Arts & Culture

Isaac Kerlow: Making Art in the Name of Science

Let’s discuss global environmental issues.

Words by
b-side staff

As artist-in-residence and executive creative director at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, Isaac Kerlow brings science to rural and urban communities, weaving science and narrative to bring global environmental issues to audiences.

He is best known for his documentaries such as HAZE It’s Complicated, which won Best Feature at the 2018 Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival. Kerlow has also led other projects including Earth Girl Volcano, an interactive game developed by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and artists at the Earth Observatory of Singapore.

B-Side chats with Isaac about the intersection of art and science, and on sustaining a vibrant, interdisciplinary creative process.

Stills from “HAZE It’s Complicated…”

Which of your projects are closest to your heart?

I like the projects that move the audience, and two of my recent films that did that are the documentary feature HAZE It’s Complicated… and People of the Forest.

We made the former film at a time when information about the haze pollution was limited and a bit of a taboo. I believe the film helped to put the issues on the table and open up the conversation. People of the Forest was produced in a serendipitous way, almost by accident. But I feel that we were able to give a voice to the Orang Rimba, an ethnic minority that has been displaced by oil palm farming. The short film has gained unexpected critical success and that makes us happy.

Stills from “People of The Forest: Orang Rimba”

What drives your interest in filmmaking and animation?

I am an artist and filmmaker, and I have been involved in animation for decades. I wrote the reference book on computer animation, translated it into multiple languages, and many people know me because of that.

Film and animation are interesting to me because I like connecting with people, and both live action and animated films allow me to do that. People of all ages throughout the world like to watch movies.

What does your typical creative process look and feel like?

The development process is one of the most fun and important stages in the production of a film. I try to come up with an early structure that delivers engaging storytelling, even though that structure oftentimes changes throughout the creative process.

One of my jobs as a film director is to keep an eye on the film structure as the early concept evolves into a finished script.

Early research on the topic at hand is paramount because the more you know about a topic, the more meaningful your message can be. I write down short ideas and slowly develop them into shots or scenes. Some of these ideas end up as actual voice-over or dialogue, while others end up as the conceptual backbone of a shot or a scene.

Talking to others and getting feedback and criticism on your early ideas is helpful in shaping a meaningful project.

Stills from “People of The Forest: Orang Rimba”

As digital technologies continue to advance, do you envision your creative practice evolving in new ways?

Creative practices are constantly evolving. I think movies are great vehicles for storytelling, communication of knowledge and reflection. But interactive games are a highly engaging medium, especially for young audiences.

Your creative practice is intrinsically linked to science, and you collaborate with scientists. Where does this stem from?

I love science because it helps us understand our world and our lives. One of my goals as a filmmaker is to bring into my stories scientific points of view so that audiences learn specific bits of knowledge that might be helpful to them. This can be a challenging task as different audiences have different levels of scientific understanding.

Most scientists talk about their science in technical terms and that gives the impression to many that science is boring, useless or inaccessible to non-experts.

My job is not to regurgitate science lectures.

My main deliverable is to understand the science and then find effective and engaging ways to communicate it or to weave it into an engaging story.

How do you structure such collaborations?

Each project requires a fresh look in terms of how to best collaborate; there are no formulas that fit every project.

Scientists have a wide range of personalities and some appreciate the filmmaking process while others do not. This fact often has a major impact on the collaboration.

So early in the collaboration, I try to come up with a process that takes into account the major constraints of the project.

These constraints may include the requirements and limitations of the scientific partners, the production budget, the delivery schedule, and the strengths of the creative and production team. Most scientists have a limited understanding of the film development and production process, and they find it helpful when I am upfront about our needs, goals and expectations.

Collaborations also require constant calibration especially when unexpected challenges arise, and they always do. Being able to improvise is a key ingredient of a successful collaboration, as important as making sure that everyone on the creative and scientific teams is on the same page.

How is working with a team different from working alone?

In my role as film director and/or producer I switch back and forth between individual and collective tasks.

I like the loneliness and concentration required to polish a script or edit a sequence early in the morning when things are quiet. But I also like the intensity and dynamism of the collaboration required to film on the field and grabbing the golden moments that we seek to capture.

Can art connect people to environmental issues in different ways from typical reports of scientific research?

It’s often challenging for the public to emotionally connect with information presented in the form of scientific reports because scientific reports tend to be dry and highly technical. These are usually written for a specialised audience.

In contrast, art projects offer the possibility of creating an emotional engagement between the environmental issues and the public. But accomplishing this emotional connection is not easy and requires skill, talent, knowledge, a budget and a team.

I personally like the challenge of finding a balance between the often divergent tasks of creating an emotional connection and communicating the science behind a particular issue.

Emotion is a key component in achieving this balance, and art can facilitate this goal much easier than science can.

It is encouraging that some scientists recognise this fact.

Tell us about any upcoming projects that you’re especially excited about.

We recently released an interactive casual strategy game called Earth Girl Volcano. It’s a free app for Android, Windows, OS and iOS where players can learn how to best survive ongoing volcanic activity or how to prepare for a possible volcanic eruption.

“Earth Girl Volcano” interactive game

We translated the game into several languages, and I am excited about that because people who live in volcanic hazardous areas can learn in a simple way about events that are complex and potentially lethal.

This game can literally save lives, and we have received positive comments from communities where games like these are not just a fun game but a life-saver. We translated the game into Indonesian because Indonesia is one of the countries in the world with the most active volcanoes. We are also translating the game into Tagalog and Bislama, which are the languages spoken in the Philippines and Vanuatu respectively, two of the countries with some of the most active and destructive volcanoes in the world.

Find out more at

I am also very excited about our upcoming documentary on the Wenchuan Earthquake that took place in Sichuan, China, in 2008. We filmed it in Mandarin and Sichuanese, and we believe it will present a compelling portrait of the lessons learnt from that disaster and the current trends of hazard preparedness in China. We are currently wrapping up post-production on this new film and plan for a limited release later this year.

What advice would you give to young creatives?

I will limit my advice to three areas: motivation, technology and scientific collaborations.

Advice One: follow your passion and give it your all. Great creative projects only materialise when people on the team believe in what they are doing, and also when they invest their energy on it. Passion translates to dedication and the will to excel.

It’s sad when young people take the easy way out because that road leads to mediocrity.

Advice Two: explore and master the new technologies. You can do things today that were impossible 20 years ago. Take advantage of that and it will increase your reach.

Advice Three: if you are planning to work with scientists, you better prepare yourself by learning in advance about the issues that are critical to the collaboration. Only then will you be able to have a productive conversation about the issues that scientists deal with and care about.

Scientists can be very driven and usually follow the method that works best for them and the scientific research project.

They rarely adapt their process to suit the needs of a filmmaker.

You are likely to have a higher chance of success if you prepare yourself ahead of time. High-quality teams will only take you seriously if they are confident that you know what you are talking about.

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