Serving Up Snippets of Science in Short Videos

 

A print story can tell you how flippin’ cool it is that tiny maggots leap—without legs—up to 36 times their body length. But their acrobatics truly impress when you watch the grubby gymnasts fly.

In Helen Thompson’s 2019 video about gall midge larvae for Science News (below), a maggot vaults through the air in slow motion, somersaulting to epic musical fanfare. Because of the research footage available, making a video was an easy decision. In studies of the physics and physiology of movement, video is often integral to the research process, says Thompson, the multimedia producer and editor at Science News. High-resolution footage allows researchers to study the mechanism behind critters’ motion. “If you don’t include video with that story, you’re leaving out a part of the story,” she says.

 

 

Creative use of research footage and other visuals provides an opportunity to tell science stories visually, even for reporters with little or no multimedia equipment. For her gall midge video, Thompson didn’t record any of the larva footage herself. But she was able to create a compelling video in around 12 hours by setting the researchers’ high-speed video and photos to music and adding on-screen text to explain the science.

Making short videos, either as stand-alone works or as embedded elements in text-based stories, is a great entryway to multimedia, says Tiên Nguyễn, a Los Angeles–based freelance science journalist and filmmaker. Just two or three minutes long, these videos often highlight a single research study using a mix of existing footage, narration or textual explanation, interviews, and animations. And there’s no need to be intimidated by video-editing software, Nguyễn says. Capturing snippets of science in video differs from spelling out reporting on the page, but with a few added skills, print journalists can start telling stories in a new medium. Once a reporter has found a story and gathered their footage, making a video is a matter of structuring the story around visuals and pulling the pieces together into an attention-grabbing package.

 

Finding Must-See Science Stories

The best videos include visual details such as movement, color, or “something that makes you do a double-take,” says Kelso Harper, a freelance video producer and science journalist based in Santiago, Chile.

Studies in which video is essential to the methods, such as Thompson’s leaping larvae, are good candidates, as is research that relies on modeling and visualizations. Emily Driscoll, a science-video director, producer, and editor based in New York City, uses such imagery to make physics and math research easier to understand and relate to. In her Science Friday video profiling a physicist who studies sneeze clouds and toilet spray, watching the droplets disperse is both grosser and more engrossing than reading about the mists’ motion.

Reporters can also find potential video stories by searching the multimedia section of press-release distribution websites such as EurekAlert! and Newswise, which contain footage from researchers or institutional press offices. Or, if you sift through research papers, abstracts that feature nice photographs can hint that video may be available in the study’s online supporting information or directly from the researchers. These clips that depict the research process are the primary footage most important to telling the scripted story.

Working with researcher-provided footage can present challenges. The video may have been filmed vertically or with a shaky hand, or its brightness and contrast may be off. Such issues aren’t necessarily dealbreakers, because they can often be addressed with some creative editing, says Kerri Jansen, who is the video and audio editor at Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN). (YouTube contains tutorials for many video-editing skills, from cropping and zooming video to stabilizing shaky footage.) But, she cautions, the time needed to make fixes can add up. A quick gut-check can help you decide if a particular video will ultimately be workable, Thompson says. “Everyone watches videos on the internet. And I think a good rule of thumb is: Would you watch this?” If the quality is too poor or it’s difficult to tell what the video is showing, it’s probably not worth trying to feature that clip in a video.

Jansen worked with some nonideal footage when making the following video for C&EN about a nanosized material that’s strong and flexible. Magnified images of the material were filmed by a camera pointed at a computer screen, so Jansen cropped out everything except the key visual. Other segments that show the material bending are very short, so Jansen tweaked her script so that her lines fit between the cuts. To use unique, vertically filmed smartphone footage, Jansen added a background and then zoomed in and added a label to cue viewers where to look.

 

 

When collecting primary research footage, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what’s enough. Many video makers think of the process as finding research footage that’s worth watching and then creatively complementing it with other visuals, such as photos and stock footage. For a two-minute video, Jansen looks for enough primary footage from the researchers to cover around 75 percent of the length. More footage options make for easier editing, and Jansen looks for at least three visually distinct clips or scenes. “That can often be the difference between a video that is torturous to edit and one that sings,” she says.

Other visual assets, such as stills, animation, and archival footage, can fill out the rest of the duration. Finding such assets can be a challenge, and the options will vary depending on how narrow a video’s topic is. Resources in the public domain include the Prelinger Archives, which contains footage related to American culture and history, and the media libraries of government agencies such as NASA, NIH, and USGS.

Experienced video producers use a number of editing tricks to give still photos more visual interest. Even basic techniques such as panning, tilting, and zooming add a sense of motion. A slightly more advanced effect, called parallax, involves moving parts of an image at different speeds. There are also clever ways to overlay texture on an image—for instance, to create the look of dust motes drifting over an old black-and-white photo.

Many science videos highlight sections of a paper’s text or use arrows to point out important details in visuals. And don’t overlook the data itself; even dry figures can be spiced up with animations to help explain the science. In the following Science Friday video about how fast badminton birdies fly, Driscoll animated and added color to parts of a simple graph from a study to illustrate the shuttlecock’s movement. The industry-standard software for video animation, After Effects, has a steep learning curve, Nguyễn says, but basic animations can be done in the editing software Premiere Pro, which is commonly used for video editing by journalists.

 

 

Some videos also feature on-camera interviews. Whether or not study authors appear on camera depends on the outlet’s requirements and the style a video maker is aiming for. A scientist interview, even one done on Zoom, can add interest by breaking up narration and bringing emotion, authority, or personal perspective into the story.

Getting sources to be clear and concise on camera matters because bored or confused viewers can be quick to click away. “The soundbite is really important in video,” says Nguyễn. Viewers generally won’t tolerate a talking head providing a complicated explanation, she says. Since you can’t fill in sources’ vague or partial sentences and too much cutting back and forth between interview and voice-over is jarring, you may have to sometimes ask a source to restate a sentence—for example, to avoid an ambiguous pronoun—or to repeat part of your question so the response can stand on its own.

Becoming a videographer isn’t required for many short video projects, but the practice of filming your own footage can help cultivate video skills, Harper says. Even smartphones can capture decent-quality footage, which can supplement researcher-provided clips and add to your multimedia toolbox.

 

Writing to Visuals

Once you’ve gathered your visuals, let them guide your script—the outline of the spoken or captioned content.

Many video newbies write out their story first and expect to slot the visuals in later. “That’s a great way to just make yourself miserable,” Jansen says. It’s essential that the visuals and the words work together to build the story.

To make sure all the planned content has visual support, many video journalists use a two-column approach for scriptwriting, placing text in one column and a description of visuals in the other. Some journalists also drop screenshots in with their descriptions to reinforce writing to the visuals. To hone your scriptwriting sensibilities, study videos you admire and analyze scripts to understand a video’s structure.

In the following video for Science Magazine, Kelso Harper explains how NASA’s Perseverance rover is scouring the Red Planet for signs of ancient life. Check out Harper’s script, which shows the pairing of her narration with her video’s visuals.

 

 

Be careful not to bog down the beginning of videos with background and context; instead, showcase the best clip with accompanying text or audio to explain what viewers are seeing. “In the first couple of seconds, you have to have a visual that pops,” says Clarissa Wei, a freelance journalist and video producer based in Taipei, Taiwan. That visual lede should hook the viewer and set the story in motion. Once you’ve captured the audience’s interest, you can dive into what the researchers did, why it matters, and what comes next.

Each of those segments’ length will depend on the footage available. For instance, in a video for C&EN about a unique liquid filter, Nguyễn dwelled on potential applications because the researchers provided a lot of footage illustrating different uses. In another C&EN video, about microrobots for delivering chemotherapeutics, Nguyễn summarized the application in a snappy six seconds, mentioning how the tiny devices could cruise the bloodstream. She didn’t detail their potential impact on cancer patients, as she might have for a print story. “You have to write your narration to mainly focus on what viewers are seeing on screen and sneak in related information,” Nguyễn says. That can make it tricky to connect a study to the broader context, although weaving in stock footage can sometimes provide visual support or bridge ideas.

To keep her audience on board, Wei tends to keep her stories fairly linear and writes verbal transitions into her scripts. For instance, in the following video for Goldthread, a publication that focuses on Chinese food and culture, about the chemistry of Chinese century eggs, Wei introduces an artisan whose eggs are yellow instead of the typical black. “This is how she does it,” we hear Wei say as the video shifts to the egg-making process. Wei also uses questions that may echo what viewers are thinking. Before explaining the eggs’ golden hue, she asks, “So, why do the eggs look yellow?” Later, she asks, “So, how do they taste?”

 

 

Shorter, punchier sentences keep the message clear and the story moving. Your words create a pace along with the visuals, music, and any sound effects, Thompson says. Generally, she aims for one clause per sentence. Long, discursive sentences can be artful in print, but in audio form, they tend to be boring and hard to listen to. For video, the visuals—not the words—bring the color. Shorter sentences also help achieve the conversational tone that people expect in a video. Sentences that begin with words such as “and” and “so” mirror how people typically speak, says Attabey Rodríguez Benítez, a script editor for SciShow. And to avoid weighing sentences down with long technical terms or species names, those can appear on screen in text, animation, or visuals, she notes.

Word choices also keep viewers connected to what’s on screen. If the audience sees a koala, for instance, then the word “koala” should come right before or after in the audio or captions so viewers catch the link between what they’re seeing and hearing.

 

Putting the Pieces Together

After writing the script, you’ll pull the story together in a video-editing program such as Premiere Pro, adding voice-over or captions, as well as music and other stylistic elements. Reporters only need a few editing skills to get started, Nguyễn says. Once she learned the basics—importing footage, cutting it into segments, adding text on screen, and exporting a video—Nguyễn says she was able to edit a short video in a day.

For some videos, on-screen text captions do the work of explaining the content. Other videos feature a narrator—often the video’s maker. It may take a few tries to land on a script that coordinates well with the timing of the video’s visuals. You can stick a rough draft of the audio into the timeline in Premiere Pro and start adding in clips, animations, and stills. From there you can tweak the script and visuals based on what you notice. For instance, if it feels like a visual is holding for too long, the footage may be too short to support the accompanying voice-over.

For recording the final narration, use a decent quality microphone, record in a quiet place that won’t echo, and speak slowly. Earlier in her career, Wei says she didn’t have a strong sense of her voice, so she sought feedback. A colleague who coached her suggested that narrating is almost like singing. “There’s a rhythm to it,” Wei says. “Keep it slow, and relax.”

Choose relatively simple background music to keep the video’s content in the limelight. Music where there’s not a whole lot going on tends to work best with narration, Jansen says.  She typically tries a few options to find one with a good pace and sound.

Music also provides an opportunity to have fun. “I love pairing really serious classical music with ridiculous footage of animals, bugs—I think it’s hilarious,” says Thompson, who set her leaping larvae to the cinematic Also sprach Zarathustra. But be aware of how music may send a message. Whether it’s upbeat or somber, music can seem like an editorial choice attempting to influence viewers’ perceptions, so news outlets often aim for something that sounds neutral. If you don’t know what sort of music fits, often “a twinkly, well-paced xylophone deal will do the job,” Thompson says.

You can also incorporate stylistic elements such as colors, consistent visual elements, or a background, to give disparate visuals a cohesive look and feel. Videos from Vox, for example, use black, white, and yellow elements to give their videos an easily recognizable style.

Layering together the text or narration, visuals, animation, and music is “almost like choreography,” Thompson says, and that creative challenge opens a new path for connecting with your audience. And as with dance, the video maker can make the audience feel something—whether curiosity or excitement. “At the end of the video,” she says, “I always want people to feel a sense of satisfaction.”

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Carolyn WilkeS. Wilke

Carolyn Wilke

Carolyn Wilke is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a Chicago-based freelance science journalist. She’s also one of the hosts of the podcast Science for the PeopleFind her on Twitter @carolynmwilke.

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