A Mammoth Idea
Join Jake, Justin, Josh, Nathaniel and Ruben on their quest to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction.
A brief account of a highly successful project with long-lasting impacts by Matt Thurling
This film was made with the help of The Bristol Film Academy and Science.tv and was devised, storyboarded and animated by the group from Cotham School in Bristol.
The Bristol Film Academy was funded by Bristol City Council’s Children and Young Persons Service to work with Cotham School.
I met with the Science staff at Cotham and began developing a framework with a very enthusiastic and inspiring teacher called Simon Neville.
We were both keen to work with as blank a page as possible - to really let the students explore a topic of their choosing but we were unsure how this would pan out.
A group of students were selected to work with me. They were all Year 9, most of them were gifted and talented in one way or another and they had all shown potential in science - but were in danger of not fulfilling it.
Walking to Cotham for the first meeting with the students, I had no idea whether it would work. This was an inner city state school and I was going in to do a project with only a vague structure in mind. I was quite apprehensive.
I thought that if given a free choice of topics for a science film most boys would choose something macho: explosions, cars, weapons, that kind of thing.
I was very pleasantly surprised when they dismissed anything so cliché and instead chose the topic of cloning. In particular, they wanted to look at the possibility of cloning extinct species from ancient DNA samples. This was something that one of them had read about in the New Scientist and it was an idea that appealed to the whole group. And to Simon and me.
The one obvious problem with the idea was the lack of available mammoth to film. We didn’t want to make a talking heads film - but where would we get the visual content?
Fortunately the boys are creative souls and had no problem coming up with visual ideas. And one of them just happened to be very good at drawing and a whizz in animation.
Working together, we devised a storyboard combining the students animations, stock footage and photography and a location shoot at Bristol Zoo.
Without any prompting, the group asked if they could visit the University of Bristol and interview an expert. We knew that work in this area was going on in Bristol so tried to find someone to talk to the students. Unfortunately, no-one was available, so we had to improvise.
Dr Neil Ingram, previously Head of Science at Clifton College, now senior lecturer on the PGCE course at the University is a geneticist but he is not an expert on the woolly mammoth, nor on cloning.
He is, however, a bloody good sport and I managed to convince him to swot up on the subject and be our “leading scientist”, since we’d already hinged the film on speaking to a scientist.
The boys and Neil had a very interesting conversation on camera at the University. For the purposes of our film, however, the explanations were far too long and came to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely - but not impossible - that cloning a mammoth would ever happen.
This was inconvenient, because the boys had mapped out a trip to the zoo to question the public on the ethics of it all. It would be far less exciting if it was just an impossible idea.
This is the point where the boys - and Neil - got to learn the power of editing. I revisited Neil’s interview and ignored the “highly unlikely”, favouring the much more TV-friendly “not impossible” and so managed to carve out the conclusion we needed to set up our vox pops sequence at the zoo.
The final film, which the students called “A Mammoth Idea” has been a huge hit. It’s featured in a international festival of short films at the Watershed Arts Centre in Bristol. It got through to the finals of the prestigious Big Bang competition in Manchester. It’s been viewed many thousands of times on Youtube and has attracted praise and comments from people the World over.
As for the boys, they had a five-minute slot on BBC Radio Bristol. They all started to do even better in Science and when it came to making their choices for GCSE, many of them chose and qualified for triple Science. This wasn’t the case before the project, according to Simon, who recently told me that the project had not just had a massive impact on the boys, but had “transformed the Science department more than anything he’d experienced in his entire teaching career.”