Key Ingredients for a Science Video

In the sixth and final video in our series (Eric and Karen Talk about DIY Science Videos), we focus on key ingredients for a successful science video:

7 Minutes of Terror (NASA) – How NOT to Bore Your Video Audience

Scientists are increasingly using video to share their work with colleagues and the public, but struggle to make their information interesting and understandable. In the video review embedded below, I used the NASA/JPL-Caltech video, 7 Minutes of Terror, to discuss ways to improve science videos.

The NASA video provides several great examples of techniques to sustain viewer interest and to improve understanding and retention of technical information—in this case, it’s literally “rocket science”. I break down the NASA video to illustrate how the use of visuals, metaphors, non-technical language, and a 3-part story structure can help science video makers avoid boring their audience to death. Take a look:

If you find this review useful, please “like” my video on YouTube. Want more video reviews like this? Leave a comment here or on YouTube to let me know what you would like to see.

16 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Your First Science Video

karen_bookshelfPicture this scenario: A scientist is nearing the end of a research project funded by NSF and is preparing the required summary report written for the public. She decides to create a short video to submit along with her written report. She’s never made a video before—only shot occasional footage with her iPhone. Undaunted, she buys an expensive camcorder and after a bit of practice in her backyard, dives into shooting. She films herself explaining the project in detail from behind her office desk. She goes through all the methods, results, and statistics, making sure to cover all the uncertainties and limitations of the research. She doesn’t bother to edit the footage, not really knowing how to do this. In any case, the clips she shot in her backyard garden look nice and add a bit of scenery to the video. The final video is 29 minutes long. Proudly, she shows it to her lab group, most of whom worked on the research project. At the end of the viewing, there is stunned silence. Then, one graduate student tentatively raises his hand and asks, “You’re not going to put this on YouTube, are you?”

Uh oh.

Novices typically make the same mistakes when they first attempt to create a video. I know because I’ve made quite a few of them myself. I see the same glaring blunders made over and over again in what are clearly first-time videos made by a scientist or science educator. However, many of these errors are easily avoided. Some simply require awareness to side-step them, while others take a bit of practice and/or the right equipment.

I came up with a list of 16 common mistakes (and how to avoid them) based on my own experience. I either made the mistake myself at some point or would have had I not been forewarned about it. I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that they will help you avoid some of the most common errors:

1. Ignore your audience. The number one mistake that you can make is to fail to identify your target audience or fail to keep them in mind when designing your video. I find that scientists too often explain their work as they would to their colleagues, even if their audience is composed of non-specialists with little or no background in the field. It never occurs to them to put themselves into their audience’s shoes.

Solution: During all phases of video production, ask yourself the following questions. Will it make sense to my viewers? Will they find it memorable, interesting, informative, and/or enjoyable? Find more information on how to keep your audience engaged here: Keep Your Audience in Mind and Are Your Science Videos Understandable by a Diverse Audience?.

2. Have no plan. Novices rush out with their cameras and just start shooting. The result? A long-winded, rambling monologue and/or poorly composed footage, which often has no bearing on the topic of the video.

Solution: Prepare a script and storyboard your shots beforehand. Write out what you want to say and also describe or sketch out the sequence of shots (storyboard) you plan to use. Don’t memorize the script, however—just use it to organize your main points and to ensure a smooth delivery. Follow your storyboard to set up your shots and also to guide you in editing.

3. Don’t tell a story. A common mistake that scientists make in a video is to string together a series of facts designed to “educate” the viewer. These facts are presented in a logical and unemotional manner—which is how we are trained to convey science information. Unfortunately, viewers, especially the general public or students, may not react well to this approach. In addition, they may not remember material presented this way.

Solution: Frame your science message in the form of a story. People love stories and will stick around to see how everything turns out. They also tend to remember stories better than bare facts. Explaining science in the form of a story also helps you, the science communicator, make a connection with the audience. A good story asks and answers a dramatic question: What motivates a scientist to study deadly viruses? How does a volcanologist collect (and carry) samples of molten lava? Why should I care about climate change? By using a story, the videographer can present science information accurately and concisely but in a way that engages the viewer.

For more information on the use of dramatic questions and storytelling in science videos, read The Dramatic Question and I’m Not Interesting, But My Research Is.

4. Use bad camera moves. Inexperienced videographers often shoot with hand-held cameras, which produces shaky or blurry footage (and no, it’s not the same as the jerky footage sometimes used by professional filmmakers). Another common mistake is sweeping the camera around erratically (“firehosing”). These problems happen when the videographer has no idea what they want to shoot (in other words, they have not planned anything and are just filming everything in the hopes of getting something useful).

Solution: Carefully plan and set up each shot and use a tripod to steady the camera.

5. Overuse zooming/panning. The controls on many modern cameras encourage novices to overuse the zoom feature, which can be annoying to viewers and also adds unnecessarily to the video length. Too much panning (swinging the camera from side to side across a scene) is also a sign of inexperience.

Solution: Zoom with your feet. Instead of using the camera to zoom in for a close-up, stop and walk closer to your subject and resume shooting. The time spent during a zoom is wasted time and does not add anything of value to your video. Use zoom and pan sparingly and only when you have a specific reason for it.

6. Backlight your subject. Another common error made during filming is to position the subject in front of a light source such as a window, which causes backlighting. The camera automatically selects the brightest light as reference and adjusts everything else accordingly. The result is to put your subject in deep shadow. Backlighting can occur outdoors as well when the sun is positioned behind the subject or is overhead, casting shadows onto the subject’s face.

Solution: Ensure that the light source is behind the camera; if necessary, use extra lamps or reflectors to light your subject. This post and video explain more about backlighting: How to Deal with Lighting Issues.

7. Fail to compose your shots properly. Many novice videographers/photographers put their subject in the center of the frame, which is less interesting to the eye.

Solution: Use the “rule of thirds” to compose shots. Most cameras have an option to show a grid in the viewfinder that divides the frame into thirds from top to bottom and left to right. Use this guide to frame your shots. Read more about this composition tip in this post: The Rule of Thirds.

8. Shoot too wide. Novice videographers (and photographers) often shoot too wide, putting their subject far from the camera lens. The result is often a poorly-composed shot in which details of the scene, the subject, or the action are difficult to see.

Solution: Wide shots are fine if you are trying to show something in perspective—otherwise position the camera close enough to your subject to capture the action and/or details, such as facial expressions. If they are gesturing or demonstrating something, then periodically use a medium shot or possibly a close-up of their hands (and whatever they are holding).

9. Tell but don’t show. Those new to video often rely on verbal descriptions and fail to show what is being described. This approach reveals a lack of imagination and is boring to the viewer.

Solution: Let visuals tell your story. Use text and verbal descriptions to augment the visual depictions—not the other way around. You are making a video, after all. For more information, read Show and Tell and What Is B-roll and Why Should I Care About It?

10. Drag it out.  Some videos seem to drag because the scenery never changes, or the story does not move forward at a good pace.

Solution: Use a variety of footage (or still images) shot in different locations or from different perspectives (close-up, medium shot, wide shot). By changing scenery or perspectives, you add visual interest and move the story forward. For more information, read Keep it Moving.

11. Feature “talking heads”. The novice videographer films long sequences of people speaking to the camera—an approach that is guaranteed to bore viewers. This effect is enhanced when the talking head is a scientist speaking in a robotic manner.

Solution: Use cutaways to other footage, images, animations, or graphics to illustrate what the speaker is describing. By giving the eye something new to look at while the speaker is explaining, you add visual interest and avoid boredom.

12. Don’t worry about the audio. Novice videographers fail to use proper microphones and often don’t pay attention to ambient noises (people talking nearby, dishes clattering, machinery droning, traffic rumbling, wind blowing) during filming.

Solution: Use a lavalier-mic (lapel microphone) to ensure a speaker’s voice is clearly heard. Also use a good quality microphone for voice overs (not the built-in computer microphone). When shooting, review often and listen to the sound with headphones or earbuds. For more information, see How to Improve the Audio of Your Videos Without Breaking the Bank.

13. Have speakers introduce themselves. Having a subject introduce themselves on camera sounds awkward and also wastes time: “Hi, I’m Dr. Hotshot, and I work on a very important subject.”

Solution: Identify people with a simple text caption that appears briefly while the speaker is talking about their topic. The person is clearly identified without adding to the length of the video.

14. Go crazy with special effects. Movie-editing applications often include a library of special video and audio effects. Novices get carried away and use dramatic transitions between clips or glowing text that zooms in and out of the frame. Overuse of fancy effects in an attempt to spruce up otherwise boring footage will fool no one—and will likely annoy the viewer.

Solution: Stick to basic transitions (cut, dissolve) and simple (and consistent) text styles. Use special effects sparingly and only if you have a specific reason to do so.

15. Make it longer than necessary. Scientists making their first video will try to cram as much information as possible into it. They also feel the need to explain every detail and uncertainty (in the interest of accuracy). By the time they finish all that hemming and hawing, the viewer has clicked away to another video.

Solution: Strip your video down to a core message and include only those elements necessary to get that message across. If you can deliver your message in three minutes, then don’t go any longer by trying to cram in more “facts”. For more on the topic, read Strive for Brevity and Can You Describe a Scientific Method in a One-Minute Video?

16. Use copyrighted material without permission. Novices often are unclear about what can and cannot be used in a video. Instead of creating original material, they download images, video, and music from the Internet to create their videos. Unfortunately, they may be guilty of copyright infringement.

Solution: Assume anything on the Internet (or fixed in any other medium) is copyright protected until evidence to the contrary is found. Just because you can download it, does not mean you are justified in using it. The best solution is to use media that you’ve created or media in the public domain. Otherwise, you need to obtain written permission and/or pay a fee to the copyright holder. For more information, see Sources of Public Domain Images.

Well, that’s my list of common mistakes to avoid when making your first science video. This is not an exhaustive list—just the ones that I found to be most problematic for me, a scientist. Some of these are no-brainers, but others you may find difficult to avoid even if you know better.

Want to learn more? I go into greater detail about these and other pitfalls to avoid in my book, The Scientist Videographer. Check it out.

How to Make a Book Trailer: Part Two

In this series of posts, I’m describing how to make a book trailer, which is a video designed to attract more readers to a storyboard_cover_klmckeetextbook, a novel, or some other written document. In the previous post, I talked a bit about how book trailers are being used in publishing and then began describing the steps I went through to create a trailer for my recently published ebook—The Scientist Videographer. I explained that the first step is to study other book trailers to get some good ideas and to figure out what style of trailer might work for your book.

In this post, I will cover the second step in the process.

Step Two: Hone Your Story. In this step, identify your core message and then select key elements from your book and organize them in a way that will intrigue a potential reader. What your message will be and the elements you select will depend on the specifics of your book. Begin by describing what your book is about. Strip it down to the essential story it tells (or what it teaches, in the case of a textbook). Strive to condense your story into a single sentence. In my case, I wanted to get across the message that the reader will learn how to make science videos (for various purposes), which will help them reach a broader audience with their science message.

Next, you want to outline some key elements from your book that will serve to deliver that core message. Here is the text I outlined, which was organized into four main segments:

1. Opening sequence

-A few visuals to get the viewer’s attention
-Book title and author

2. What the reader will learn:

-How to shoot your video
-How to interview
-How to edit your video

3. How the reader can use what they learn:

-Film scientific methods
-Film class field trips
-Create animations
-Create video abstracts for journal articles
-Record class lectures
-Create online lessons
-Develop outreach materials
-Explain current events or discoveries
-Raise your visibility and build an online profile

4. Ending sequence:

-Book title and tagline
-Where to buy the book and get more information

That list probably doesn’t sound very exciting to most people, but it would be to a scientist who wants to learn how to use video to deliver a science message. So think about those elements that are likely to excite your readers. You don’t necessarily need as many as I outlined. For an adventure travel book, you might hone your list to five intriguing statements, for example:

They traveled into the wilderness.

Where their knowledge and skills were tested.

Where perseverance was everything…

…and failure was not an option.

This summer—get ready to read..

[Insert title of adventure travel book]

Also, once the visuals and music are added, the words in your list will come alive. Note that I did not include every aspect of my book in the trailer—just a few tidbits that would convey the essence of the book. I planned to get my message across primarily with visuals, so I used minimal text and no voice over. This approach worked for me, but you might want to verbally explain (on camera or with a voice over) some aspect of your book or your motivation for writing it. Another idea is to have one or more people act out scenes from your book.

Also, I set a time limit of one minute (give or take a few seconds) to get my message across. Any longer, and most viewers will stop watching. By setting a time limit, you are forced to focus on the most important or intriguing aspects of your book and leave out things that are redundant or less interesting. You may find that setting a time limit for the trailer also will get your creative juices going (a topic I discuss in more detail in my book).

You can take the same outlining approach I used to identify key elements. Most authors are familiar with outlines and will find this approach most comfortable. However, eventually you are going to have to develop some visuals to compose your trailer. So if you can begin imagining those visuals as you outline, all the better. You can describe these visual elements in words or draw some simple scenes on your notepad to illustrate what you might include in the way of media in your trailer. I’ll expand on this point in the next post. For now, focus on honing your central message and identify what elements to use to deliver that message.

A Storymaking App for Your Science Videos

As I’ve discussed in this blog previously, scientists are often hampered in getting their science message across because they fail to tell a compelling story that will appeal to others. Instead, we bombard the reader/viewer/listener with facts, facts, and more facts, in the mistaken idea that most people are as impressed with data as we are. If that were true, there would not be so many climate change skeptics or intelligent design enthusiasts.

We scientists may be fascinated with the bare facts, but our audience is likely not so enamored. It’s a paradox. How we are trained to communicate in science (by stating facts and figures in an unemotional, rational manner) is not necessarily the way our audience prefers to hear the message.

One approach that clearly works for many types of messages is to frame the information in the form of a story. Most people love stories and will stick around to find out how it all turns out. Hollywood knows this principle quite well and has been very successful at selling stories to millions of people (even while getting the science wrong). Scientists, however, tend to shy away from the idea of “storytelling” possibly because they think it involves an exaggeration or a twisting of the facts. This is a misinterpretation (or narrow interpretation) of the term, storytelling. Although storytelling can involve embellishment or even complete fantasy, it can also be a means of conveying accurate information about a scientific topic.

In an effort to bring the storytelling method to science, Randy Olson and coauthors Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, have written a book called “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking” and created an app called “Connection Storymaker” (currently free in the App Store) to assist in structuring a story. In this post, I’m going to focus on the app and leave the review of the book until later (after I’ve read it…of course; I’m waiting for the Kindle version). Olson’s previous book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” takes us to task for being too cerebral, too literal minded, poor storytellers, and generally unlikeable (see my previous post on this topic). This new book offers guidance about how to be better storytellers, and the app is a tool designed to help that process along.

So I decided to give the app a whirl. In the video below, I use the app to construct a science story. As you will see, the app is designed around two basic models. The first is the WSP model, which stands for Word, Sentence, Paragraph. The Word helps you organize your story around a central theme (hope, perseverance, dignity). The sentence is based on another model, the ABT (And, But, Therefore) model, which is a template to begin structuring your story. The Paragraph is based on something called a Logline template, which is more complex and consists of 9 parts taken from Joseph Campbell’s storyline, “The Hero’s Journey” (aka, monomyth):

1. In an ordinary world….

2. A flawed protagonist…

3. A catalytic event happens…

4. After taking stock…

5. The hero commits to action…

6. The stakes get raised…

7. The hero must learn a lesson…

8. To stop the antagonist…

9. To achieve their goal…

The app is easy to understand and use. It will be helpful for those scientists who are poor storytellers to structure their message into the form of a story. The main shortcoming is that The Hero’s Journey Logline is the only one built into the app–so far. More Loglines based on other plots may be added in the future (and you’ll probably have to pay for the upgrade). The hero Logline does not necessarily fit all science stories. If the centerpiece of your story will be a scientist, then the app will work for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a different focus (like the science topic), then you’ll have to wait for more Loglines.

In the meantime, you can read more about applying storytelling methods to convey science information (especially in giving oral presentations) and see some other storylines in this blog post. A nice article on how to use storytelling in scientific writing can be found here.

In the video below, I show how I used the Storymaker app to create a story about the theory of continental drift (select the HD version and full-screen for best viewing).