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When Media Cross Paths

Thoughts on My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher is at the same time a documentary on marine biology and the account a personal journey of recovery and discovery. Fine, but it's a film documentary, what does it have to do with podcasts? Bear with me. As I started watching it, I immediately felt a warm sense of familiarity. As an audio producer, I spend at least a couple of hours per day listening to narrative podcasts and radio features. I had just taken off my headphones, and there I was again with a soft, close-up voice in my ears, warped in soothing sound design and rich field recording...

...It Sounds Like a Podcast!

I closed my eyes, giving up for a few seconds the gorgeous visuals, and it was indeed like listening to one of my favourite SciComm narrative podcasts, let’s say the BBC Earth Podcast. As I continued watching, I realised that the parallels with narrative podcasts are not limited to aspects of sound design. The storytelling is also very close to the narrative style typical of certain American podcasts: a story triggered by personal experience, the arch alienation-discovery-recovery, the lingering on small narrative details, the technique of the “questionless inteview” by which the interviewee becomes the narrator of his/her own story...

And It Looks Like an Online Video

Inevitably, I went into my hyper-analysing mode and I started noticing something about the visual storytelling, as well. From a visual point of view, this documentary looks closer to today's video-making for online consumption than to traditional film-making. Stunningly beautiful, digitally colourful photography, rather short cuts, no compelling scene structure: basically a sequence of gorgeous shots. If you edit out the parts where the protagonist speaks on camera, you can take any random ten-minute chunk of the film and you have a stand-alone video clip that works perfectly on the website of a tour operator or on the Instagram of a scuba diving school.

When Media Cross Paths

I am always fascinated by the points of convergence among communication media. This is far from being a recent phenomenon, and it often goes in circles: radio drama inspired sound for TV, the sound design of modern fictional podcast is deeply indebted to cinema sound, and some recent action films look like a sequence of commercials.

This documentary is an interesting product of the convergence of communication techniques and aesthetics that come from different media, but have a common denominator: the Internet. It shows a trend, a tendency to the hybridisation of online languages.

So what's the takeaway for Science Communication here? This documentary won an Oscar, a sign that this kind of podcast-like storytelling style is increasingly successful. SciComm should be aware of the trends: not to follow them, however, but to "ride" them effectively.

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