Pod-casts showcase MSU students’ work

By ALEX KOMSTHOEFT/Montana State News

Terra is another name for the small blue planet we call home. Inspired by the remarkable beauty and interdependence of life on Earth, the TERRA pod-cast series strives to connect people with our natural world.Komsthoeft Alex - Mar 8, 2013 708 AM - 4558047_300

Overseen by graduate students in the MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program at Montana State University, TERRA distributes independently produced science, nature, environmental and cultural films.

Science communication had become a public concern because scientific understanding affects so many areas of contemporary life including health, the environment, space, natural resource preservation and wildlife habitat.

TERRA: The Nature of Our World, which is approaching its ninth season this fall, aims to reach a broader audience by using our modern-day media in hopes of broadcasting a new wave of scientific storytelling. The pod-cast series has reached over 10 million hits on its website.

TERRA has become a launching pad for many young filmmakers, most of whom are alumni or presently in the Science and Natural History Filmmaking Graduate Program at MSU. Ronald Tobias, the founder of the MFA in film at MSU also founded the experimental pod-cast series in 2005. TERRA was originally funded by the Discovery Channel, who also provided guidance to the project.

Science, a typically objective study, and filmmaking, viewed as an art form, seem an unlikely pair. Is it possible to turn a left-brained thinker into a right-brained artist? Taylor Johnson, a senior producer of TERRA and MSU Graduate student, seems to think so, and even finds humor in crossing that stereotype.

“I like breaking that mindset, left and right-brained thinkers,” said Johnson. “It’s fun pulling that apart.” TERRA strives to blend science communication with an element of entertainment. Johnson stresses the importance of storytelling, stating that, “if no one is listening, why does it matter?”

The pod-cast as a whole embodies a realm of storytelling that is unique to your typical “fly on the wall” documentary series. With elements of animation, fiction, humor and satire, these filmmakers provide a more dynamic and engaging experience to their viewers.

TERRA filmmakers constantly struggle with deciding which element is more important at any given moment, that of entertainment or scientific substance. While TERRA is all about education value, their films must be successful, which sometimes means simplifying their topic to the best of their abilities, without sacrificing significance. “It must be simple, yet effective,” said Johnson.

TERRA creates a challenge for these artists. They must tell a story within the science, but in reality, “science is merely the study of something,” Johnson said. “You can’t shake culture from science; it is its own culture, and the result of other cultures acting upon it. The way you and I understand science, according to our Western culture, has a very different spin on it than other parts of the world. We must realize these things.”

While TERRA is not your typical passive-viewing documentary series, there is a stigma within non-fiction films that is hard to shake.

“Non-fiction film doesn’t have to be depressing or boring; there is a lot of fun to be had. It’s also very interesting,” said Johnson. TERRA, specifically, holds true to the entertainment factor without sacrificing the real message they want to project to their audience. There is a real emotion behind each individual film and TERRA allows you the opportunity to “think and feel.”

TERRA started as an extension of the MFA filmmaking program, but in recent years has become an entity of its own. Entry films have been open to the world outside of the graduate program. The pod-cast produces new films every other week, and while many of the showcased films come from MSU alumni, freelance professionals are receiving acclaim for their work as well.

There are more natural history films than straight science films on TERRA. What TERRA emphasizes is not necessarily science exclusively, but the communication of science.

“Science communication is extremely important,” said Johnson. “There is so much science out there, but it has to be communicated properly.” TERRA provides the perfect medium in which one can observe, but also relate to, an educational foundation.

TERRA recently won The Pixel Award in the 2012 Green Nominee’s category, which honors a compelling website for excellence in cutting-edge web design and development. TERRA’s website is their main source of communication to viewers on a wide-scale to which their pod-cast series is displayed.

Contributors of TERRA have been acknowledged for their superior films. Jeff Reed, a producer and graduate student at MSU, recently won multiple awards for his film “Restoring an Icon,” which highlights the reintroduction of pure bison back into Montana. His awards included Best Student Documentary at the Montana Cine International Film Festival.

TERRA is built upon the foundation of compassionate scientists as well as filmmakers. “You have to be in love with the work,” said Johnson. The experimental organization, just like the experimental program it stemmed from, has proven successful and continues to make the most of what it has in spite of tight funding. They continue to look for new material that can be used to expose and enlighten others to cultures outside of their own.

The story behind the science is what filmmakers at TERRA are searching for – something unique to the science film niche. The students and young filmmakers involved in TERRA believe firmly in what they do – creating films that not only make you think, but also feel.

“We are not pretending to give the full story or have all the answers, but it’s a start,” said Johnson. “It’s almost more about faith than science.”

– Edited by Matt Parsons

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