The New York Times Op-Docs ANIMATED LIFE series “celebrates pioneers in science and pivotal moments of discovery.” A series of short videos, about seven minutes in length, have been produced by filmmakers Sharon Shattuck and Flora Lichtman for Op-Docs in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s wonderful resource HHMI BioInteractive. “It has been terrific to collaborate with Sweet Fern and The New York Times on the op-docs project,” Dennis Liu, Head of Educational Media at HHMI told Science & Film over email. “We first met Flora and Sharon when they were working on one of their amazing animations to tell the story of Alfred Wallace and were looking for some funding to finish the project. Having produced short films for education, and long films for broadcast, we saw their creative techniques as an engaging mode for telling great science stories in a way that might appeal to a broad audience. We helped to work out the partnership with The New York Times whereby the films launch as op docs on the Times website and then later we can distribute the animations on our BioInteractive website aimed especially at science teachers. Sean Carroll, Laura Bonetta, and I generally help to develop ideas for stories and advise and review as the stories develop. So we are a funder but also co-producers. We try to be careful to give Sweet Fern plenty of creative room and they always come up with delightful twists and charming details that bring the stories alive.”


The films are narrated by biologists, authors, historians, and paleontologists. Two of the five films by Lichtman and Shattuck feature women who have made major scientific contributions whose stories are still lesser known. Lichtman and Shattuck work in paper animation and use puppets to tell stories. Lichtman’s sister Ruth, a painter, lends a hand to many of their productions. Five videos have been produced and premiered online to date, and can be viewed in full below.

THE LIVING FOSSIL FISH is about the 1938 discovery by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer of the coelecanth, a prehistoric fish still living off the coasts of South Africa and Indonesia.

Mary Leaky was a famed paleoanthropologist who led a team of men on a dig in Tanzania where they discovered the footprints of early hominids.

PANGEA delves into the life of meteorologist Alfred Wegener who theorized continental drift which says that continents were once enmeshed to form one big one—Pangea.

SEEING THE INVISIBLE celebrates Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the first microbiologist.

A.R. Wallace was Darwin’s contemporary, a humble man who also discovered natural selection.

Women make up 26% of those employed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics occupations according to a 2011 census study. In film, the numbers are even more dismal. In 2014 women accounted for only 7% of directors of the top domestic grossing films. That makes successful women working in science and film all the more impressive. Filmmakers Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck are at the top of that field.

Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck have received previous Sloan commissions to dramatize scientific research findings—most recently Lichtman made YOUR INNER LIFE about the human microbiome. She is also host of the Sloan-supported podcast THE ADAPTORS produced by SoundVision productions about the ways in which people are adapting to climate change.