Among the various forms of science storytelling online, video has—quite literally—the most moving parts.
To convey a story through writing, sound, and visuals, video creators need to ensure that each aspect plays well with the others with regard to complexity and tone. If they don’t, they risk confusing viewers, or perhaps worse, boring them.
Vox video producer Joss Fong expertly achieves this balance in Vox’s April 10, 2019 video about how scientists took the first photo of a black hole. Through clear writing, captivating visuals, and the precise use of music, she tells a stylish and cohesive story. What’s also impressive is the timing of the video’s publication. Vox’s video posted on YouTube about an hour after the press conference in which the momentous result was revealed, beating other news outlets’ video explainers to the punch, according to Fong.
In her own explainer video about the Vox project (see below), science journalist Tiên Nguyễn takes us through the elements of craft that make Fong’s video so watchable. For more behind-the-scenes intel, read on as Fong talks with Nguyễn about the project and her approach to video.
A Conversation with Joss Fong
Tiên Nguyễn: How did the video come about?
Joss Fong: This is kind of an interesting one to talk about because it was adapted from a video that we had published, I think in 2016 or maybe even 2015, that was a collaboration with one of the Vox science writers, Brian Resnick, who had written a piece that was titled “Why Every Picture of a Black Hole Is an Illustration.” [Editors’ note: The piece has been updated and is titled “Most Images of Black Holes Are Illustrations. Here’s What Our Telescopes Actually Capture.”]
On the video team, we’re always looking for work that the writers are doing that would work well for video. And that was an example of that. I remember in that video the focus isn’t really on the Event Horizon Telescope project, but we mentioned it and we said this will be coming in 2017 [laughs], and then in 2019, it was like, Okay, where is it?
Then it sort of came across Twitter that they were going to be making an announcement after all of these years. The phrasing of that press release made it sound like they had something good.… They didn’t seem to be adding caveats that suggested they didn’t get the image, and so it seemed like a good gamble for us to revamp the original video to focus on this project and publish it basically as soon as the image was available.
TN: I thought what was really interesting about your video is that you started off with the images of the telescopes instead of any sort of immediate lede about black holes. I thought it was a great lead-up. Can you talk about how you came up with that opening?
JF: So Google Earth Studio is a really neat tool for video journalists that has only come around in the past year or two. I had Google Earth Studio in the back of my mind during that time period when I was thinking of ideas, and so when people talk about a telescope the size of the Earth, I think it really helps to show how that’s made. But it’s not intuitive, it’s pretty abstract. So I wanted to actually show people those telescopes. Those locations were all available on the Event Horizon website, so it was just a matter of finding them on Google Earth and making movements that weren’t too crazy to sort of create some energy for the piece.
As soon as I saw the black hole image—and actually earlier, because they had published a bunch of simulations of what they expected it to look like—[I knew that] even in the best case scenario it was going to be a really low-resolution, blurry photo that, if you don’t have a sense of how small and how far away this thing is, you’re not going to be impressed by. And so I didn’t want the photo to be the first thing that people see. I wanted to get people to understand why this is so difficult before they saw the result. Even as I structured it, a lot of people were like, That’s it? Like, That’s the photo? There’s some amount of that that you just can’t change—they just are used to seeing incredibly beautiful illustrations, and so this won’t compare to the movie Interstellar. That was just my way of … If I can just hold back the actual photo reveal a little bit further into the piece, maybe a few more people will understand why this is such a big deal, because it doesn’t, on its own, look like a big deal.
TN: Beyond the quick timeline, what do you think was the biggest challenge of telling this story?
JF: I think just not knowing exactly what [the researchers] were going to get. It ended up being a little awkward in the piece, because I just assumed it’d be easier for them to get Sagittarius A*, the black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and what they came back with was the black hole in M87. So the way that I set it up in the piece was I described the way they were targeting Sagittarius A*, and once the photo shows, there’s a little label that shows this is M87. That, I think, is the main flaw of the piece—I assumed that they were getting the other black hole, and you can tell that in the video if you look closely.
TN: Throughout the video, you really matched the emotion of the music to what you’re explaining. Even when you’re showing all of those black hole illustrations, the pacing of when they were changing and how long we see them matched the beat of the music. Do you get that from feeling it out, or how do you get that to match up?
JF: Music is one of my favorite parts of doing these, and it’s sort of an interesting thing because people who do video journalism and documentary are not usually as comfortable using a lot of music in their pieces. Because Vox has always been so YouTube–native, it was just a natural part of what we did. We understood we were competing with really attractive, fun content and that if it means that a few more people are going to be interested or going to stick around, we’re going to jazz it up with some music. We use APM music; all of Vox Media uses it. It’s just a matter of typing in some keywords and then just sifting through mountains of stock tracks. And looking for things that sort of have the right amount of minimalism and energy and tone.
It’s kind of trial and error; you drop something there and maybe it doesn’t fit right, and you take it out, switch it. And then it’s really sort of focusing on where this track begins and ends in the piece so those beginnings and endings of songs are cues to viewers—emotional cues to viewers, but also sort of attention cues. They can help point people to main points if you sort of end the track at the right time or begin it right after you say something.
You always want something very fast-paced at the very top because there’s so many options right next to your video—the things [people] could be clicking on and watching instead. Everything [else] is just making sure that you’re not distracting people too much from the information. You can do a lot of that by adjusting the levels of the song but also if the track is too maximalist—if it’s got too much going on, if there’s instruments that compete with the pitch of your voice-over—then you’re going to be hurting yourself by distracting them from what you’re saying.
I think every 20 seconds I’m stopping and changing a song. Whenever I have a track I’ll slice it up so it’s not just [that] I take what they give me. It’s like, I like this section, [and] I like this section, so I’m timing out the beats so that I can merge those and maybe even bring in another track that just has a nice bass beat or kick drum. And then you can play with how you end songs by like bringing the end way up and pasting it in. Or I know Estelle Caswell, who does our music content, has a lot of tricks using tweaking reverb effects that make it sound like the end of a song when it’s not really the end of a song. So it’s something we definitely pay a lot of attention to, and sometimes it takes a full day to find and edit music for a video like this.
TN: I want to talk about how you end sections in videos. In the section where you end with a summary line about how they had the evidence but they didn’t have the mugshot, and then the music ended, I thought that worked really well to signal to us, OK, we’re done with that and that’s what I wanted you to take away from that.
JF: I think that’s something I’ve learned more over the years. I’ve been doing this for about five years now, and I came from a writing background, went to grad school for science journalism thinking I would write magazine pieces and then I was like, writing is so painful, so many people are so good at it—so I switched over. And as I’ve learned video, I realized more and more how distinct the writing style needs to be in order for it to be effective.
Because when you’re reading an article, it’s really easy for your eye to glance back up if you didn’t grasp something. And I do that all the time when I’m reading. [With videos, even though you can rewind], it’s just not the way people consume video. There’s a really high risk of charging forward and not realizing that the viewer is not with you.
TN: That makes so much sense. At the very beginning of your video, after introducing the idea that this was a project aimed at catching the first-ever picture of a black hole, when every previous black hole image has been an illustration, you say, “That’s right. Ever since physicists first conceived of black holes….” I think a print editor would probably cut your “That’s right”—but in video you need that, because you’ve just introduced such a huge idea, and you need to give people a second to let it sink in. If they were reading it, they would probably pause and think, so you have to give that space to them.
JF: Yeah, the writing can be really awkward and cheesy sometimes in video. We’ll do things like “This is …,” or “Look at this,” or “Here is blah blah blah”—things that writers would never do.
But you can’t really afford to be too clever or beautiful when you’re doing voice-over, because of the sheer amount of information that people are taking in with their eyes and ears. I think it’s our superpower in video, to have both of those senses at the same time and be able to mold them and direct them the way that you want in order to provide a really rich and educational experience. But it does sort of take away some of the artistry of the prose, for sure.
TN: How do you think about how much science people can handle and what you really want them to understand?
JF: It is a constant thing that science journalists have to think about now, especially [with] video. On YouTube, we’re talking about people who are mostly in their 20s and 30s—people who aren’t necessarily seeking out science content, but you can capture them just by appearing on the platform where they consume most of their media.
But I think that what science creators have found on YouTube is that there’s a lot of appetite for detail, and that because it’s a free streaming resource that you can watch as many times as you want, you can have a little bit of leeway.
Because I’m not a specialist in any particular area, I still come at everything with a pretty clean slate of no knowledge. And not being a beat reporter helps me maintain the mindset of my viewer because they come with very little too. And then it’s just that balance of making sure you’re doing justice to the content but not totally turning people off because it’s jargony or too weedy.
TN: I find that in the course of reading a script too many times or repeatedly seeing a video I’ve made, I can lose all perspective and feel like the story makes total sense, when it doesn’t.
JF: Right, and that’s where editors are so important. I think people associate editors with text writing, but we have script editors for every video. And it’s so important for them to be like, “I was confused at this part.”
TN: To wrap up, here’s a technical question: What programs do you use to edit and do music and all that?
JF: We do everything in the Adobe Creative Suite. So [we use] Premiere Pro for our main edit—that’s where we do our music and audio mix. And then we use After Effects for all of our motion graphics. Sometimes we’ll use Photoshop and Illustrator to augment those graphics.
TN: What was your favorite moment from the video?
JF: I like when you see the picture for the first time. I think I was poking around at this angelic choir music.… I was like, Is this a little too much? And I was like, No, I’m doing it…. Again, it’s not an impressive image on its own—it’s super fuzzy, it barely looks like anything—and so I needed to create a bit of a reflective moment around that, just to try to make people feel it even though they’re not really seeing it.
Joss Fong is a senior video producer at Vox and one of the founding members of the Vox video team. She holds a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University. Follow her on Twitter @JossFong.
Tiên Nguyễn is a freelance science journalist, video producer, and reformed PhD chemist. Her writing has been featured in Chemical & Engineering News, Nature, Vice News, and more. Follow her on Twitter @mustlovescience.