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Through Film, Danielle Parsons Turns the Ordinary into Extraordinary

When you hear the phrase “termite gut microbes,” do you picture something mesmerizing and beautiful? Maybe not, but through the lens of science filmmaker, artist and AAAS Member Danielle Parsons, these gut microbes are extraordinary and inspired her to create a video. This video of termite digestion — which won second place in the 2015 Nikon Small World in Motion contest — is an example of the type of science video that Parsons produces.

Danielle Parsons. Credit: Joshua Shelton

Parsons is the founder of Wonder Science, a video channel that can be streamed for free on iOS, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku devices as well as YouTube and Instagram. Through these platforms, viewers can get a glimpse into worlds few ever get to see. Using her unique vision and keen eye for the aesthetically arresting, Parsons uses tools such as light and electron microscopes, motorized micro-rigs, high-speed cameras and drone cameras to give viewers a window into interesting phenomena not able to be seen by the naked eye. She has created videos showing the crystallization of cholesteryl acetate (an organic compound present in the human body and in food), a microscopic single-cell paramecium living in Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles and the undulations of hundreds of legs of a Florida ivory millipede, among many others.

The videos Parsons creates zoom in on our seemingly ordinary surroundings. The footage, whether it’s a microscopic view of aquatic plant cells or a macro view of blue-capped cordon bleu birds performing a courtship dance, is often stunning, entertaining, wondrous and even hypnotic.

The Wonder Science TV YouTube channel aptly tags itself as “Science to space out to.” Indeed, that’s one of the ways Parsons envisions her videos being viewed—as science music videos that can be appreciated on an aesthetic level. The videos are also accompanied by original music created through collaborations with musicians such as KRON, Ariel Pink, Stuart Price, Füxa and El Tigr3. In the future, Parsons is also planning to include narration.

Inside an Opal. Copyright © 2018 Wonder Science LLC.

For now, the videos feature fact-filled captions explaining what is shown in the video. For instance, the caption related to a video of the inside of an opal reads, “Shafts of pastel light and clouds of pinfire illuminate miniature caverns inside an opal. Play of Color is a term that mineralogists use to refer to the unique way light moves through opals. Because opals have much more water in them than other gems, lightwaves get refracted a lot, which causes fluctuating colors.” It’s one thing to read a caption like this in a science textbook, but it’s quite another to see the fantastical environment inside an opal.

Parsons hopes that by engaging viewers in this way, the videos can inspire learning. Once a viewer is intrigued by a video, they may want to research a subject to learn more. “A lot of science media is focused on presenting information,” said Parsons. “[Wonder Science] is experiential rather than informative.”

Parsons’ own fascination with science developed at Harvard University, where she studied under renowned scientists like paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and biologist E.O. Wilson. Parsons loved studying biology and immersed herself into subjects. “I like to dig down to the granular level—like focusing on one of the hairs on the wings of a fruit fly,” said Parsons. She was also interested in other subjects as well, and she changed her major to social studies so that she could combine interests from different disciplines. It was also during this time that she began to gravitate toward film.

After graduation in 1995, she gained experience as a filmmaker by working in Hollywood at MPCA, MGM and Destination Films, and then at the History Channel in 2004. It was akin to attending film school, Parsons said. “I learned how to take any topic and break it down into salient points for the general public,” she said. Throughout her career, she’s produced and directed content for Slate, Bloomberg TV, BBC and the History Channel. Her work has aired on these media outlets and has been featured at numerous festivals and galleries around the world, including Imagine Science Film Festival, IFC, Tofino Film Festival, and Goethe Science Film Festival.

Parsons has filmed in diverse ecoregions like rainforests, the Kazakh Steppe and the Galapagos Islands. When choosing a video topic, Parsons considers many factors, like the way something looks. She may also be inspired by something she comes across in her research. “I may read a journal article or a newsletter that captures my interest,” she said.

In some cases, her inspiration comes from unexpected sources. Parsons attended an outdoor concert at CalTech in 2015, and during intermission, talked to a professor, Julia Greer, about nanoengineering. That led to Parsons creating a video of nanomaterial that looks like the Eiffel Tower and is the strongest, lightest material in existence, but that can fit inside of a single hair.

In addition to creating science-art videos, Parsons wants to pass on her love of science to others, particularly upcoming generations. Ways she has accomplished this is by serving as a science consultant for Walt Disney Studios in 2013 and giving talks to various groups, including grammar schools. She hopes to create a space where other science filmmakers may be able to showcase their work. “My dream is to create a repository for science videos from around the world,” said Parsons.

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Katherine Lee