Interview: KCL Academic Involved in Emmy-Winning Documentary

Professor Abigail Tucker from the King’s Dental Institute was recently involved in the documentary Your Inner Fish that was nominated for two Emmy awards, for “Outstanding Science and Technology Program” and “Outstanding Graphic Design and Art Direction”, winning the latter. Roar was lucky enough to be able to interview Abigail about what it’s like to be involved in the making of an award-winning documentary.

Daisy Bartlett:  Firstly congratulations on winning the Emmy! How did you get involved with the project?

Abigail Tucker:  I was involved in a programme called Easter Eggs Live for Channel 4, which was made by the same production company that were making Your Inner Fish. So I had worked with them already, although before it had been completely behind the scenes. They were looking at how animals were hatching out of eggs, as I work with reptiles I helped with that. So it was partly that, but also as they were filming in America the production team spoke to a palaeontologist on the show. They were asking him various things and he said, “Why are you asking me? You should be asking Abigail Tucker in the UK.” They said, “wait a minute, we know that name, she helped us with the Easter Eggs!” So it was partly that, and partly because I was suggested to do it.

DB:  I watched it last night and despite not coming from a science background I really enjoyed it and how accessible it was. I’ve that they are going to use it for education?

AT:  Yes. The whole three part documentary has been sent out to American schools. It’s linking in with the curriculum, particularly trying to emphasise that there’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest evolution happened. It’s a battle we don’t really have to fight in the UK, but it definitely is in the States. That’s one thing they particularly wanted to use it for. As well as the actual documentary there are also educational packages with quizzes and interactive movies etc. that you can download.

DB:  What age range is it aimed at?

AT:  It’s a broad range – seven or eight year olds to sixteen year olds. Some of the educational tools are really quite simple, for the littler ones, whilst the documentary itself is more for those at the upper end of the age range.

DB:  So what was your exact role in the documentary?

AT:  I was onscreen in the second part of the three part documentary. That involved having a microphone on for three days, and being followed around the lab by cameramen. I thought, “Gosh what am I chatting about? I wonder which of these inane comments I’m making will make it into the film!” Also, for all three shows there were extra animated videos made. In the lab we culture organs, where we watch them grow. When you can watch something grow you can then ask questions about where different parts came from. You can say, “Oh this bit came from this group of cells over here”. You can then start manipulating the system, and identify disease models where an organ isn’t developing correctly. Then you can try different therapies to make it form correctly. Because of that we had lots of videos of structures developing throughout the programme. For me I can watch it and say, “Oh that’s my video!”, which is exciting.

DB:  The documentary was also inspired by Neil Shubin’s book of the same name, wasn’t it?

AT:  It’s a very good book. I read the book and met Neil Shubin at a conference, way before Your Inner Fish was going to be filmed. We had a bit of a connection talking about the book, as it’s definitely my area! I really like the fact that it explains things very well but it has a bit of personality so it’s not completely dry. You get an idea of how you learn things, not just, “This is the fact” but “This is how I discovered the facts”.

DB:  You won the Emmy for the animations. I thought right from the opening credits they were brilliant.

AT:  The animations were really wonderful. I was really impressed by the production and their level of attention to detail. They really wanted to get it right. If they were having a picture of a chromosome and talking about a specific gene, they wanted to make sure that it was schematic. That it was the right chromosome, and the dot was lighting up in the right part. Nobody watching would know about this but they wanted to get it right. For my section, we had a lot of going backwards and forwards with the graphics team about how the hair, tooth and gland were forming to make sure that it was perfectly correct. At one point I said, “Oh that’s fine – it’s not completely right but it’s legitimate”. They said, “No we want to be completely right!”.

It was wonderful to be nominated for outstanding documentary. That was the one we really wanted to get – but it was really great to be nominated for that, even. Partly because of that it has really been shown worldwide. I had an email two days ago from a German colleague, who had watched it over there, and a colleague in Sweden. It’s obviously really big in the States so I’ve had lots of emails about it from there. It’s really nice. If you do something like this you want people to watch it!

DB: Did you get to watch any of the animations before the film was released?

AT:  When they were making them they sent them in little bits. They weren’t absolutely sure which bits they were going to use me for. There were three segments we filmed. Two were definitely used. The other was about the middle ear. They had some footage from America about that and they wanted a bit more stuff. It was an interesting process, I really learnt about what happens. You produce a lot of stuff which then gets edited down to a very small amount, relatively. You never know what will be used. I found it a really rewarding experience. I have really enjoyed the fact that it’s been well received.

DB:  At what stage in their filming did they come to London?

AT:  They had already done about a year’s filming. They filmed parts in Greenland which were very seasonal. They had to film those far in advance to get the weather right, which was a very long process. By the time I got involved there were various things I wanted to do and they were saying, “e have a hole here and a hole here and we need somebody to bridge the gap in different areas”. So it was nearer the end. But then all the animations were added at the very end.

DB:  I was going to ask if this was your first experience with film, but you mentioned you did Easter Eggs Live?

AT:  Yes, but this was the first time really properly being on camera. Last year we had a stand at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition. Part of that involved quite a lot of being interviewed, making little promotional videos, talking to the camera. Just little things, so this was the first proper thing where you have lots of people. I hadn’t appreciated how many people would be in the room!

DB:  Would you do it again?

AT:  Definitely, I would love to do it again! I thought it was great fun. I would really suggest everybody gets involved in these things.

DB:  It’s very exciting to hear that scientists from King’s are working on these award winning documentaries! So your speciality is cranio-facial studies?

AT:  Yes, I’m Professor of development and evolution. I’m interested in how organs develop, particularly in the head and the lower region of the face. How your teeth, glands, ears developed. There are two sides to that. Firstly, there is understanding that so we can understand disease. You can look at patients with particular problems in those areas, to say “Why did that happen and can we find new treatments?” Once you understand the disease process you can treat it much better and more accurately. The other side of it is that when you understand how things develop you can compare. If you can say, “A mouse’s teeth develop like this but a snake has continuous replacement of teeth” we can compare species to find out how evolution worked, and study the different mechanisms that come into play with evolution. That’s why I have so many skulls in here!

DB:  How long have you been at KCL?

AT:  Guy’s Hospital became part of King’s in about 2004, but I have been here longer than that! I came to work at Guy’s in 1996. I’ve been here a long time – coming up for twenty years.

DB:  And finally how faithful to the book is it?

AT:  Very. There were a few things taken out of the book that didn’t make it to the film. Some of those were because the science has now changed a little bit, so the book was slightly out of date. A lot of these things are timeless but there are a few exceptions. There was a section about these strange animals called conodonts from the fossil record. They wanted to bring some wording from the book to life. I was saying, “That’s terribly controversial”. I said they could film it but they would have to do both sides of the story. You can’t give the impression that we all think that’s the case. Sometimes with the fossil record it’s really difficult to judge what’s going on as you have one small fossil and you make large claims based on a single specimen. Sometimes it fits really well with all the data, but sometimes it doesn’t fit so well. They decided to just take out the whole section because it would have got too complex to refer to both sides of the story. But aside from that it’s very similar.

DB:  There’s a bit of further reading on the subject, then! Thank you very much for sharing your time with Roar.

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