Birds of Paradise

Take a look at this video on birds of paradise and the scientist and photographer who have been documenting them. It was produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This and numerous other videos on the Cornell website illustrate how a university can advertise the research being done by staff and faculty in a format that’s interesting and accessible to the general public.

Science Video Tip: Keep Your Audience in Mind

This post continues the theme of diverse audiences and how to prepare your science communications for them.  In this video, I describe the three types of learners and how you might use that knowledge in preparing your next video or other communication project (for best viewing, select the HD version and full-screen options (see menu bar at bottom of player window)):

Using Graphic Novel Apps to Tell Your Science Story

I’ve been experimenting with the graphic novel format to see how it might be used to tell a story about science.  The application I used is called MotionArtist, which is available for free (as the public beta version) until early next year (January 15, 2013) when the retail version will be offered for about $60–70.   You can watch a video here that shows what MotionArtist does and how it works:

As you can see, with MotionArtist you can create a graphic novel or web comic relatively easily.  There is a slightly steep learning curve, but the tutorials offered on the MotionArtist website provide enough information that most people can get started and then learn by playing around with the application.  It does help to already have some experience with other animation software, but most of the tools are fairly intuitive.

I decided to learn as much as I could about the various tools, panel options, workflow, etc. by creating a short project.  That has been my approach to learning videography:  pick a project that requires some new technique or software that I want to master and then learn by trial and error in the process of creating my project.

In this case, I wanted to use a science topic but one that I could have a bit of fun with and that would be complimentary with the graphic novel/web comic format.  So for my project, I chose an environmental phenomenon known as “brown marsh”, which refers to sudden dieback of coastal marshes.  Instead of telling the story from the viewpoint of scientists, however, I decided to use marsh snails as the protagonists in my story.  Although I set out to tell quite a different story, once I “created” the snail characters, they took over and told a very different story from the one I had initially envisioned (funny how that happens).

I used MotionArtist to set up the panels, import images and some video clips, and add text boxes.  If you want to animate, you will need to set up layers so that individual components can be moved independently.  I wanted to animate the snails and have them moving around.  I started with photographs of marsh snails and removed the image backgrounds as I’ve shown in a previous tutorial.  I used Photoshop to develop layered images of snails, marsh grass, and backgrounds.  These could then be imported as individual layers in MotionArtist or as a composite image.  I also used Photoshop to “cartoonize” some of the images prior to importing them into MotionArtist.

Once complete, the project can be exported as a video or as HTML5.  However, I exported as a video because the HTML5 did not seem to work with my content (except for the opening scene); perhaps this glitch will be “fixed” in the retail version of MotionArtist.  Although you can add audio and voiceover in MotionArtist, I used iMovie to add some sound effects and music and then to render the video.

Here is the final version, which I titled “Brown Marsh Apocalypse”:

I see a lot of potential for creating interactive graphics with this software to illustrate science concepts and will be giving this a try in the future.

Science Videos That Use Electronic White Boards

Many of you may have seen the math lesson videos (e.g., by Khan Academy), which employ an electronic blackboard where the teacher works through a math problem, drawing onscreen, step by step (not sure what the Queen of England has to do with math, but whatever….).

Or you may have seen science videos that employed an electronic whiteboard, and the narrator draws text or images on screen while talking.  The video below illustrates this approach, which can be effective at getting a science concept across in an entertaining manner.

Why do videos done with electronic blackboards or whiteboards work so well?

They engage the viewer.  Seeing someone drawing or writing on screen makes the viewer feel as if there is more of a connection with the narrator, and the experience feels somewhat participatory.  It’s almost as if we are looking over their shoulder as they explain the material to us.

They have constant movement.  The continual movement of the electronic pen draws the eye and makes the viewer feel that something new is being revealed in a relatively rapid manner (which as we’ve discussed previously, is a key ingredient for a successful video).

They focus the viewer’s attention on the information being discussed.  When the narrator appears on screen, the viewer may be distracted from what is being described.  The viewer may be looking at how the person is dressed or their mannerisms, instead of the focus of the video.  With the electronic white/black board, there is nothing to distract from the information, at least visually.

They are different from the traditional video.  Not that many people have figured out how to do these or have decided they are worth the effort.  Consequently, those who use this approach have a better chance of creating something unique.

I find the experience of watching such videos strangely satisfying….but then, I was always an attentive student who hung on every word my teachers spoke.  The video narrator is anonymous (we can’t see them), yet the experience is very intimate, as if the narrator is talking only to us and showing us something really cool.

For the scientist videographer, doing a video with an electronic white board has several advantages, in addition to the one mentioned above about allowing you to create something different and that will stand out from other science videos.

One big advantage is the huge flexibility it provides in creating content for your video.  You don’t need to worry about finding a public domain image or footage of the earth, the moon, and the sun to talk about tides, for example.  Just draw three spheres on the white board and label them “earth” “moon”, and “sun”.  You don’t have to travel to a seashore to film the tide moving in and out of a bay; just draw a shoreline and waterline on your white board.  As the video above shows, it’s possible to illustrate a very complex topic drawing simple stick figures.  So if that is the level of your drawing ability; never fear; you can still use a white board.

Another advantage is not having to find people for your film or convince them to appear on camera.  Just draw a stick figure and label it.  The viewer will accept it, as we saw in a previous post (Bully Triangles and Terrified Circles).  If you have some talent at drawing (and many scientists do), then this technique can be really useful to you.  Those of you who are professors or instructors are already accustomed to drawing on a real blackboard, even drawing elaborate illustrations of organisms and other biological objects.  Engineers are especially capable of drawing diagrams, models, and other illustrations.

The electronic white board also allows you to remain off camera while narrating.  Some of you may be reluctant to appear on camera or have a fear of the camera.  Don’t let this stop you from participating in your own video.  With a bit of practice, you can learn to narrate while drawing, especially if you have a script at hand (although I’ve found that once you get started, you stop relying on notes and simply become immersed in explaining your material).  When you don’t appear on camera, you don’t have to worry about your appearance when creating your videos.  You can do a video in your pajamas if you want.

The biggest drawback to the electronic white/black board technique is that it takes a bit more planning and practice at drawing and narrating at the same time.  However, like everything else in videography, once you work out the method and apply it a couple of times, it becomes second nature.  You may also need some software (Photoshop, Screenflow) and an electronic drawing tablet to make this method work smoothly.

The electronic white/black board approach won’t work for all science videos, but is just another tool in the scientist videographer’s toolbox.  Even if your project can’t be done entirely with this approach, you might employ it to illustrate a specific concept within a larger video.

So exactly how do people create videos using a white/black board?  In an upcoming tutorial, I’ll show a relatively easy way to do this.

Can Plants Move?

Here are a few videos that answer that question.  These are good examples of footage that one might use to illustrate plant “tropisms”.

The first video shows the rapid movement of a carnivorous plant, Drosera glanduligera (sundew), from Australia, captured with a high-speed camera.  The video is my compilation of footage posted online in the journal PLOSone with the article describing the phenomenon (access article here). This species has two types of tentacles, one with the sticky globules, which trap anything touching them, and non-sticky tentacles that fling insect passersby towards the center of the rosette where it gets stuck to sticky tentacles that then slowly pull the insect toward the area where it will be digested.  That flinging movement is one of the fastest trapping mechanisms found in the plant kingdom.  The speed is actually amazing when you think about it….this is a plant, not an animal with rapid-fire muscles.

For best viewing, select the HD version and full-screen options (see menu bar at bottom of player window).

By the way, I put together the video above in iMovie using the downloadable images and video footage offered on the open access article in the journal PLOSone.  All such images published there are under a Creative Commons Attribution License, which means that anyone can use them without permission as long as the creators (authors) are acknowledged.  This is a good example of how the scientist videographer can use published footage, images, and graphics to create a video about a science topic and without paying for or having to acquire the permission of the creators.

The second video is a time-lapse sequence showing Cuscuta reflexa (dodder) growing on another plant (Perlagonium sp.) in a phytotron in Norway.  This type of plant is a parasite on other plants and can actually insert root-like structures called “haustoria” into the host plant.  Once established and drawing resources from the host plant, the dodder’s roots growing in the soil eventually die, and the parasite then relies on its host for water and nutrients.  The sequence in this video was shot over 14 days with each second equaling about 40 minutes of growth.  Thanks to Joy Marburger for the link.

The last video is one based on footage I shot in Sri Lanka of a “sensitive plant” I came across in a parking lot.  Using that (admittedly shaky) footage plus some text explanation, I created a short video about seismonastic movement in plants.

It’s difficult sometimes to make sessile organisms such as plants interesting to the general public because, well, they don’t move or appear to do anything interesting.  However, the scientist videographer can use this fact to advantage and use footage that shows something unexpected, which as we’ve learned, is one feature of a video that appeals to viewers. Most people don’t expect plants to move, so videos about plant tropisms, which challenge that perception, can be quite effective.  Moreover, adding the question as to why plants might have evolved movement raises the viewer’s curiosity and perhaps stimulates them to learn more.

Another point I’d like to make here is that I was able to produce these videos in a very short time. The sensitive plant video took about five minutes to pull together and another five minutes or so to export and upload to YouTube.  The video on the carnivorous plant took somewhat longer (about 30 min), mainly because I had to read the paper to understand what the video footage and other images were demonstrating.

With a small effort, using your own or published (but public domain) images and video clips, you also can create short, informative videos.