Make A Video About Your Field Site

The average person, having never met a scientist, has only a vague notion of what scientists do and where they work. Many people, when they hear the term “scientific research”, envision a lab-coated person comfortably seated at a lab bench, pipette in hand. In fact, many scientists spend weeks or even months at remote field stations or temporary field camps in deserts, rainforests, savannas, and ice fields. Conditions at such field sites vary, but many are often challenging in terms of creature comforts such as working toilets, air-conditioning or heating, potable water, hot food, and window screens to keep out disease-carrying insects.

In addition to the typical research challenges such as how to design a rigorous sampling schedule or what statistical program to use, a field project adds a whole new list of hurdles for the researcher. And the more remote and rustic the setting, the greater the challenges. What do you do when your clumsy student drops the spare batteries to the GPS in the ocean, and the nearest store is a day’s boat ride away? Do you have an evacuation plan in the event your colleague puts a dive knife through their hand trying to open a coconut? Are you prepared for a water shortage, limiting you to six cups daily for baths? What do you do upon arrival at the field station to find that the outhouse was blown away by a hurricane? This aspect of the research world is not often talked about and is certainly not discussed in the resultant journal article, except perhaps as a brief statement about the field site location on a remote island in the Caribbean or the use of a dogsled to reach sampling locations in the Arctic.

Field work also can take you to incredibly beautiful and untrammeled environments where you wake up every morning to the sights and sounds of nature in a wondrous terra incognita: the sun rising over the ocean, a night heron patiently poised on a mangrove prop root, an osprey’s hectoring call in the distance, the wind flowing through the window of your thatched-roofed cottage, the rustling of coconut palm leaves, a local fisherman expertly casting a net, a swirling school of fish chased by a barracuda, and a parade of hermit crabs marching across the white sand. The field researcher not only experiences nature firsthand, but she often meets and learns to work with people of different cultures and languages (their common language, of course, is science). There are also opportunities to try a new cuisine: fry jacks, fish head soup, red beans and rice flavored with pig’s tails (yum), conch stew, baked plantains, johnnycakes, fish empanadas, banana fritters, and flour tortillas.

Such insights (about both good and bad experiences) are interesting to the lay audience and can serve to attract students and/or prepare them for research in a particular field.

Scientists are increasingly using video to inform the public about what they do and why they love their work. Do you conduct field research in a unique, remote, challenging, or beautiful setting? At a famous field station? If so, making a brief video about your experiences is a great way to educate students and budding scientists about life in the field. Such videos can also help to bolster the image of scientists in the minds of the general public by showing some of the many challenges that researchers must overcome to succeed.

In the videos embedded below, a long-time research associate at Penn State University, Don Voight, talks about what it’s like to work at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. They are brief (a minute or less) and are illustrated with images from the field. Making such videos is not difficult and can even be accomplished without video footage (see How to Make a Video without Film Footage).

How to Create a Videographic

I recently came across a Tweet from Climate Central that was illustrated with a striking videographic, which is a combination of graph and video. In this case, the graph showed where Earth’s accumulated energy (heat) ends up (land, sea, air), and it was superimposed on a video of ice floes floating on the ocean.

The idea behind such videographics is to create an attractive and memorable information product that catches people’s eye. The moving image draws your attention as you scroll through Tweets or surf through a website. My attention was definitely captured, and I took a closer look at the graph and the data it presented.

In addition to making your Tweets more visible and informative, videographics can be used on a webpage, as supplemental online material for a journal article, or for a scientific presentation. On a webpage, it can create an eye-catching visual that highlights a recent publication. More journals now accept videos and interactive graphics to accompany articles; a videographic can enhance an online article or be offered as a downloadable supplementary file. Judicious use of a videographic in a conference presentation or seminar can emphasize a key finding and make the point more memorable.

So, how do you create a videographic? It’s relatively easy if you know how to use Photoshop and a movie-editing program. Here are the steps:

1. Prepare your graph in any graphing program and save it as an image (jpg, png).

2. Open the image in Photoshop.

3. Use the “magic wand” tool to highlight the graph’s background and delete it.

4. Now save the graph with its transparent background as a .png file, which will preserve the transparency.

5. Import the new graph into iMovie (or other movie-editing program).

6. Import a video clip that illustrates what the graph depicts (clouds streaming across the sky, waves lapping on the shore, people walking).

7. In the timeline, add a ten-second segment (or whatever duration you choose) of the video. Add the graph to the timeline as a picture-in-picture image and resize/re-position as needed.

8. Export the video file and post it on your website or in a Tweet.

I made a tutorial showing exactly how to prepare your graph and then superimpose it on a video clip (see embedded video below or go to this link).

Help, I Want to Make a Video But My Topic Is Not Very Visual!

I recently received an email from a reader who was having difficulty figuring out how to make a video about his non-visual topic. He wanted to communicate his research on data technology but was at a loss as to how to depict this topic using video. I gave him some suggestions specific to his situation, but realized that there were likely others out there like him. So, I decided to make a tutorial that shows three ways to generate film footage about a non-visual topic. Here it is:

12 Filming Mistakes to Avoid

In the process of learning how to make a video, we all make rookie mistakes. That is, unless we are warned about them. I made a lot of mistakes when I first began making science videos. However, I avoided some of the most common filming errors by reading about them or watching tutorials. I recently gave a lecture to a university class about how to make a video with a smartphone. This particular science course requires the students to make a video about one of the topics covered in the course. One of the topics I always cover in these lectures is common filming mistakes.

When I finished the lecture and was walking back to my car, the thought occurred to me that I could use my lecture presentation (made with Prezi) to make a helpful video about avoiding common filming mistakes. Later, I recorded that part of my lecture about filming mistakes with the screencapture software, Screenflow, along with my voiceover. All I had to do was play my presentation fullscreen on my computer while Screenflow recorded the screen and my voice. I then edited the footage in Screenflow to trim out unwanted sections and to insert The Scientist Videographer intro/outro at the beginning and end of the video. It took about fifteen minutes. My point is that recording your lectures, seminars, or conference presentations is a really easy way to make a video.

If you have a presentation made in PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, or some other application, you should be able to use that as the basis for a video about your science topic. Some journals are even encouraging authors to use this approach to create a video abstract that will accompany their scientific article. So, it may be worthwhile to know how to make a video this way.

Here is the video I made:

How to Make a Custom Thumbnail for Your YouTube Videos

When I first started making videos and uploading them to YouTube, I did not think much about how viewers made their decisions to click on one of my videos instead of one posted by someone else. In an Internet search, several videos may be suggested. People often decide on which one to watch based on the thumbnail image. One way to make your video stand out to viewers and tell them that your video is what they want to watch is with a custom thumbnail.

An eye-catching thumbnail is an easy way to attract viewers to your YouTube videos. If you’ve gone to the trouble of making a great video, then you shouldn’t hesitate to spend a bit more time to make sure people notice your video and decide to watch it. In a new tutorial (see player window below), I show how to design and create a custom thumbnail in PowerPoint and how to attach it to your YouTube video. Although Photoshop or Illustrator can be used for crafting the thumbnail image, many people do not have this software or do not know how to use it. In this tutorial, I use PowerPoint, which many people are familiar with, to create a custom thumbnail. Moreover, if you create a thumbnail template in PowerPoint, you can use it to quickly create thumbnails for all your videos.

But first, let’s go over some important information to help you design the best custom thumbnail for your video.

What is a thumbnail?

A thumbnail is a small image, often clickable, created for a webpage and that represents a file such as a photograph or a video. When someone conducts a search for a video, the thumbnail gives the viewer a visual preview of what your video is about. Some thumbnails stand out more than others. These are custom thumbnails. When you upload your video to YouTube, you are presented with three random frames from which to choose a thumbnail. Now, these are totally random, which means you basically get to choose among three really bad choices. Obviously, being able to create a custom thumbnail that best represents your video is preferable.

Who is eligible to use custom thumbnails?

Some forums suggest that you must become a YouTube Partner to enable advanced options like custom thumbnails. This is not true; if your channel is verified, you then become eligible to upload custom thumbnails. This option became available to me as a YouTube video creator in late 2013. Since then, crafting a custom thumbnail has become a routine part of my workflow when making a video. I consider it a key part of the process in creating an effective video and actually enjoy the challenge of finding just the right image and text design to use in the custom thumbnail.

What factors should be considered in designing a thumbnail?

  • First, take a look at other thumbnails for your topic and see what other video creators have used. Although this review will give you some ideas for crafting your thumbnail, you also want to take note of the features most often used and think of new ones to use for your thumbnail. In other words, you should try to design a thumbnail that stands out from the crowd.
  • Second, select an image that best represents your video. This image should be distinct but not misleading. Images featuring a person tend to attract the eye. If you can also show that person doing something related to the topic of the video, then your thumbnail image will be informative. For example, if your video is showing a scientific method, a photo of a person using an instrument or demonstrating the method is what you want. Those thumbnails featuring an image of a person jump out at you, which is why many people use them. However, you can also feature a photo of an instrument, an organism, a landscape, or a graphic—assuming it has something to do with the topic of your video. Planning ahead for the thumbnail and getting that photo while filming is the best approach. Failing this, you can extract a freeze frame from your raw footage. I show how to do this in the tutorial.
  • Third, resize and crop your image to ensure a good quality thumbnail that also meets specifications suggested by YouTube. In general, follow the rule of thirds to create a more interesting visual but mainly to allow space for text. YouTube suggests an image size of 1280 x 720 pixels, which is a 16:9 aspect ratio. You should keep the file at 2 MB or less and in an acceptable format such as jpg or png.
  • Fourth, add text to your video, which informs the viewer and reinforces what the video is about. Include keywords that people will use in their search. In many cases, all you need to do is restate the title of your video using a larger font and colors that make the text stand out.
  • Fifth, strive for a combination of an informative image and eye-catching text. In the tutorial below, I show some examples. You can make things easier on yourself if you use an image with some blank space in it, such as the sky, a solid fence or wall, as background for the text. In the tutorial, however, I show how to deal with a busy background.

What software should I use to create a custom thumbnail?

If you want to create a thumbnail from scratch, you have a number of options, including Photoshop, Illustrator, or PowerPoint. I’ve used PowerPoint in this tutorial because it’s a program that most science professionals use and are comfortable with. Photoshop and Illustrator are a bit more challenging to use and require some training and practice to use effectively. There are also online design sites that will assist you in creating a thumbnail. Canva is one example of a graphic design site, which offers templates and a user-friendly interface. I’ve not tried it, so can only recommend it as a possible site to check out. Although advertised as a “free” application, access to some key options seems to require a monthly subscription. In the end, you should use the software you are most comfortable with.

So with that bit of background, here is the tutorial showing how to create a thumbnail in PowerPoint (and direct link in case you can’t see the player window):