Old media’s place in the internet age


Celebrated science documentary maker Sonya Pemberton is inspired by the new offerings that have sprung up on YouTube and Facebook. Andrew Masterson reports.


Simon Schluter / Fairfax Syndication

Since its release in mid-2015, Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, a three-part documentary made by Melbourne’s Genepool Productions, has gathered a swag of distinctions – some more welcome than others.

In September this year, the show, written by Wain Fimeri and presented by Derek Muller, won the gong for Best Long Form Series at the prestigious Jackson Hole Science Media Awards held in Boston. After it was broadcast in the US, however, the production achieved another milestone.

“It became the most illegally downloaded film in PBS International’s history,” says Genepool founder and creative director, Sonya Pemberton. “It’s a dubious honour.”

But to Pemberton, it was an indication that the world of traditional science documentary- makers and the upstart community of new-breed, internet-based science communicators were nowhere near as far apart as commonly thought.

It became the most illegally downloaded film in PBS International’s history

In one important sense, Uranium had a foot in both camps. Commissioned and made as broadcast television, the three-parter was presented by Canadian-Australian host Muller, who is best known for presenting short, sharp science videos on his own YouTube channel, Veritasium.

The channel boasts just shy of four million subscribers. Cross-promotion of Uranium between Veritasium, traditional broadcasters and the Facebook phenomenon I F---ing Love Science (with 25 million fans) resulted in unprecedented levels of awareness for Pemberton’s product.

It also resulted in unprecedented levels of theft. This was not so much a problem, she says, as an opportunity. “I’m sure some people are not happy about it and I’m sure we’ve lost quite a lot of sales because of that, but in terms of encompassing new media I think it speaks for itself,” she notes.

“The trick now is to learn from what we discovered and apply it to the next shows. You don’t leave that [internet] audience feeling left behind. They wanted the film and they wanted it right now – they didn’t want to wait until next week.”

Collaborators: Sonya Pemberton and Derek Muller.
Harry Panagiotidis / Genepool Productions Pty Ltd

The experience represents the latest in a long series of learning opportunities for Melbourne-based Pemberton, who has been making science-based television for 28 years. After graduating from university with a degree in film and television, she started her career in drama, rising quickly to the position of first assistant director on a number of shows. On one of these, a series called Adventures on Kythera, she met cinematographer Harry Panagiotidis, now her husband.

Panagiotidis has credits on more than 40 Australian and international feature films. He has filmed many – and co-produced all – of Genepool’s documentaries.

After a couple of years, Pemberton – a doctor’s daughter and epidemiologist’s granddaughter who had long been fascinated by science – took a sharp left turn and joined the CSIRO as a filmmaker. There she made 21 films, mostly for use in veterinary science training. It was a period, she says, characterised by filming “animals with ghastly diseases”, but which also provided invaluable training and insights.

“I was taught by scientists how to communicate science,” she says. “I brought the creative side of things, but they taught me how to take a proper analytic approach to the material and how to communicate science to scientists.”

Stints with the ABC and the BBC followed before she struck out on her own as an independent science doco-maker.

When she first moved away from drama, many of her peers thought she was making a mistake. Taking unconventional choices, though, seems to be something of a recurrent theme in Pemberton’s career.

In 2004, she was approached by the ABC to look after the science program Catalyst, and from there rapidly found herself promoted to the powerful (if awkwardly titled) Head of Specialist Factual. The elevation made her one of the most powerful people in Australian television, but after three years at Aunty’s HQ in Ultimo, Sydney she opted to head back to Melbourne.

Again, some observers thought this to be a strange decision, but she has never regretted it. In part, she upped sticks because she was missing her family but the move was also motivated by professional concerns.

“I loved having the potential to fund other people’s work,” she says, “But I missed making science films. It suits my temperament to be able to think deeply about every frame, every word of a film, and when you’re in a commissioning role you just can’t do that.”

A few years ago she entered into a joint venture with Australia’s largest independent television house, Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, and Genepool Productions was born. The company has since produced a raft of startling and acclaimed documentaries, including Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines (which, titled Vaccines: Calling the Shots, picked up the Jackson Hole Award for Best Science Journalism); a three-part miscellany called Tales of the Unexpected; a documentary about the science of ageing, Immortal; and Catching Cancer, a revealing look at the role of bacteria and viruses in the aetiology of cancers.

Sonya Pemberton and cameraman husband Harry Panagiotidis on location.
Martin Kier / Genepool Productions Pty Ltd

Along the way, Pemberton and her collaborators have been awarded a huge haul of accolades, including an Emmy. Pemberton has been declared Health Journalist of the Year twice and picked up an unprecedented five Eureka Awards for science journalism.

Despite the widespread doom and gloom concerning the decline and division of contemporary media, and the tendency of some political leaders to ditch science fact for fiction, Pemberton remains extremely optimistic about the potential for science television documentaries.

The key, she says, is in finding ways to engage constructively with short-form, online successes such as Veritasium and IFL Science. “This is about shared communities and generating scientific curiosity,” she says.

Her association with Derek Muller continues, and she communicates often with IFL Science creator Elise Andrew. There are, she says, many points of convergent interest between the broadcast and internet science realms.

“So what they are interested in is how we as documentary filmmakers sustain an audience for 30, 60 or 90 minutes, and what I’m interested in is their reach, their millions of subscribers,” she says.

“They are different kinds of modalities, thinking about science communication, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive – and nor do I feel in the slightest bit threatened or nervous about it. I see the challenge as working with them, to be able to do the deep dive and long-form in ways that mean we can collaborate.”

Pemberton believes there are a number of critical intellectual and ethical values that are common to all decent science communication, regardless of medium. Integrity matters. Bias must be constantly checked. Brevity is key, and, above all, the result must be useful.

“I think of myself as a curiosity entrepreneur sometimes. What I’m trying to do is get people interested in science – and these people are already doing it, and doing it really well with the younger demographic and reaching widely,” she says.

“Young people perceive what we do as ‘old school’, and so they should. It’s entirely appropriate that we should be regarded as old media. But there’s nothing wrong with books – and that’s also old media.”

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Andrew Masterson is an author and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.