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The films and the bees

The unselfish behavior of bees was cited in the short film A Very Altruistic Christmas, winner of the USC Science Film Competition. (Photo/Kevin Frates)

Why should we adopt altruistic behavior rather than act out of self-interest?

Filmed on the University Park Campus, A Very Altruistic Christmas answers this compelling moral question using the science of biological altruism by dramatizing the argument between a beard-wearing Santa figure who is collecting money for charity and Neil, an opportunistic former car thief who steals the donations when Santa’s back is turned.

When Santa challenges Neil, the thief defends himself. He merely saw an opportunity and took it, he said, arguing that he followed the evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest. Santa points out that this is not always a winning strategy. He proceeds to give a series of mathematical and dramatized demonstrations using biological altruism, which show that in nature, being cooperative is often best for the group.

A prime example used in the film is that of beehives.

“It’s a great dramatic story with a lot of humor,” said Clifford Johnson, professor of physics and astronomy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the organizing force behind the USC Science Film Competition, which he oversees with help from faculty and staff at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) and funding from the Anton B. Burg Foundation.

“The 12 judges agreed that this was a film that tried to make you aware of a new area of science by using story,” Johnson said. “You’re watching to find out what happens in this dialogue between the Santa figure and the thief, how the thief is going to be convinced and what the argument is going to be and wondering how it’s going to turn out. So you end up seeing a fun story and being charmed by the performances.”

A junior biology major at USC Dornsife with a screenwriting minor at SCA, Evan McGahey, the writer, co-producer and co-director of the first-place film, spearheaded the choice of the short film’s scientific premise.

“Biological altruism is something that not everyone might be familiar with, but it is a pretty interesting and important concept when understanding how social species, such as humans, evolve,” said McGahey, who plays the role of Neil’s cousin and accomplice in the film.

McGahey’s team split a prize of $3,000 handed out at the competition’s second annual screening and awards ceremony held Jan. 23 at the Ray Stark Family Theatre.

McGahey partnered with Evan Iwata, a senior critical studies major at SCA with minors in advertising and screenwriting and a background in film production. Iwata, who served as director of photography and editor, as well as co-director and co-producer, admitted: “Most of the science is far over my head so I just trusted that his script was scientifically sound.”

The contest melds science and film, helping people in both fields to communicate, McGahey noted.

“Scientists often have trouble making concepts accessible to those who are not from a science background,” he said. “For filmmakers, particularly writers, it’s very important to know what you’re writing. Research is essential, and this was a great opportunity to research something I wasn’t that familiar with and work it into a story.”

The filmmaker added that he found some of the technical research papers tedious to read, but he got through them in order to achieve accuracy.

“Our primary goal was to convey what biological altruism is and how it works but in an engaging way,” McGahey said. “It would be easy to simply throw some graphs and narration together, but we wanted to try to work in a narrative. That was hard because we had to make sure it was fully fleshed out but not so fleshed out that it eclipsed the science, which was the main point of the film.”

Iwata said they tried to strike a balance between effectively communicating the science and telling a good story.

“We wanted viewers to be able to learn from watching the film but also be entertained along the way,” Iwata said. “And being able to spread some belated Christmas spirit at the same time was pretty nice, too.”

The winning team included animator Liffany Chen, a junior with a double major at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and SCA, and senior Max Erwin, a double major at USC Dornsife and SCA.

Erwin composed the music for the film and served as one of the cinematographers. Junior Sana Azam, a neuroscience major at USC Dornsife with a minor at SCA, helped to produce the film. Luke Griffin of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering played Santa, Andre Anthony Chahwan of the School of Dramatic Arts played the thief and Mathew Maneval of the USC School of Architecture played the officer.

“I was honestly very surprised that we won,” McGahey said. “There were a lot of very talented filmmakers in the competition, and it showed during the screening. I didn’t see it coming at all.”

The competition to find the best short film that explains and illustrates a scientific concept, principle or issue for a wide audience of nonexperts was open to teams of USC undergraduate and graduate students across campus. The one stipulation was that each entry must come from an interdisciplinary team, whose mission was to pool talents and resources to create a film with a strong science component, thereby discovering how each other’s disciplines can be used to integrate scientific concepts into visual storytelling.

This was the most important element of the competition for Johnson, who created the contest to encourage students to collaborate across departments to begin bridging the yawning chasm in communications he said exists all too often among scientists, journalists and filmmakers.

“Communicating science to the public has traditionally been considered to be a secondary factor without any great importance,” he said.

“Scientists have much to learn about communication, but so do journalists and filmmakers — especially when it comes to science. I have met many people working in journalism and film, sometimes incorporating science content, and it’s surprising to me how few of them even know any scientists or feel they can pick up the phone and talk to one about a science topic.”

Johnson said getting future scientists, filmmakers and journalists to work together is the main goal of the competition.

“Precisely because I think it’s at this stage that we need to put more effort into getting these groups used to collaborating and appreciating the nuances in each other’s craft. After all, it’s a two-way street.”

Iwata agreed.

“This competition was great because it forced those of us with science backgrounds and those of us with film backgrounds to get out of our comfort zones,” he said. “This definitely isn’t a topic I ever would have considered making a film about if this competition hadn’t come along.”

Other winners included:

Second Prize ($2,000): Stem Cell Billy by Andrew Peat, Harry Locke IV, Catherine Choolijian and Adam Mergenthal of SCA and biology major Marie Rippen of USC Dornsife.

Third Prize ($1,000): Cosmic Billiards by Connor Fitzgerald, Michael Francisco, Pearce Healey, Sharon Choi, Danyel Copeland and Rebecca Witzel of SCA; Monisha Dadiani and Brandon Horton of the School of Dramatic Arts; Silvereen Bay and Michelle Man of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; Amanda See and Hannah Powell of USC Dornsife; and Greg Grabarek of USC Viterbi.

Audience Prize ($750): Coffee for Lila by physics majors Daniel Ben-Zion and Abhinav Prem of USC Dornsife; Katie Lemon of USC Annenberg and Kelsey Napier of SCA.

Visit to view all eight films.

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