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)

How to Handle Negative Comments about Your Videos

Have you ever gotten a comment about one of your videos that contained a personal attack or profanity? Are you wondering how best to deal with such comments? About comments that are just critical? In a new video, I offer my perspective and experiences and describe ways to deal with negative comments, including how to handle comments that are critical but otherwise civil.

There are lots of other videos out there that offer additional perspectives and strategies for dealing with people who leave hateful comments. Here are links to a few that I think are especially worth watching:

How to Deal with Haters & Negative Comments on YouTube

How to Deal with Negative Comments on YouTube — 5 Tips

How to Deal With Negative YouTube Comments

Using Screenshots and Published Figures in a Video

I’ve previously talked about how to make a video when you have only photographs or when your topic is not very visual. Using still images instead of film footage is sometimes the best option for many scientists who just have photographs to work with or who find shooting video footage too challenging or time consuming. In addition to photographs, a science video may contain figures from a published paper or book or a screenshot (still image of a computer screen) of material on a website. In this post, I offer a few thoughts about using such images in a video.

Screenshots

Some video creators use screenshots to show the viewer how to use an app or how to use an interactive tool on a website. The screenshot approach is less challenging and does not require additional software that would be needed to capture video footage of the computer screen. All you need to know is how to capture a still image of your computer screen. The exact method for screen capture varies with operating system, but usually involves a keyboard shortcut. For example, on a Mac OS, holding down the shift key, command key and 3 will prompt a screenshot of your entire screen (which is saved to the desktop). Shift + Command + 4 will allow you to draw a window to select a portion of your screen.

However, be careful about what you capture with screenshots so that you don’t infringe the copyright of online materials. For example, don’t use screenshots to copy photographs on someone’s website; instead, contact the photographer and ask permission or pay a fee. Some companies have information about use of screenshots from their website or products. Google, for example, allows free use of screenshots of a search results page for instructional or illustrative purposes—as long as nothing is altered:  https://www.google.com/permissions/products/ Unfortunately, not all companies have such clear guidance, in which case, you’ll have to seek permission. See the Stanford University Libraries website on copyright and fair use for more information about websites and copyright. Here is a website with an interactive tool to allow one to determine if material is under copyright or in the public domain (USA only): http://www.librarycopyright.net/resources/digitalslider/index.html. And here is a handy app to determine if your use is fair: https://www.newmediarights.org/fairuse/

Published Figures

Finally, you might want to use a figure from a journal article (your paper or someone else’s) in a video. Since the article is protected by copyright, you will need permission from the publisher (or other copyright holder) to reuse the figure in its published format. Academic publishers often get such requests for reusing figures in review articles and books.

Getting permission for reuse of a key portion of a published journal article may be easy or difficult. Springer Nature, for example, has a user-friendly procedure. All you need do is locate the Rights and Permissions link on the first page of the online article. Clicking it will take you to Springer’s RightsLink site where you can then enter information about what you want to reuse (e.g., the abstract or a figure) and how you plan to use it (e.g., in a conference presentation or on a website). A cost for reuse of the material is calculated, and you then register your request. I’ve previously gotten permission to use several graphs from a Nature article in a conference presentation. The process was quick and easy, and there was no charge for my particular use. All I had to do was include an attribution with each figure in my presentation.

Note that if the figure is from one of your papers, you can always present the data in a different format in your video and not need permission from the publisher. The data are still your intellectual property.

Recording a Video with a Computer and a Script

I recently launched a new YouTube channel focused on scientific writing. Although I’ve written several essays about writing (How I Wrote My Best Scientific Paper, How to Write a Scientific Abstract), I knew that a lot of people dislike reading long articles. More and more people, especially students, like to get their information by watching brief videos. So, I decided to begin sharing what I’ve learned about writing over a forty-year career in a series of videos.

I’ve been making video tutorials about science videography for six years now. So, using video to share insights about writing was a no brainer. The only question was: What video format would work best for this particular topic? I decided to try something simple and that would make it easy to cover a lot of material on camera.

I used my computer camera and an external microphone to record these videos. I had my script or list of main points on my computer screen where I could easily see them. The trick is to deliver the material in a natural speaking voice and avoid the shifty-eye syndrome. That’s easier said than done. But I thought I would try it for a while and then in a future post offer some insights into what works and what doesn’t.

Here are a couple of the writing videos I’ve posted:

 

 

 

Video As A Scientific Research Tool

Video has been used to record scientific phenomena for decades. Such recordings may simply serve to document an important event such as a volcanic eruption or give a glimpse of a rare animal, even one that no longer exists. For example, thanks to audio-visual records, we can watch footage of now extinct animals such as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (1935) and the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger (1933). Wildlife recordings were not only made by scientists, but by naturalists, resource managers, and professional photographers. Over time, researchers expanded the use of video to record experimental subjects—especially in fields such as animal behavior and child development—in an attempt to capture ephemeral behavior and transform it into more objective, quantitative information.

In a few cases, researchers have used video to create the experimental material presented to study subjects. For example, a study of wild marmosets used film footage of laboratory-trained monkeys performing tasks (opening a lid or a drawer) to see if the wild animals could learn by watching a video.The researchers made an “instructional video” with the laboratory footage of trained marmosets and set up a monitor in the field to display the video to wild marmosets. Then they tested the wild marmosets to see if they adopted any of the techniques shown in the video. You can watch the video here to see what happened.

The Heider-Simmel animation is another example of how video might be used in research. I’ve written before (Bully Triangles and Terrified Circles) about the fascinating animation video used by psychologists Heider and Simmel in their research on people’s propensity to anthropomorphize everything they see, including inanimate objects. The researchers showed the video to participants and assessed their reactions to it. If you’ve not seen this animation, I’ve embedded it below. It’s almost impossible not to make up a story about (or assign intent to) the geometric objects in the film clip.

Prior to digital cameras, personal computers, and editing software, however, film-based research required expensive equipment and technical skills to capture and process footage useful for research purposes. Consequently, video was not a common research tool, particularly in my field of ecology. How things have changed! The use of video in scientific research to record physical, chemical, and biological phenomena has exploded in recent years, and researchers in many disciplines are discovering video. Scientists now have access to affordable digital cameras that can be used to conduct research in various environments, such as underwater to measure fish populations or inside a colony of leafcutter ants.

Despite the recent uptick in use of video to conduct research, there are not a lot of technical guidelines or how-to manuals. Most scientists are working out the filming, editing, and analytical details themselves. For example, a student, Austin Taylor (Bodega Marine Laboratory Spring Class, 2012), studied the effect of wave action on the behavior of the intertidal black turban snails, which he filmed with a GoPro Hero 2 camera attached to a DIY tripod designed withstand waves. In addition to figuring out how to process the video to extract data on snail movement, he and his coauthors had to design and fabricate a unique camera mount to withstand the force of waves striking their intertidal field site.

You can read his technical paper, “Underwater video reveals decreased activity of rocky intertidal snails during high tides and cooler days”, published in Marine Ecology, to see details of camera setup and post-processing of the footage to quantify snail movements. Below is an example of the film he captured during the research:

As more researchers become aware of the possibilities of video, we’ll likely see more researchers experimenting with how video can be used to attain new research insights.