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:

Where Can I Find Free, High Quality Photos?

Recently, I saw this bit of advice on a forum in response to a question about using photos found on the Internet: “…if your purpose is educational, you are free to use the image…“. Well, that advice is incorrect. If you use an image found on a website without permission, you can be sued for copyright infringement. The fact that you are using that image for an educational purpose has no bearing on whether you can take it without permission. You wouldn’t walk into a store and take a framed photograph off the wall and walk out with it, using the excuse that you plan to display it in a classroom, would you? Neither should you grab an image from the Internet without permission of the photographer.

So where do you find images that are free to use? I’ve previously described where to find images in the public domain (for example, U.S. government websites). Images in the public domain can be freely used without permission. In addition to images in the public domain, there are a number of websites that offer free images, often with few restrictions (such as commercial use). Below, I’ve listed a few sites that contain large libraries of images that you can download and use as you please.

  1. Morguefile is a site where photographers can upload their images for others to reuse. There are images of people, places, and things. For example, here is an image of a research laboratory. You can modify the image, use it for commercial purposes, and display it along with other content such as text. You may not distribute the unaltered image or claim ownership of it. If you don’t alter the image in some way (e.g. by cropping, reducing resolution), then you must attribute the photographer. The quality of images on this site varies, but you can search for one that suits your purpose using a keyword.
  2. Unsplash offers high-resolution images from over 40,000 photographers. All photos published here are licensed under Creative Commons Zero, which means a user can copy, modify, distribute, and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer or Unsplash. This is a great site to find high quality photos of landscapes, cityscapes, people, animals, and plants. Searches are easy using keywords; there are also collections of photos emphasizing a particular topic (ocean, forest). For example, here is a photo from a collection called “beautiful forests”. You can use these photos for commercial purposes such as for book covers, on T-shirts, or in a video. Although reselling a photo from Unsplash is possible, you are encouraged to first modify it creatively.
  3. Pexels offers a library of images for personal or commercial use. This site has several thousand photos, all under a Creative Commons Zero license. You can browse topics such as sky, sport, night, people, sunset, or animals….or you can enter a keyword search. The images are offered in different sizes/resolutions, such as this one of a peacock. A companion site offers free videos, also under the Creative Commons Zero license (videos.pexels.com). The videos I examined were all full HD (1920 x 1080) and included some time lapse clips. There were also some 4k drone videos (see this example of drone footage of a beach area). You can copy, modify, and distribute the photos or videos without asking permission or giving attribution (in fact, the photographers are not identified on this site).
  4. Death to the Stock Photo is a collection that is not entirely free. To access and use photos, a user must sign up and pay a monthly or yearly fee–reasonable for someone who frequently needs good quality photos. You can re-use the images but cannot re-distribute them or imply that they are yours. If you need only the occasional image, you are better off going to one of the other sites with free offerings.
  5. Albumarium offers images, typically under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license, which means you can use the photos if you acknowledge the photographer. Some photos, however, cannot be used for commercial purposes or modified. This is a good site if you are looking for photos of nature, landscapes, or people. Images are grouped by topics into albums, which can be browsed, but you can also search by keyword.
  6. Magdeleine photos are inspiring or otherwise invoke emotion in the viewer. If you need an evocative photo to enhance your science story, this site may have it. Some photos are offered under a Creative Commons Zero license (or public domain), allowing you to use the image any way you wish and without attribution. Other photos require you to attribute the photographer.
  7. Lifeofpix offers free, high resolution photos of cities, beaches, architecture, nature, food, people, and sunsets, to name a few subjects. You can search by keyword or use filters (category, colors, and orientation). A companion site offers video clips that can be viewed and downloaded from a Vimeo account (lifeofvids.com). I could not find licensing information and so assume that photos and videos can be used with attribution.
  8. Stocksnap provides thousands of free photos under a Creative Commons Zero license. Images are arranged by categories (nature, people, cities, computers, music, fashion, car, fitness, landscape..) and are also searchable by keyword. The images I examined were of high quality and resolution. If you need images of plants or animals in nature, there are some to be found here–see example at right.
  9. Pixabay has a large collection of high quality photos and videos that can be browsed or searched using various filters. Most seem to be under a CC0 license, which is clearly stated in the photo description. There are many images and video clips of plants and animals in nature, which makes it a useful resource for the scientist videographer. The video clips may be particularly useful if you need footage of animals. I found HD clips of frogs, caterpillars, snails, lions, crustaceans, bison, deer, fish, and many more. There was also drone footage of various types of landscapes.
  10. Librestock scans and indexes photos from more than forty sites and makes it easy to locate the photo you need. Once you find your photo, the site then directs you to the source to download. You can save a lot of time by searching here first.

These ten sites offer many fantastic images to use in a video project or scientific presentation. It’s not an exhaustive list—there are other sites offering free media. However, the ones I’ve listed here have high quality media that are easy to download. So instead of illegally grabbing a poor resolution image from someone’s website, why not search these sites first?

Let me end by suggesting that it is good practice to attribute the photographer or videographer, even if the license doesn’t require it. You can easily add a bit of text that identifies the creator and the distributor (as I’ve done with all the images included in this post).


How to Improve Your On-Camera Delivery in Science Videos

Picture this scenario:

A middle-aged scientist in a white lab coat is speaking on film about his research on cancer. He’s sitting in a well-equiped laboratory and looks very authoritative. The camera gradually pans from a broad view of the room to focus in on the scientist. He begins by saying, “I’m really passionate about my work and want to share my findings with you in this video.” The only problem is that this cancer researcher does not look or sound passionate! Far from it. Instead, he sounds like a robot. He speaks in a monotone, does not smile or show any other facial expression, uses no hand gestures, sits stiffly and does not make eye contact with the viewer (his eyes are looking down or off camera). Things don’t get any better as he continues to explain the details of his research. 

Now, I can sympathize with this guy because this is how my early attempts at making videos about my research looked and sounded. I’ve improved since then, but still find it really difficult not to come across on camera like Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek series). Spock had difficulty showing emotion due to his Vulcan ancestry.

So what’s our excuse?

I think there are three basic reasons why some scientists come across on camera as being stiff and robotic: personality, training, and fear of the camera. People who are naturally gregarious or funny come across well on camera, but someone who is introverted may seem stiff or robotic. It’s possible to go against your natural demeanor, but you will likely find it difficult. I’m a naturally reserved, quiet person and feel terribly awkward when I try to be more extroverted. Also, I have to fight the years of training and experience talking to an audience of scientists, during which I cultivated a demeanor of calm confidence and authority. My talks at conferences and in seminars have been successful because those audiences expected a serious, academic delivery. But what works for an audience of scientists can be a detriment on camera. My serious, authoritative demeanor could be misinterpreted as arrogance or just a nerdy attitude. In addition, the camera not only adds ten pounds to your apparent body weight, it drains your energy. Consequently, it’s necessary to be more personable and to raise your energy level when being filmed above that normally used with a live audience. If you are like me and have a more reserved demeanor, you will have to work much harder than your colleague who is naturally gregarious and likeable.

Also, many people—even experienced speakers—freeze up when the camera is turned on them. They get that “rabbit in the headlights” look on their faces, and their bodies seem to turn to stone. Whenever a camera was turned on, I found it difficult to gather my thoughts and speak coherently. This reaction is a bit like stage fright and can make you look like someone with “Stuck in Their Heads” syndrome. Extreme self-consciousness is the culprit here.

After watching many, many videos made by science professionals (or videos in which a scientist appears), I realized that there were quite a few people out there with the “Stuck in Their Heads” problem. I’ve wanted to make a video tutorial about how to improve on-camera delivery, but put it off because I did not think I was the best person to tackle this topic. I thought it was better to hear tips about on-camera delivery from someone who does it well. However, it finally occurred to me that people might want to hear how a scientist with this problem has faced the problem and eventually improved.

In the video below, I briefly explain what I think are the main problems someone faces when trying to speak on camera and a few ideas of how to overcome them (direct link to video).

As you saw, there are several ways to improve your on-camera delivery if you are having problems. I focused on the most common issues and how to overcome them. My take-home message to you is not to give up if your delivery is poor at first. Keep practicing and you will improve. Even though I’m not as engaging or likable or convincing as, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and never will be, I have improved. More importantly, I feel less self conscious and thus more comfortable speaking on camera.

One bonus to learning to speak with more energy and confidence on camera is that it can help you in other stressful, speaking situations such as a job interview seminar or a TED talk. If you have an upcoming presentation, film yourself practicing your talk and try to apply some of the tips I cover in the video. I think you’ll find it’s well worth the effort.

Video Interviews: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Unless you’re a member of the most isolated tribe on Earth, you probably know that we’ve all become potential reporters, capable of shooting video of unfolding events with our phones and instantly sharing it with the world through the Internet. New technologies have given the average person the means and the inspiration to chronicle and share their observations with a global audience. Citizen journalists have documented street demonstrations, natural catastrophes, political uprisings, wars, police shootings, and terrorist attacks. No longer bystanders, people are getting involved by capturing video that becomes key evidence in investigations, that informs search and rescue operations, and that provides spontaneous, person-on-the-street viewpoints. The massive contribution of these amateurs can be seen at CNN iReports where more than 100,000 people posted their stories in 2012.

An increasing number of science professionals are also interested in reporting on their experiences conducting field research as well as at conferences and other scientific gatherings. Some people tweet about talks they heard or about a workshop they attended at a meeting. Conference attendees can become reporters through blogging and vlogging, which is blogging through the medium of video. Vloggers capture footage of various conference activities, such as poster sessions, provide commentary about some aspect of the conference, or interview other attendees about their research. Despite some reservations about premature dissemination of unpublished research through live tweeting and blogging, many conference organizers welcome these new reporting methods because they raise the visibility of the conference and generate excitement in attendees. Small conferences in particular can benefit from these activities.

In this post, I would like to focus on one of the most difficult tasks for the scientist videographer. And that is: interviewing other people. Conducting interviews on camera is always difficult, but trying to interview someone at a conference is particularly challenging because of all the noise and distractions. I recently attended a small conference (~300 people) and conducted a series of video interviews with the conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees. My overall goal was to produce a short video that explained what the conference was about, why the topic of the conference was important, and who some of the attendees were. I wanted to see if I could accomplish this by myself using a simple recording setup: my iPhone (6) and an inexpensive lapel microphone. The end result was a bit longer than I intended, but it pleased the conference organizers who posted it on the conference website. Check it out (direct link) and then I’ll talk about some of the pros and cons below.

The following are some tips that I gleaned from the experience:

  1. First, decide on the objective and length of the video and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but often videographers reporting on an event such as a conference will not have a clear objective in mind. The result is a meandering video that fails to send a clear message. In my video, I had been asked by the conference organizers to shoot a video that basically explained the purpose of the meeting and that featured some of the organizers, sponsors, and attendees. In other words, I was somewhat restricted in the “story” I could tell. I also needed to keep the video brief. My target length was under five minutes, which I overshot. However, the organizers liked everything I included, so the final length turned out to be fine. I shot a lot of extra footage (answers to some spontaneous questions) that I would have loved to include but couldn’t without making the video drag on too long. If I had set out to do a video about mangrove researchers and what challenges they face, I would have used that extra footage. However, I was committed in this case to making a video about this particular conference. If you find yourself struggling for a topic, consider asking a single question of a particular segment of conference-goers such as, “Is this your first scientific conference? If so, what are you finding most surprising or interesting about the experience?” or “What one piece of advice would you give to students and early-career scientists about giving their first oral presentation?”
  2. Select interview subjects carefully. When it comes to interviewing, you will likely have to deal with a variety of people: some who shine on camera and others who ramble or have distracting mannerisms. Also, most people become a little nervous and stiff when on camera.
    1. One way to deal with this problem is to carefully select your interview subjects—if possible. I tried to select people to interview who seemed to be articulate and able to answer my questions without too much rambling. In some cases, I knew the person and was confident they would perform well on camera. In other cases, I watched people deliver their conference talk and, based on their delivery, decided whether they would be good interview subjects. In a few cases, I spoke with people beforehand to get an impression of how they would be on camera. In my case, I had a secondary objective in selecting subjects. I wanted to use people who would be good interview subjects but I also wanted be challenged by interviewing people who had no prior experience on camera. I wanted to see if I could still get useable footage from people who were extremely nervous or had other on-camera issues. I found that I could get decent footage from everyone I interviewed if I just kept filming and asking questions until I got something good.
    2. Sometimes, the scientist videographer is restricted with respect to choice of interviewee. If you are making a video of a small workshop, for example, you are limited by the people who are in attendance. They all may have varying levels of difficulty speaking on camera and so you must work with what you have. The best way to deal with this is to try to put the interview subjects at ease by asking them easy questions first, ones that they should have no trouble answering quickly and concisely. Also, you can begin by just having a conversation with them and then turn on the camera after they have relaxed.
    3. At an international conference, you may need to interview people whose native language is not English or who have strong accents. One solution is to prepare and upload a word-for-word transcript along with the video, which can be used for closed captioning. Viewers who have difficulty understanding an interview subject can turn on closed captioning and read the transcript.
    4. In general, if you are covering a large gathering like a conference, it’s a good idea to interview as many different types of people as possible. For this particular video, I wanted to have a good cross-section of people: conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees; established scientists, early career scientists, and students; male and female; people from different countries, not just the U.S.; and people working in different subfields.
  3. Ensure quality audio. Dealing with ambient noise at a conference is probably the biggest challenge for the scientist videographer. On the one hand, you want your interview subject to be clearly heard without distracting noises. On the other, shooting the interview in a crowd of people helps convey the reality and excitement of the conference. I tried a couple of approaches: interviewing people in a noisy poster session as well as outside the venue (either outdoors or in a quiet foyer). I found it easier to interview people in the quieter settings. They had less trouble hearing my questions, and there were fewer distractions for both me and my subject. But these quieter interviews did not have the same energy as the ones captured in the thick of things. In this case, the lapel microphone did a great job of recording the subject’s voice, which is heard clearly above the background noise.
  4. Choose an appropriate backdrop. In general, you want to avoid interviewing people against a blank wall or in front of a window or bright lamp. Also, you want to avoid a situation in which people can walk behind your subject—because the viewer’s attention can be distracted by what is happening in the background. In my interviews, I tried out a variety of backdrops, including conference or institutional posters and blank walls. As you can see in my video, the footage shot in front of a poster or other colorful background worked best. Getting the right combination of backdrop and good audio can be challenging, however.
  5. Avoid the “talking heads” syndrome. The best way to bore a viewer is to show a series of interviews in which the frame never deviates from the head and shoulders of the subjects. Even though the subject may be talking about something really interesting, the viewer’s eyes tell them nothing is happening. Instead, use cutaways to show what the interview subject is talking about. By frequently changing the view, you will add interest to your video. In my video, I used footage and images of mangroves and the conference from my personal library to augment the video interviews.
  6. Prepare interview questions beforehand. Think carefully about what questions you want to ask and have them on hand during the interview. As you saw, I started with a question about what the conference was all about. Next, I asked why the viewer should care about the conference topic: mangroves. I posed that question to someone I knew had extensive experience in many different countries and got a great answer. I next asked why this particular conference was important. That question elicited information from organizers and sponsors about the level of global interest in mangrove science. I then asked attendees to describe their particular topic of research that they were presenting at the conference. Here, I wanted to show how varied the research topics were as well as how varied the researchers themselves were. For example, I interviewed one of the plenary speakers, people who gave regular talks, and students presenting posters. Their answers provided a broad picture of research topics being reported at the meeting and also showed people at various stages in their career. Finally, I asked all of my interview subjects how they first became interested in mangroves, which prompted a variety of interesting, personal responses that told the viewer something about what motivated these scientists to study mangroves. Don’t restrict yourself to prepared questions, though. If you think of an off-the-cuff question during the interview, ask it. Such spontaneous queries often elicit the most interesting answers.
  7. Use camera equipment that is easy to carry, set up, and use. Filming at a conference is really difficult, especially if you also wish to attend the sessions. Using a setup that can be carried in a purse or backpack really simplifies the process. As I said above, I used my iPhone and an inexpensive lapel microphone to conduct the interviews. Having been interviewed by news reporters using only their cell phones to record, I knew that this was an approach used by professionals. This approach made it really easy for me to attend the sessions and then quickly set up during the breaks for the interviews. Basically, all I had to do was plug the mic into my phone and clip it to the subject’s shirt…and I was ready to film. In some instances, I attached my phone to a selfie stick, which helped me stabilize it and also position it to frame my subject correctly.
  8. Review footage (both video and audio) immediately. It’s good practice to do a brief check of your equipment before starting each interview. I usually do this by myself–I simply clip the mic to my shirt and turn the camera on myself. If I’m going to interview in a noisy poster session, for example, I’ll record a brief clip of my voice to make sure it’s audible above the background noise. When you finish an interview, it’s a good idea to review your footage to ensure there are no technical problems. I always take a quick look and listen while I’m still with the interview subject. In one case, I discovered that I had somehow tapped the record button twice, so that I failed to record anything at all. I was able to quickly redo the interview.
  9. Use movie-editing software to edit the interview footage. In interviews, you will capture a lot of footage that is unusable. Editing is essential to remove or minimize bloopers, shaky clips, loud noises, and other problematic footage. Subjects who are nervous tend to ramble and may also string together sentences without a break between, making it difficult to cut and splice footage. Sometimes, it’s necessary during the interview to ask the subject to pause a few seconds between sentences. These pauses will let you more easily extract short statements without cutting off the speaker mid-word. Once you have removed unusable parts, you then need to cut further. Resist the temptation to include everything you filmed. Also, avoid long sequences of one person talking. Edit the footage so that the scene changes frequently. I partially accomplished this by asking a question (in a text title) and then showing a series of clips of different subjects answering each question. I’ve already mentioned the use of cutaways to augment an interview—these cutaways will really help the viewer stay engaged and interested in what the interview subject is saying.


How to Get and Keep Your Video Viewer’s Attention

Video is a fantastic medium for the communication of science. However, it’s not an easy medium to master, especially for science professionals who are not typically trained in filmmaking techniques. I’m not talking about the technological challenges of using audiovisual equipment and software, though. I’m talking about how to design a video that others want to watch.

When I first began making videos about my research, I approached the process like a scientist rather than a filmmaker. My natural inclination was to communicate the way I had been trained as a science professional. We are taught to communicate by presenting a logical series of facts and findings, supported by data—lots of data. We are also taught, in the interest of accuracy and precision, to include excruciating detail—all the uncertainties and limitations of our findings. And, we must look and sound serious when delivering a science message—otherwise, our colleagues won’t find us credible. This approach may work just fine with our peers but does not necessarily work for other audiences. In fact, it often fails miserably with the general public.

In the beginning, it never occurred to me that I needed to look at things from a filmmaker’s viewpoint rather than from a scientist’s viewpoint (this insight continues to be the one that most surprises and confounds the science professionals who attend my workshops and webinars). But over time, I gradually realized that using video as a communication tool required me to meet the video viewer’s expectations, which is different from someone reading an article or listening to a conference presentation. This is true even if the viewer happens to be a scientist with specialized knowledge of the topic. We all interact with videos in the same way. In addition to gaining information, we expect that information will be delivered in a certain way—one that doesn’t bore us to tears. Too often, though, that information is presented like a bad-tasting medicine (take this, it’s good for you). Not surprisingly, few people want to watch.

So, what does work?

For the answer, one need only look at popular science video channels on YouTube: Veritasium, Smarter Every Day, MinutePhysics, and ASAPscience. In fact, let’s look at an example video from Veritasium by Derek Muller who creates videos about science (often physics) and then I’ll talk a bit about why it’s so effective.

OK. This is one of the more popular videos on the Veritasium channel: 8,967,145 views since its posting February 24, 2014. That works out to an average of about 10,400 views per day. Many of his other videos have similarly received millions of views; one has almost 33 million views. The popularity of the overall style of Veritasium’s videos is further evidenced by the number of subscribers to the channel: more than 3.5 million people. So I think it’s safe to conclude that these videos are very popular and that the channel has succeeded in reaching a lot of people.

What specific features set Veritasium’s videos apart—features that you might employ to improve your science videos? Here is my analysis:

  1. Lead with Awesome. A lot of science videos, especially those created by scientists, start out with a long, boring exposition. In contrast, most of the videos on Veritasium start with a bang. Little time is spent at the beginning explaining or introducing the scientific concept to be featured in the video (that information is provided later). The videos on the Veritasium channel typically open with a “hook” such as a question, an intriguing observation, or an amazing demonstration. In other words, the video gets right to the point in the first few seconds. The video, “2, 4, 8” is a good example. In the first ten seconds, the video asks if you can figure out the rule behind the number series. Also, notice that no time is wasted on awkward introductions of the people in the video, including the host, Derek Muller.
  2. Challenge Misconceptions Carefully. Many of Veritasium’s videos try to correct common misconceptions about scientific concepts, but in an indirect, non-threatening way. A direct approach might have a scientist on camera list common misconceptions and explain why they are wrong. This tactic is often not effective, partly because the viewer may feel that they are being “talked down to” or lectured  by someone with superior knowledge—and they become more resistant to hearing the truth. Instead, Muller interviews average citizens on the street to get them to reveal common preconceived notions or misunderstandings about a particular subject. The expert then leads everyone, including the viewer, to the correct answer. In “2, 4, 8”, we see a series of people struggling to figure out what “rule” Muller has in mind. The viewer can’t help but play along. The outcome is that instead of being a passive receptacle for information, the viewer becomes an active participant in the exercise that eventually reveals the answer to the puzzle. The expert (Muller) then explains (briefly) the significance of the exercise.
  3. Don’t Over Polish. I think people are turned off by “shock and awe” science videos that contain over-the-top animations and are produced at great cost by film studios. One reason may be that such videos seem to be desperately trying to get the viewer’s attention with special effects rather than relying on the awesomeness of the science. The Veritasium videos are technically sound, but not “slick”, and one gets the idea that these are low-budget productions. In the “2, 4, 8” example, the video was shot on the street by Muller’s mother who operated the camera. Such unpolished videos appeal to many viewers and may even enhance their admiration of them.
  4. Be as Brief as Possible. Most of the videos on the Veritasium channel are brief—just a few minutes in length—enough time to get across the basic concept without trying the viewer’s patience. The “2, 4, 8” video was just under five minutes. But there is no perfect length. A video should be as long as necessary to get across the message. The scientist videographer is often tempted to cram in more details, but too many details can obscure the message. The “2, 4, 8” video could have included much more information about the scientific method, but this would have been overkill. We just don’t need a long lecture about confirmation bias or Karl Popper to “get the no”.
  5. Keep the Viewer’s Interest. Veritasium videos, including “2, 4, 8”, are designed so that the viewer gets invested in watching the entire thing. The longer you watch, the more interesting things you get to see and hear about. As a viewer, you are interested not only in the answer to the riddle but whether you can figure out the “rule” before any of the people Muller is interviewing. If you figure out the rule early in the video, you continue watching to see if you are correct and also how long it takes the other people. If you don’t figure out the rule, you continue watching to see what the answer is. Either way, you’re hooked. Check out the comments below the “2, 4, 8” video. Many commenters talked about whether and when they figured out the answer.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important aspect of these videos: they are fun to watch! Here’s one more from Veritasium to illustrate the point: