TROPICAL RAINFOREST Science Content Script Synopsis 1992 by Ben Shedd
Copyright 1991-2012 – 20th Anniversary Update 2/23/12 Edit 21/9/2017
The TROPICAL RAINFOREST film is about the ages-long process of evolution as found in the tropics, the rapid rate of change on the planet as the result of growing human population, and the scientific efforts to understand the rainforest, even as it is disappearing worldwide.
My working process as a science filmmaker is to examine and research a film idea, such as the tropical rainforest, and to build a film story from the reality of the subject. I work to draw the story out of the science rather than impose a story on top of a subject. I start from a reductionist’s view and then seek to synthesize science reality with good filmic storytelling.
A film story needs three acts: a beginning act is an introduction; the middle act is the crisis; and the last act is the resolution. At each act, change is a major plot point, an event which inexorably changes the course of the film story. My goal is to combine the needs of dramatic exposition, the visual/aural interest of a subject, a film’s budget constraints, and the core of a subject’s science.
The story line of the TROPICAL RAINFOREST film draws its structure from the very heart of the world-wide tropical rainforest issue — the rapid rate of biological change taking place on our planet. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, it is critical to attempt to understand the mechanisms of evolution and vast epochs of time in order to have a perspective on the current biological crisis of this 50-year period.
One of the very strong technical and emotional tools of filmmaking is its ability to collapse time – through dissolves, cuts, editing juxtapositions, evocative sounds and music. Through these techniques, a film can give a sense of time scales other than our familiar human time.
When I learned from my biologist advisors that fern trees have been on our planet for over 400,000,000 years – with some whole forests of these giant fern trees on our planet today – I realized we could take our cameras and point them way back through time and sweep the audience through time – and the story all came together and we were off to film.
The TROPICAL RAINFOREST film is divided into three slices of time, grouped by the events of evolution and present history, which are also the three acts of this story. This ability to collapse time while showing the forest in real scale on the giant IMAX/OMNIMAX screen can give viewers a new framework to imagine and understand what often seems to be the unfathomable workings of nature.
Act I is about the rainforest on its own terms – nature in an equilibrium from the thousand million interactions constantly shaping the environment over vast periods of time. In classic dramatic structure, this is the introduction. Following a 400,000,000-years-ago prologue, this act covers almost sixty million years, from just after the extinction of the dinosaurs up until approximately the last two million years, collapsed into ever shorter epochs of time and collapsed into 20 minutes of film time.
The tropical rainforest, with its complex biological balance – and without humans – can be viewed as existing in any or many periods during the last sixty million years. Many of the current plants and animals of the rainforest are old biological artifacts, not quite living fossils, but representatives of survival strategies from many different epochs of our planet’s biological history. The flora and the fauna represented in the TROPICAL RAINFOREST film were chosen in part because of their representative evolutionary age, from ferns to early flowering plants to leafing trees, from insects and spiders to reptiles to birds to primates
One of the primary goals of the first section of the film is to saturate the audience in the biology of the rainforest, not as a place where scientists research or tourists visit, but with its own rhythms, shapes, patterns, colors, and sounds. In the TROPICAL RAINFOREST film, we are always seeking and seeing views other than human. For instance, the audience hovers just over the forest canopy, bird-like, or becomes the size of insects and sees and experiences them on their own scale
Act II begins the crisis. It is set in recent evolutionary time – the past two million years up to the present – as primates, including humans, move through the forests. Primates entering the rainforest, with opposable thumbs and tools, is the first plot point in the film story.
On the sixty million-year time scale of the first section of the story, we humans arrive in the film much as we arrived in evolutionary time, rather suddenly. We, like other creatures in the rainforest, try to make a niche for ourselves. Now, as our world population rapidly expands, humans as a species are utilizing the resources of the tropics on a scale as never before. Through our technological tools – including particular science tools such as satellites, computers, laboratories, and through popular technology such as television, radio, books, and IMAX films – we have expanded our vision of the world. With our recently acquired global view, we are now seeing the cumulative effects of millions of individual actions which are resulting in the massive destruction of our planet’s biology.
The film’s second plot point is that we, and the biology of our planet, are at a crisis point and we must do something about it.
Act III seeks a resolution, through the examples of curious humans – tropical biologists in this story – as we search to understand the complex biology of the equatorial regions, even as the tropical forests of the world are being cut at an ever-increasing rate. The last portion of the film takes place in present time with a view to the future. It shows what has actually become a race by scientists to, at a minimum, fill in the equivalent of the periodic chart of the life sciences, before the biological artifacts of the tropics disappear. By examining, studying, and thinking about the tropics, perhaps we humans can use our unique traits – one of which is foresight – to understand our niche on the planet and preserve the tropical region and its grandly unique expressions of DNA from decimation in the next twenty years.
One of the major goals of the TROPICAL RAINFOREST film is build a general science vocabulary of biological concepts for general audiences, including evolution and deep time, speciation and niche theory, and competition for resources.