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Communicating Science: How to create a short video about your research in a day.

Part of my job at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is to cut together footage sent by staff members and volunteers throughout the 14-site sanctuary system. On any given day scientists could be surveying the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with a remotely operated vehicle for marine life; archaeologists may be searching for shipwrecks in the Great Lakes; response teams could be deployed to disentangle a humpback whale caught in derelict fishing gear off of Hawaii. Sadly, we neither have the manpower nor the resources to provide video services whenever duty calls. Because these activities have value and should be shared with the public, however, I have created a simple, straightforward action plan that anyone involved with the research could execute to capture the events of the day effectively.

The following is a revision of a document I created for scientists and volunteers working in the field for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries so that they could effectively gather video material that my team could then turn into videos used in outreach. I've reworked a few things to address a more general audience of scientists, students, and support staff. While the examples given are more closely aligned with folks working in marine science, you could replace these scenarios within your own context, whether that be a laboratory, your office, or wherever your research is being conducted.

As a scientist, you can make your grant applications more powerful, gain the interest of the general public, and garner admiration among your colleagues by communicating your work through video stories.

Let's be honest: Scientists are great at doing science; it's what they do! But rarely are they also good at communicating to a general audience the nature of their work or findings and the potential value it adds to our quality of life or our collective understanding of the universe.

This is a lose-lose situation. We as an audience miss out on an exciting adventure and they lose an opportunity to inspire the next generation of explorers, to connect with possible collaborator, or to capture the attention of a potential funder. As I've sorted through the large amount of video material that is captured by our scientists at NOAA throughout the field, I've noticed a few trends:

The Good: Everyone with a smart phone can make a video story about their work.

Everyone has a camera capable of gathering usable material. Whether a smart phone or a GoPro, cameras and camera equipment are largely commonplace these days, and many entry-level cameras can also shoot high quality video. This affords even the non-filmmaker the ability to document research activities with relative ease. And, more importantly, reach an audience!

The Bad: Most footage rarely provides the context needed to tell a visual story.

More often than not, the context necessary to tell a meaningful story about the events of a day of research is missing entirely. (What happened? What is happening? What will happen?) To be fair, researchers are focused on research, divers are focused on their primary diving mission (at NOAA), and usually there is no dedicated camera person assigned the responsibility of documenting the unfolding events in a systematic way. Maybe your lab or where you are conducting field work suffers a similar predicament. As a result, I see a lot of video that might make for an amazing piece of b-roll (supporting material) - beautiful shots of a vessel leaving port, divers entering the water or working on a site - but no team members explaining to the camera the three basic contextual elements needed to actually tell the story!

A commercial diver enters Lake Michigan.

The scientific method parallels the natural way a story flows: You have an hypotheses (something you want or expect to see happen), you set out to perform an experiment, you see the results and then you interpret them. That's just like a movie with a beginning, a middle, and an end. With these steps, you can gather the footage you need to tell the story of your research and communicate with a wide and captive audience.

The Solution: Give us context and update us on the progress of the research throughout the day with video.

It's really not that hard. Decide you're going to do it and then follow through. If you stick to asking three basic questions three times throughout the day, you will have the backbone to telling a video story about the work that was done. Why three questions three times a day? Because... drum roll: Shakespeare! Shakespeare gave use the three act structure to storytelling. This can be done over the course of a 90-minute piece, or it can be done efficiently and effectively in three minutes, if you know what you're doing.

Three Act Structure:

  • Introduction: Tell us who and where you are.

  • Act 1: What do you want to accomplish and why is it important to you?

  • Act 2: What are you doing to accomplish our goal and what challenges are in your path?

  • Act 3: Did you accomplish your goal and, if not, what did you learn?

  • Conclusion: What will you do next to further progress and what will you need to do it?

Watch this example I filmed of a teacher in Alpena, Michigan who had an idea to create a class about the Great Lakes using research done by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

This short film accomplishes answering the three questions in under three minutes: What does the main character want? What did they do to go about accomplishing it? Were they successful? And finally, a conclusion: What happens next?

In the example of John Caplis, the teacher at Alpena High School, we can see the three-act structure play out in under three minutes as follows:

Introduction: We meet John and he tells us who he is.

Act 1: John introduces the concept of his class, Shipwreck Alley, and describes what the class is designed to do: to teach students about maritime archeology, meteorology, ecology, and natural resources within the Great Lakes.

Act 2: We see John and his students aboard a glass bottom boat with his students as they participate in an exciting field trip as part of the class. He elaborates on the history of the class, how the class grew, and how the National Marine Sanctuary helps get him the materials he needed to create curriculum for the course. He talks about how he wouldn't be able to do this class without the help of the sanctuary staff.

Act 3: John talks about how he loves working with the sanctuary and that the staff there has a can-do kind of attitude. He talks about how the community has benefited from the sanctuary and we get a sense that his class still has room to grow, but that the resources are there to get it done with the help of the sanctuary.

Conclusion: A montage of activities at the sanctuary power across the screen with John's final line about how the sanctuary has been wonderful for the community.

Boom, boom, boom! Three acts, about as quickly as you can present them. Now, not everybody is going to have the fancy equipment I used to make this piece, but you don't need fancy equipment to tell a compelling story. You just need to know what the elements are that make a good story and you can create a video about a scientific project you're working on.

The Alm Filmmaker housing on my iPhone 6S+

Fancy equipment like expensive cameras, lenses, microphones and tripods are essential for the professional videographer, but they are absolutely unnecessary for the amateur, given the technology we now hold in the palm of our hand in the form of a smart phone. Here, I'm holding an iPhone 6S+ that I've tricked out for making video stories. This turns my phone into a powerful storytelling device that can get great audio while it can have a variety of lenses. It includes a wide angle lens and a macro lens (for close up shots).

Just like science, telling a video story is procedural. If you follow this procedure and practice it, it can become second-nature.

Identify the elements that will be used to tell the story.

As discussed above, every story has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. Every good story has characters with a goal, challenges that lie in the way of that goal, a reaction to these challenges in the form of accepting them or running from them, the achievement of that goal or the defeat in the face of it, and a life lesson the character or characters have learned as a result of having been on this journey.

When you conduct an experiment in a lab or in the field, these elements already naturally exist, you just need to capture them and describe them so the audience can understand what is happening.

Follow these procedures to document your work throughout the day.

  • Identify the main character or characters – this could be the project lead, a volunteer, a scientist or a spokesperson (someone that can function as a spokesperson) that can be the thread that connects us from point A, to B, to C, etc. We will depend on this person to be the individual that answers the three basic questions: What happened? What is happening? What will happen?

  • Identify the goal of the research – in order for this project to be successful, what has to happen? Who is responsible for accomplishing that goal? What tools will be used to accomplish it? How will success be measured?

  • Identify the potential challenges that the mission faces – Is there the potential for inclement weather? What happens if machinery malfunctions? Are there many “moving parts” that, if they don’t come together precisely, could disrupt the mission?

  • Understand and predict the flow of events throughout the project. By anticipating when key steps of the project will take place, you can be prepared to capture the main story elements throughout the day in a way most useful to telling the story. This will help you to avoid filming too much. By focusing specifically on what is important, you will limit the amount of time you have to spend actually filming and stick to the heart of the matter.

  • Continually revisit the three questions throughout the day at least three times: At the start of the day record video of your main character (which could be you) answering “What events led to us embarking on this project?” “What is happening right now?” “What will we be doing today?” Do this again prior to the main portion of the research, again during the primary activities, and finally when activities have concluded. THIS IS THE BACKBONE OF THE STORY.

Here are the basic procedures to consider when capturing video.

  • Hold the camera horizontal. This is extremely important. Avoid any of that vertical video stuff you see on Facebook.

  • Before you frame a shot, identify where your primary light source is. If your light source is the sun, keep it behind you and slightly to one side so it is not directly behind the subject, but not directly behind you, either.

  • Start recording several seconds before the action takes place. This is called "lead in".

  • After the action has ended (or a question has been answered) hold the camera steady for a few more seconds before you stop recording. This is called "lead out". You'll thank yourself later in the editing room.

After you familiarize yourself with the camera you are using, these are the contextual elements you should film so that you can tell your story visually.

The other gets an establishing shot on a beach.

Establish a sense of place:

During the course of the project, it is extremely important that you give audiences a sense of place: If you are filming in a laboratory, film a wide shot of the entire lab, get close up shots of lab equipment, get shots of people working in the lab and close ups of what they are doing, name plates on people's desks, books on shelves, etc. You'll use this to transport your audience into the location.

The author filming an interviewee in Oregon.

Interview members of the team:

Make sure the source of light is either directly behind you (the camera) or slightly off to the side. Never perform an interview with the sun or light source directly behind the person being interviewed! Arrange the subject so they are not in the way of the work being done, find the quietest place you can (away from engine noise, machinery sounds, etc), and make sure both you and the subject are relatively comfortable. Go through the basic questions.

Interviewing a razor clam digger on a beach.

Follow the action:

The answers you get from the questions in the interview will help to guide the choices you make and the images you gather. For example, if the course of action for the day will involve the launch of a remotely operated vehicle, get several shots of the vehicle on the deck of the ship, the equipment that will be used to operate it and the crew setting it up.

David Ruck points to the action.

Follow up on questions you asked earlier in the day:

Both visually and with interview questions later in the course of the project, follow up on questions or concerns that were raised: Was the vehicle deployed successfully? What are we seeing on the monitors? Does the crew seem happy with the way things are unfolding? Is the weather holding? Are things going smoothly or have there been some concerns, malfunctions or other considerations? Is the science or research being conducted effectively or has the team had to adapt to unforeseen circumstances?

It's important to wrap it up concisely.  We should feel satisfied, but want to learn more.

Find a conclusion:

At the end of the day, ask your primary character if today was a success and why. What did they want to accomplish today? What had to happen in order for today to be a success? Was today a success? How will this research be used? Will there be another project? How does this advance your research as a scientist? What value might this bring to our quality of life or our understanding of a complex problem? What happens now? Show your enthusiasm!

Get good sound. It's more important than getting good video.

People will pay attention to a video that has great sound and poor video. But no one will watch a video with poor sound and excellent visuals. You can fool the eyes, but you can’t fool the ears.

Above all, when getting interviews or gathering material where sounds (especially voices) is important, Pay attention to background noise. If you are standing on the fan tail of a ship with the sound of the waves or the engine running, this is probably not a good place to conduct an interview. The same for a lab with lots of equipment running, or work being done next to a highway or an airport. This might be a great time to gather some B-Roll of the project, but a horrible time to interview people. Find a place relatively quiet when conducting interviews and, when in doubt, record some test footage and listen to it back through some headphones. If you hear waves, machinery, the air conditioning or a refrigerator in the background, you need to find a better place to conduct the interview.

Telling a powerful story about your journey, whether it be in research science, how you got inspired to enter your field of study, or simply if you just want to share with audiences the development of a process you are perfecting, video storytelling is a great way to communicate. Good chunks of this video were shot using an iPhone 6S+.

Back up your footage on a hard drive as soon as you get back to your computer.

Immediately upon returning to your office or as soon as circumstances permit, back up your footage. I highly recommended that you have or purchase a reliable storage hard drive for the purpose of housing video and photos. I use G-Technology drives, which are extremely fast and reliable. These are also “working drives”, being as that they have the connection speed to perform under the stress of video editing. I'll offer some suggestions at the end of the article for hard drives.

The author holds his iPhone 6S+ with the Alm Filmmaker package and a Sony Wireless Microphone.

If you decide you want to use your iPhone to make videos about your research activities, this setup might be worth the investment. Compared to a dedicated video camera that can cost thousands of dollars, this will put the power of filmmaking at your fingertips. And it's easy to use if you already know how to use your phone's video capabilities.

Accessorize your smart phone and turn it into a powerful tool for telling video stories.

Here is an equipment list of the accessories I use on my iPhone 6S (left) or 6S+ (right) for shooting video stories. Because of the quality of the camera on the iPhone, I've been able to shoot stories with this setup completely with my phone. You don't need these accessories to do the job, but if you are excited about taking it up a notch and want to add some variety to your shots and get great audio, I've found this setup to perform wonderfully.

I've put these here as links through Amazon Associate. If you have a question about a setup for your phone, if other than an iPhone, I can recommend a solution. Just send me an email.


ALM Filmmaker iPhone housings:

At around the same cost as a GoPro, these housings provide using a shotgun microphone, which can dramatically improve the clarity of the audio going into your iPhone 6S or 6S+. A Shotgun microphone points in the direction the lens is pointed and is designed to gather sound from the direction which it is pointed. It also gives you the ability to have a wide angle lens, which screws onto the housing and gives you a wider field of view, dramatically improving the field of view. By unscrewing the lens, you are given a macro lens, which is wonderful for extreme closeups. (Think of getting shots of your experiment really close up) Other lenses are available, too. Like a telephoto lens, which will help you see further away. The housing is also weighted really well for stability and can be mounted to any tripod or another mount. This is great if you are working alone and need to film yourself doing something. I found this setup to be well worth the investment. I take it on my weekend road trips.


Sony Wireless Lavalier Microphone:

This wireless microphone isn't cheap, but it is wireless, will attach to the top of the housing listed above, and has a really long range! I've used this mic (as seen in the photo of me above) and the quality of sound is outstanding. You put this microphone on the person that is talking on-camera and it helps you be able to perform as the camera person AND the sound person, all at the same time. Plus, if the person being recorded turns away from the camera and keeps talking you'll still get great sound as the microphone is attached to their shirt right below their chin. If they walk away, the range is good enough that you can still get a signal over of 100' away.


Conclusion: You can create a video story about your research.

Video storytelling is the most effective way to share our activities with the public, while engaging stakeholders, partners, scientists, and students alike. More and more, video storytelling is used to:

  • Demonstrate a project’s effectiveness

  • Engage audiences in the human and emotional aspects of an otherwise esoteric scientific process

  • Strengthen a proposal or request for further funding

  • Draw attention to an issue or idea

  • Compete in the lexicon of social media and social broadcasting to remain relevant in the public mind

Effective storytelling starts with the willingness to follow these simple steps. It ends with greater visibility of the work we do, the communities we engage with, and in the overall justification for the resources we require to do our job effectively. On top of that, we have the ability to inspire the next generation of scientists, explorers, archaeologists, and storytellers. Now go out and have some fun sharing your journey with our audience!


David J. Ruck is a documentary filmmaker, educator and explorer who currently works as in-house video producer and underwater camera operator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. His work takes him from coast-to-coast, telling the stories within America's underwater parks. He is the first filmmaker to premiere a film in space on the International Space Station. He can be reached through his website where you can see examples of his work and find articles and resources for documentary storytellers.

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