Set to the deep-voiced narration of Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, The Majestic Plastic Bag follows the route of a discarded plastic bag from a grocery store parking lot to its resting place in the trash-filled waters of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Although it may not seem the most enthralling subject for a story, the filmmakers turn the bag’s migration into a wildlife documentary adventure complete with suspense, danger—a vicious Teacup Yorkie, a garbage-collecting Park Service employee—and an orchestral score. Colin Bates, cofounder of ScienceFilm.org, who trains scientists how to effectively communicate their work through video, uses this four-minute “mockumentary” as a prime example of how, with the right tools and story line, any story can be made interesting.
“Particularly with government research, because it’s taxpayer-funded, it’s important to explain your science in order to show the public what we do with their dollars,” says Bates. Film can be a powerful tool to this end. “It’s also about communicating effectively to your science peers,” he adds. “Watching a five-minute video is a quick way to get up to speed on what else is going on in the field.”
Think of producing a film as making a layer cake, says science filmmaker Jen Grace, a national Student Emmy Award winner. The first layer is background research and writing the story. Shooting the footage, editing it, and then recording narration make up the middle layers. Adjusting sound quality and adding music is the icing. It may sound like a daunting task, but taken one step at a time, it can be done with simple tools and minimal expertise. The Scientist talked to science filmmakers, media specialists, and some of this year’s Labby Multimedia Awards finalists to collect a few tips on how to produce quality, eye-catching videos.
Before you film, write
It all starts with a good script. “Everyone has experienced the agony of sitting through a piece that has no direction,” says Bates. It’s your job to get your audience “to feel a sense of connection to the story.” The overarching goal is to set up a question and then proceed to answer it. Craft a beginning, middle, and end, and string them together with a “why?”
Even if you do not plan to have a narrator tell your story, create a storyboard by sketching the sequence of visuals through which you would like to tell it. Having a clear vision of how you want the final product to look is half the battle. “Even nonfictions are written,” says Grace.
While there’s no set rule for how long a video should be or how often to cut between images, cutting between shots every four seconds is an industry standard, says Mary Spiro, coproducer of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology’s video Mimicking Collagen. Look for proof of this next time you watch television. With enough experience you will develop a sense of what is appropriate, Bates adds. For a general-audience video, stick to four minutes in length—although two is preferable. But if you are a novice, you can never go wrong with “the shorter the better.”
Keep your audience engaged
“Your audience has its finger on the mouse, ready to click,” says Bates, so beware of a few no-no’s in filmmaking. For example, don’t zoom into or out of a shot. It’s a very unnatural movement, he says. Because the human eye can’t do it, it tends to take viewers out of the moment and remind them that they’re watching a video.
Avoid too much use of the “talking head” by cutting interesting images into an interview. For hard-to-visualize subjects, such as nanotechnology, analogies and animations are especially useful. “If you don’t have good visuals, do a podcast,” Spiro advises.
Check the jargon at the lab door
“Einstein was able to explain relativity to anyone,” says entomologist Mark Moffett, star of the video The Weaver Ant, which won this year’s Reader’s Choice video Labby. So there’s no excuse for not making your science accessible to a general public.
While filming a documentary about frogs and environmental contaminants, for example, Grace had to constantly remind the scientist that his audience was children and not his fellow scientists. “He was afraid that his peers might think he was being redundant or too beginner,” she says. “Scientists don’t want to look bad in front of their peers.” Nevertheless, Spiro stresses the importance of being able to distill your science down to the simplest, most basic story.
Scientists themselves can benefit from this process. “The more you speak about your research in simple terms, the more you understand it yourself,” says Spiro. As you develop your story, you might even end up thinking about your research in new ways. Boiling your quest down to a few visual minutes can clarify direction, provide context, and help you identify connections across disciplines.
Film the mundane
Even daily lab work can be interesting because most people don’t know what it entails. Collect images of what you see through your microscope, the unusual gear you have to wear to work in a clean room or contagious-disease lab, or the ladder you have to climb to sample from the top of a tree. “Field biologists are perfect subjects because, for the most part, that stuff doesn’t get recorded anywhere,” says biologist and popular blogger Carin Bondar.
Luckily, good-quality, high-definition (HD) cameras are getting more and more affordable. A simple “prosumer” camera—a cross between a professional and a consumer-grade camera—will cost you between $300 and $800. The Flip Video camera is a much cheaper option, but has largely been replaced by camera phones—many of which record in HD. Make sure to pick up a tripod as well: you don’t want to make your audience seasick.
Also, if you’re filming in places with little access to natural light, investing in an inexpensive set of lights may be wise. You can get video or portrait-studio lighting kits for under $200, says Spiro. “Typical lighting should come from two sources, and better if from three,” she says. Shine one light on either side of the face at a 45-degree angle to avoid creating harsh shadows. The third should light the subject from above and behind.
But, says Bates, “For the amateur, it is probably best to make use of ambient lighting.” Shoot outside (overcast days are optimal), or if you are inside, shoot near a window.
Capture quality sound
“Viewers are very unforgiving,” says Bates. “You can get by with crappy video but not audio.” “Ninety percent of the time that you have to reshoot a scene, it’s because the audio was poor,” adds Melissa Wells, science filmmaker and coproducer of The Weaver Ant. While there are many audio-editing software programs out there, such as the freely available Audacity, it’s always much easier to capture crisp, clear audio than to try to fix bad audio after the fact.
For as little as $20, you can invest in a lavalier microphone—the type that attaches to your lapel. Make sure your video camera has a microphone input to accommodate it. Bates especially likes wireless mics for recording researchers in the field. “They can be 40 feet away and you’re still getting good audio,” he says. You can monitor audio quality as you’re recording by plugging headphones into the video camera’s output jack. If you need to record a narration, Spiro recommends finding a quiet room (a closet will do in a pinch).
Take advantage of your institution’s resources
If you’re unsure of what type of equipment to buy, many universities have audiovisual departments that may be willing to let you test out theirs. Reliable access to loaner equipment may even eliminate the need to buy your own.
When it comes to video editing, the process can be time-consuming and costly for the uninitiated. Although most Apple computers come with the free, pre-installed iMovie—a very user-friendly video-editing software—more sophisticated software tends to go for a hefty price. Professional favorites such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere can retail for more than $1,000, although both have trimmed-down, user-friendlier versions that cost around $100.
But take advantage of the human resources that are often right under your nose. If you work in a university with a communications or film department, it’s not difficult to find students willing to edit for next to nothing in exchange for the experience and résumé credit. And many universities, research institutions, or governmental organizations have public-relations teams whose job it is to advertise your work in a creative way.
As a prospective grad student looking for a lab in which to do her PhD in the late 1990s, Carin Bondar, whose blog was a Labby finalist for best website, says she based her choice “almost entirely on what the website looked like.” Websites have become the virtual calling cards of the twenty-first century. “If scientists don’t have a website, it makes you wonder, ‘Are they in the dark ages?’ ” she says. Here are some tips on how to build an effective website.
The first order of business is deciding how much time and money you can realistically invest in a new website. Nowadays, owning your own piece of Web real estate costs as little as $5 a month. For that price, server hosts offer unlimited data storage, free e-mail, and as many domain names as you want to register.
Equally important is pitching to the audience you wish to target, because this will affect the design of your website. If you want to attract prospective students, additional funding, or new collaborators, for example, it will be important to include basic elements such as a summary of your research, your bio, your list of publications, and easily accessible contact information. Extras such as images and videos give your site universal appeal—just stay away from clip art. Flickr, stock.xchng, and Dreamstime are good sites for free stock photography.
Updating and editing your own website can be easy with the modular design of content management systems (CMS) such as Tumblr, WordPress, and Weebly, which allow you to build your site with little to no knowledge of HTML programming code. Such publishing platforms also take a lot of the designing out of the researcher’s hands by offering themes that have a set layout, color scheme, and fonts. (For the web savvy: Your navigation bar should have no less than 3 tabs, but no more than 7.)
When it comes to designing your website, keep it as simple as possible. Don’t clutter pages with words, especially around images, and don’t be afraid of white space—it gives the eye a break. There are four design rules that you should keep in mind, and they go by a useful acronym: CRAP.
Use as much contrast (C) as possible between text and background color. Multimedia features, such as slide shows and video, are easier to view against a dark background.Use repetition (R) for consistency in how you display content on your site. For example, use the same font and font size for all titles.
Make sure you have smooth column lines running down the entire page. All text on a page should be similarly aligned (A). For example, never have text that’s left aligned and center aligned on the same page. (For the web savvy: Text columns should not be more than 10 to 12 words wide.)
Group your web content into categories or sections so that similar things are placed in close proximity (P) to one another and are easy to find.
If people get lost when they visit your website, they’ll never come back, so make sure it’s easy to navigate. There should be a clear and visible way for people to return to the home page from any page on the site. Links that take you away from the website should open a new tab in your browser. You don’t want to make people have to hit the back arrow to return to your site.