Into the Inferno: pioneering an innovative approach to science documentary film making

Clive Oppenheimer (left) and Werner Herzog in Vanuatu (credit: Peter Zeitlinger/Netflix)

Clive Oppenheimer has researched and written on some of the most significant volcanic eruptions in history and prehistory – resulting in new understanding of the large-scale climatic, societal and cultural consequences of volcanism.

In 2016, he collaborated with filmmaker Werner Herzog on the Netflix Original film, Into the Inferno. The film draws directly from Oppenheimer’s research on volcanic hazards and processes, and the long-range climatic and societal consequences of volcanism, as well as the wider significance of volcanic resources and landscapes in prehistory. It also draws on his studies of Mount Paektu volcano in an unprecedented collaboration with geoscientists in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

What makes Into the Inferno innovative in science communication is its methodological development of form and content and the equal partnership of experienced filmmaker and geoscientist bringing both authenticity and artistry to the film: it is educational but not didactic; it is neither scripted nor storyboarded; it features conversations, not interviews; it is cinema not reportage.

The film is available in nearly 40 languages and distributed worldwide via Netflix’s streaming video on demand platform. It garnered five award nominations including ‘Outstanding Science Documentary’ (News and Documentary Emmy awards 2017) and ‘Best Documentary Award’ (Critic’s Choice Documentary Awards, 2016). The film has been shown at festivals, Herzog retrospectives and museums in the USA, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Greece and Iceland.

Its impacts include pioneering an innovative approach to science documentaries, increasing public understanding of volcanology, playing an instrumental role in Netflix’s policy for open educational access and inspiring a new generation of science communicators.

“It brings a new energy to films on science and to documentaries in general.”

– Filmmaker Werner Herzog describes his collaboration with Clive Oppenheimer as leading to a unique form of documentary filmmaking