Hay Trans.MISSION Q&A with Dan Binns and Professor Ally Lewis

Dan Binns and Professor Ally Lewis

Dan Binns and Professor Ally Lewis

26 May 2018 by Sylvie Kruiniger

Hay Festival and NERC have joined forces for the first time to launch Trans.MISSION, projects pairing leading scientists with award-winning artists to communicate cutting-edge science to new audiences at Hay Festival 2018 and beyond.

Aardman Animation Studios' director Dan Binns paired up with Ally Lewis, atmospheric chemist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the University of York. Dan is a commercials director at the multi-award-winning studio, creators of Wallace and Gromit. They have collaborated to create an original piece of work that will explore the issues around air pollution.

Subtitles (closed captions) are available once the video is playing.

What made you interested doing this project?

Dan: The chance to learn something new.

Ally: Sounded like something a bit out of the ordinary, and maybe a way to talk to a different audience about an aspect of air pollution that hasn't been much covered before.

What's been the biggest surprise?

Dan: How easy the subject matter was to understand when you have a very knowledgeable scientist on hand to answer your questions!

Ally: That other people are actually interested and surprised by the research. I spend my whole life working on this topic, so I have obviously convinced myself it's worthwhile, but it's very hard to judge what anyone in the real-world thinks.

What's been the best moment?

Dan: Seeing a conversation turn, albeit slowly, into something concrete.

Ally: Telling my kids that I was doing something with Aardman, although they were disappointed that there wouldn't be a small Plasticine version of me at the end of it.

What's been the most difficult?

Dan: To remember to focus on the things that make a film engaging and not get lost in the science.

Ally: Knowing what detail to leave in and what to leave out. Volatile organic compounds as air pollutants aren't straightforward. There are thousands of different compounds to start with, then each undergoes thousands more reactions before it becomes a nasty like ozone or particulate matter. The detail in the middle matters to chemists, but perhaps not to everyone else, so keeping the story simple is a challenge.

What do you hope people will take away from seeing your piece?

Dan: The ideal outcome would be getting the viewer, just for a moment, to consider the products they buy and the effect they can have.

Ally: That there is more to air pollution than cars and exhaust pipes, and that a surprising quantity of emissions come from the home. Managing these is surpassingly easy - simple actions in the home go a long way. And individuals directly benefit with improvements in the air quality inside their homes.

Would you work with a scientist / an artist again?

Dan: Definitely. I think trying to take scientific research or discovery and communicate that to a mass audience is a pretty good use of animation or film-making. From a creative point of view, it's an enjoyable challenge to do that in a concise and entertaining way that doesn't simplify so much it loses all the science.

Ally: Definitely.

What have you learnt about each other's work?

Dan: That it's incredibly interesting. That he works in an area I would have assumed would be more widely discussed and that the practical aspects of the job are, in his words, a 'bit unglamorous' (a lot of sitting in shipping containers and running experiments I think!).

Ally: I've seen really interesting ideas visualising pollution in ways I wouldn't have thought of. I'm looking forward to seeing how the styles and ideas translate into animation - not an obvious step for me…

See Dan and Ally at Trans.MISSION 2: Clean Air at 19:00 on 28 May 2018. Tickets are available from the Hay Trans.MISSION website - external link.

Watch all the talks on the Hay Player - external link (fee required).