The Pixar Storytelling Formula

Pixar films tell great stories. Toy Story. Finding Nemo. WALL-E. Up. These and other films have together grossed $ billions and won many awards. For example, WALL-E, one of my favorites, earned $533 million at the box office and several awards, including an Academy Award for best animated feature. How do they do it? Pixar story artist, Emma Coats, says that every Pixar film follows the same narrative formula, which involves six sentences (#4 in a list of 22 storytelling tips). Pixar’s formula seems to be derived from one developed by Kenn Adams, teacher and author, who posted his version (with eight steps) on his blog, Back to the Story Spine.

This is how it works. Each sentence begins with a few words followed by a blank space to be filled in by the storyteller. You can use six steps or eight:

  1. Once upon a time, there was …
  2. Every day …
  3. One day …
  4. Because of that …
  5. Because of that …
  6. Because of that …
  7. Until finally …
  8. Ever since then …

Those of us in science wishing to be better communicators, especially with video, can adapt this narrative formula to tell our science stories.

For example, we might want to tell a story about a research project to show students how scientists work. Here’s one story designed with the eight-step formula:

  1. Once upon a time, there was … a scientist who was interested in how coastal forests called mangroves managed to avoid submergence by rising sea level.
  2. Every day … the scientist read journal articles that said mangrove forests keep pace with sea-level rise mainly by accumulating mineral sediment carried by rivers, tides, and currents.
  3. One day … the scientist collected cores from beneath several mangrove forests in the Caribbean Region and found mostly organic deposits called peat.
  4. Because of that … the scientist wondered if plant matter (dead leaves and roots) might build up enough to help some mangrove forests adjust to changing sea level.
  5. Because of that … the scientist, along with colleagues, conducted a 3-year experiment on a mangrove island in Belize to see if a change in production of plant matter could alter vertical movement of the soil surface.
  6. Because of that … the scientist showed that production and accumulation of mangrove roots were mainly responsible for upward expansion of the soil surface.
  7. Until finally … the scientist was able to report that Caribbean mangroves adjust to rising sea level through biological controls on change in soil elevation.
  8. Ever since then … scientists have had a better understanding of how loss of mangroves may affect vulnerability of tropical coastlines to sea-level rise.

That’s the story of how one of my research projects came about and how it turned out. I published that paper in 2007:

McKee, K.L., D.R. Cahoon, and I.C. Feller. 2007. Caribbean mangroves adjust to rising sea level through biotic controls on change in soil elevation. Global Ecology and Biogeography 16: 545-556.

My formula-guided story illustrates how scientists make observations that lead to new hypotheses, experiments, and a more refined understanding of an ecosystem—suitable for an audience of science students. But I could have told other stories—for example, the challenges I experienced conducting research in a remote, waterlogged, bug-ridden habitat.

The Pixar formula is similar to an older storyline called “The Hero’s Journey”, which I’ve described before. The nine-step Hero’s Journey features a protagonist who encounters a catalytic event, which propels her to take action and to eventually achieve a goal. The Pixar formula is a bit more generic and has several steps, but also involves a conflict and a resolution. Even briefer is the ABT (and, but, therefore) model promoted by Randy Olson.

Take your pick. All of these narrative formulas can aid scientists in telling stories that people can understand and remember. If you want to make a video about a science topic but are having difficulty coming up with a story, give one of these formulas a try.

Predatory Science Journals Adopt a New Tactic: Video

I suppose it was just a matter of time before predatory science publishers latched onto the idea that adding video to their offerings would bring in more money.

Predatory journals, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, are journals, typically lacking in legitimate editorial services or rigorous standards, that will publish your paper—for a fee. If you are a scientist who has published in reputable journals, you’ve likely received one or more invitations from a predatory journal. Some researchers have responded by conducting sting operations—submitting papers containing scientific gobbledygook and fictitious authors—to expose their shady practices.

Now, predatory publishers are offering to post a video for fees ranging from $1,500 to $4,200, according to reporter Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen. Spears, known for his hilarious spoofs of predatory publishing, has now produced a video featuring “Dr. Yosemite Sam” that has been submitted to several journals. Despite its suspicious title (Re-Examining the Genetic Bottleneck: Atavistic Regression in Acquired Traits Affects the Outcome for Many Subspecies at the Allelic Level) and cartoon-character author, several journals are apparently considering it for publication or have already posted it. Two have accepted Dr. Yosemite Sam as an editor.

You can read Spear’s article in the Ottawa Citizen here and watch his video below.

Predatory journals turn to video–like this one–for bigger profits

But I’m Not Artistic!

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, public domain

“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced” – Vincent Van Gogh

That quote by Van Gogh is about our internal censor—the voice that erodes our confidence and prevents us from trying something new or challenging. Whenever I talk to a group of students or colleagues about making videos about their scientific research, someone invariably responds by saying that they aren’t very artistic and thus cannot be very good at videography. So, why even try?

I understand why they might think this way. Many people are reluctant to engage in any activity that presupposes creativity or artistic ability. Musicians and artists are believed to be somehow different—that they possess inherent talents the average person lacks.

However, as children, we all happily and unselfconsciously draw vivid pictures and make up imaginative stories. Then something happens. A teacher or parent says something discouraging, or our peers make fun of us. Or, as we grow older, other activities draw our attention, and that artistic spark fails to evolve.

I was lucky in that I continued to draw and sketch through childhood. I was an aspiring scientist and spent a lot of time drawing plants, insects, and protozoa that I could see with my microscope. I knew that such detailed drawings were important records for a biologist or ecologist to create. Even after digital devices came on the scene, I continued to sketch in my field notebooks and in the personal journals I kept. My ability to capture an image using only pencil and paper matured. Each drawing was better than the last one. I even became good enough to work as a free-lance scientific illustrator for a while.

My point is that any skill, whether artistic or not, improves over time with practice. With videography, your first attempts will likely not be great, perhaps even terrible. But it doesn’t matter because you will improve with each succeeding video you make. This point  is especially relevant for scientists and other professionals who want to use video as a communication tool. We’ll likely never be as good as a trained filmmaker, but we can still produce effective videos.

In fact, the scientist videographer’s goal is not to be a professional filmmaker but is instead to be a more effective science communicator. Scientists must still learn to communicate using traditional means such as writing articles for publication in journals and speaking at conferences. But we must also be able to use other media to communicate, such as video, which is now a popular way for people to get their information.

And by the way, there is no right way or wrong way to make a video. Worrying about making a technical error or being judged from a filmmaking standpoint is paralyzing. I always advise students who suffer from writer’s block to, “Just write and get your ideas down first; go back later and polish.” Most find that once they are freed from the fear of making a technical error or of not writing the perfect sentence, the words begin to flow.

That approach also works for videography. If you find yourself paralyzed with doubts, just start filming—yourself or others conducting field research or working in the laboratory. Film with the thought that you’ll not necessarily use all of the footage in your video. That view will likely free you to capture a variety of footage and give you some much-needed confidence about filming. I think you’ll find that once you’ve got some footage in hand, the creative juices will begin to flow.

So, if you are disappointed in your first attempts at videography (or are hesitant to even try), remember that even the best videographers were once novices. The difference is that they ignored their internal censor, which was gradually silenced as they made each succeeding video.

For more about this topic see: The Stages of Learning Videography (and Other Skills)

Use Video to Promote the Mission of Your Science Society

This week, the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) rolled out their new media initiative and YouTube Channel. Their website explains how video can be used by SWS members to share their work and why video can be beneficial to the SWS mission:

Exposure: Video can raise awareness of wetland issues, new research, and society activities.

Communication: Video augments other forms of communication, such as technical articles, but is a more accessible and modern way to share information that appeals to a broad audience.

Education: Video can enhance the public’s understanding of the importance of wetlands, can inspire current and future wetland scientists, and help in recruiting students to the study of wetland science.

The SWS New Media Team is currently soliciting videos from members and non-members with an interest in wetlands. If you are a wetland researcher or student studying wetlands…or just a wetland enthusiast, consider submitting a video (see the video preparation and submission instructions). If you’ve never made a video before, the following tutorial provides some basic guidelines for making a video with a smartphone.

Basic Steps to Making a Science Video with a Smartphone

One of the biggest barriers for scientists to use video as a communication tool is the perception that video making is time consuming, expensive, and technically challenging. I know that this idea is out there not only because of comments from colleagues, but because this was my impression before I got involved in making videos. What I eventually learned was that advances in communication technology have made it possible for anyone to make a video—with inexpensive equipment and a minimum of time and effort. We now have (1) devices and software that make it ridiculously easy to create an effective and powerful video message and (2) the Internet where we can instantly share our knowledge globally.

To address this particular barrier, I’ve created a new tutorial that is designed to show the science professional just how easy it is now to create a video to share science. My goal with this brief tutorial was to demystify the video-making process for colleagues and students unfamiliar with it and to show how easy it is to plan, film, and edit a video with a smartphone (iPhone). I’ve emphasized the use of smartphones in this particular tutorial because: (1) most people already have one and know how to use it, (2) they have excellent cameras that can produce high definition video, (3) there are excellent movie-editing apps for mobile devices, (4) both the camera and editing software can be readily mastered with minimal training and effort, (5) their Internet accessibility facilitates sharing the video with others, and (6) filming, editing, and sharing a video is accomplished with a single device. Although other types of recording devices and more sophisticated editing software are available, they require somewhat more time and effort to master.

Here’s that tutorial (click here for a direct link):