begun to imagine on that first day of oral presentations.
Everybody enjoys a good film, but to make one is a different story. We learned that the hard way as, over the next few days, we spent several hours glued to our screens. But we did it in the end and took away some key lessons from our workshop experience:
- Create the storyboard long before you start working on the film: The process of creating the storyboard helps define the main story clearly and identify the best way to convey your message. It can help you save time, plan better, and anticipate problems and devise solutions beforehand.
- Focus on authentic subjects, images, and dialogues: Showing real people telling stories from their own perspective can have a much greater impact compared with other forms of storytelling, such as third person narration.
- Technical skills are critical to make a good film: During the workshop, though we learned only basic editing skills in a relatively short period, we came to see how important editing is to get good results. Having the right music, transitions, and pace makes a lot of difference.
- Learn from the work of others: It is always a good idea to watch and learn from others’ work to spur creativity and be inspired.
- Patience and commitment are essential: Film making is a draining process and requires total dedication, but the reward of the final product is well worth it.
Even though most of the participants probably aren’t going to use visual media in their current research, the workshop was still relevant and interesting because we learned to visualize our research and to present it effectively to our audience. Our very first audience at the RCC movie screening definitely seemed to approve, judging from the enthusiastic applause and generous feedback. We are looking forward to the next time we hear those magic words at the RCC: “And action!”
The Road to Nowhere Acknowledgements:
Special thanks to Biljana Meiske (“Mrs. Woody”) and Felix Mauch (“TVA representative”) for lending their voices, Gregg Mitman for his critical eye and support, and Maureen Hill for guiding me through the TVA files in the National Archives in Atlanta, GA.
Music from the Free Music Archive: “The Last Ones” by Jahzzar, “Springish” by Gillicuddy, and “Lemon and Melon” by Blue Dot Sessions.