Richard Smith

2008 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Richard Smith received the Walter Sullivan Award at the 2008 Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 29 May 2008 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Smith was honored for the documentary film “Crude,” which examines oil’s ancient origins and the geology of its formation and explores the potential, unwelcome consequences of oil’s prodigious use by industrial society as a fuel and raw material.


I am delighted in two ways to support the nomination of Richard Smith for the AGU Walter Sullivan Award. First, because I knew the remarkable Walter Sullivan; I relished Walter’s lofty standards as the peerless, peripatetic prince of science journalists and his legendary impatience with compromise. Second, I am delighted because Richard Smith’s work is in the same Sullivan tradition of scientific excellence and the single-minded pursuit of big ideas.

Smith’s documentary Crude is undoubtedly a big idea. Take a molecule of carbon, follow its life story over a couple of billion years, and show how it becomes entwined in living things, buried in fossil graves, liberated into the atmosphere, and, during a brief moment in human history, part of our everyday industrialized living. Do all of this for the time it takes to watch a feature film, well over the span usually allowed for a restless modern audience, and then show how this piece of winged carbon (now augmented with two atoms of oxygen) may change our lives forever. Do this without being didactic, sensationalist, or trivial.

What’s more, as I’ve seen with so many of Richard Smith’s other films, of necessity he’s done most of it on his own. Writing, pieces to camera, filming—up a mountain, under the waves, down a ravine—even reading the voice-over; did he, perhaps, manufacture the digital tape as well? I am reminded of those street musicians who play every instrument in the orchestra and juggle and yodel at the same time! Walter Sullivan, by the way, was a musician.

This kind of versatility has been a necessity in documentary filmmaking in Australia in recent years, for good reasons and bad. Richard Smith has turned it to his advantage. There is a superb unified coherence about Crude that carries you forward with clarity, humor, and even a sense of excitement.

vThis is where fossil fuels come from; this is how they’ve powered our world; this is how they’ll soon run out; and this is what the crunch could be like. These are big questions for our times, handled calmly, accurately, and with every regard for scientific probity and filmic flair.

Richard has dinosaurs flying through the Jurassic skies, cartoon molecules looking as cute as cookies, ancient forests looming as in an epic by Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson—science on the screen as a compelling intellectual adventure. Having seen Crude, you confront your future with knowledge, and a new kind of understanding.

This has been a characteristic of Richard Smith’s work over the years. Around the world, especially in Australia, he is regarded by his colleagues as the one who has set the standard for a generation. Be it in marine biology (his own training), astronomy, geological investigations, or health, his has been the example we have hoped to follow, often vainly, in our own science journalism. The Walter Sullivan Award is so significant because it recognizes the need for innovation and new approaches. But it also insists that the traditional measures of excellence be applied as well. Get the science right. Let the ideas flourish. Then go and reach out for your widest possible audience.

As someone who began to tread in Walter’s footsteps nearly 40 years ago, it is my privilege to recommend the work of Richard Smith and, especially, the triumph of Crude.

—ROBYN WILLIAMS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation


It is an enormous honor to receive this award from the American Geophysical Union.

The response from friends and family was muted at best when I first proposed making a film about oil. For most people, oil was something they only had an invisible encounter with once a week at the petrol pump. Or so they thought! Saying I was making a film called “crude” sparked a little more interest, but in the end even I was surprised by how engaging the subject was to be.

When I first started drafting the film, in late 2005, concerns about peak oil and climate change were still considered fringe issues by many in Australia—if given much thought at all. Not so now. The endless upward climb of fuel costs and an extreme, and seemingly endless, drought in Australia have seen to that. Food prices are up, lifestyles are questioned, and the building clouds are no longer on the distant horizon. The deep links we Earthlings have forged with the prehistoric bounty hidden in the bowels of the planet are no longer out of sight and mind.

The global economic, environmental, and political challenges ahead are immense. But still not as obvious to many is the way the 6.5 billion of us alive today have collectively become a major player in both the biological and geological workings of the planet. This is why I believe there has never been a stronger need for communicating science to the world at large. That’s what makes it so personally satisfying to receive the Walter Sullivan Award: Coming from AGU, it makes me feel that I have made a small—and validated—contribution to finding our way ahead.

It also helps to reinforce the value of a public broadcaster like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for whom I work—and the ABC itself needs some reminding. The legacy of Crude is that it has become the last science film to be made from within the corporation where the need for specialist documentary output is seen as a luxury we can no longer afford.

At the ABC, science documentaries have never been an expensive indulgence. Frugal funding has been a powerful selector for small, efficient teams well tuned to making films on oil on the smell of an oily rag. In particular, I’d like to thank my terrific film editor Lile Judickas for helping wrestle sound and picture together, executive producer Sonya Pemberton for fighting for the film’s existence, and Maria Ceballos for making sure I got everywhere and talked to the right people—on time and on budget.

As past recipients of this award have already remarked, I can claim only partial credit for the work for which I am being honored. Crude would not have seen the light of day if not for the curiosity of mind and generosity of spirit of the scientists involved in exploring the great story of our marvelous planet. Some we featured in the film, and others we consulted, yet more helped to build the vast body of evidence over the generations.

Thank you all for opening up yet more illuminating chapters and allowing me to share them with a broader audience. Thank you for the award. May you all live long and prosper!

—RICHARD SMITH, Australian Broadcasting Corporation