CASE STUDY:  SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

BACKSTORY

The work I do for Scientific American is based largely on its 60 Second Science podcast.  Executive video producer, Eliene Augenbraun, gives me the heads up about episodes she feels will work well with animation. 

The episodes I receive tend to be based on a single, recent research paper SciAm feels may be of interest to a wide audience.  By the time I’m on the scene, narration and interviews have already been completed and transcripts are available for me to start the animation process.  When I’m finished, all those raw animation files go back to SciAm, where they add any additional sound effects, make any additional edits and add their watermark, bumpers and credits. They’ll generally render the completed animation on their end (i.e. process it) and it somehow magically appears on the web.

Easy!

Actually, the finished animations involve several people at every step of the process.  All I do here is animate.  Others are responsible for all the research, writing, interviewing, voice over work and editing.  It results in a whole lot of files flying all over the cloud and some amount of coordination, but collaborations like these are hugely rewarding.

 

GOOD TO KNOW

I’ve done a few animations for Scientific American, but these two are particularly relevant if you’re looking to create a summary of a single research paper.

In one episode, Psychologist Tali Labovich discusses a potential cause of arachnophobia.  The animation is based on a quick study sparked by her own fear of spiders. 

In the other, Biologist Joe Roman chats about the importance of whale poop. 

Yes. 

My first assignment with the good people at Scientific American was about poop.  Links to both episodes are provided above. 

Whether you’re creating work on your own or as part of a larger team, take a moment to browse through the many videos up on the SciAm website.  You’ll notice a subtle but common framework: 

 

LESSONS

  1. They’re short

It’s called 60 Second Science for a reason.  True, the episodes I’ve animated are longer than this (averaging around 2:30), but the point is that you enlighten your audience quickly… and then you drop the mic and leave the room.

Short science videos are meant to be just that. 

Short. 

If you’re thinking that two minutes isn’t enough time to fully educate someone on a topic…

It isn’t.

So, stop trying. 

But, in two minutes, you can introduce someone to a concept, theory or idea.  Or, you can perhaps provide them with a different viewpoint.    

When done well, these types of episodes spark conversations, despite their truncated length.  On SciAm’s FB page, Labovich’s study has provided a backdrop for followers to express stories of their own fears of spiders – whether or not they fear them because they see them as larger than life.

The point, I think, is to give your viewers or listeners a taste of your topic.  You give them just enough information to push some curiosity buttons.  If they’re really ambitious, they’ll explore more on their own.  Appropriate links to articles, books and organizations can be provided.

What the time frame does do, is force you to get to the point.

Quickly.

Featured biologist Joe Roman could have flooded you with information on more specifics about whale poop.

Its exact chemical make-up.

How he collects all his samples.

But, he didn’t.

Thank God.

Instead, you get a big picture – the overall implications of something seemingly small.  And, how that one small thing can have potentially devastating effects on the environment. 

Brilliant.

Lastly, if you ever find yourself tempted to include more information than you need to, remember this:

No one ever hits the back button on a video because it was too short.

Moving on. 

  1. They capture the audience’s attention quickly

There’s some kind of hook, and it comes early.  The 60 Second Science episodes generally start with teasers.

It might be a bold statement.

It might be a question.

It might be a quick story.

“What Makes Spiders Scary” starts with Labovich chatting casually about the incident that sparked the study. 

“Why Whale Waste Matters” starts with narrator Christopher Intagliata provocatively suggesting the unraveling of an entire food chain because of the disappearance of whale poop.  

What?

Now you’ve got my attention.  

  1. They acknowledge that scientists are people

Crazy, right?!

They grew up with dreams, have families, distinct personalities and yes, they even have fears.  In these episodes we learn that Labovich is terrified of spiders.  We learn that Roman is known mainly as the “Whale Poop Scientist” amongst his daughter’s friends.  And, with that single sentence, we view him as a family man with a sense of humor. 

These snippets don’t dominate the episodes, but they give you a slight glimpse into the lives of scientists as real people.

Before you tell me this isn’t important, allow me to suggest to you one reason it is.

We seem to have hit a time where mistrust of science and the people who conduct it is at an all-time high.  One way to combat this is to get the public to start seeing scientists as real, fallible people.

Not just robots conspiring with big pharma to kill you. 

When viewers can relate to those conducting the science on some emotional level, some of those barriers start to fall.

Scientists need to do more of this.  

  1. They end with a sense of what’s to come

This one can be tricky. 

Science is an on-going process.  Questions spark hypotheses and studies, which spark new questions.  There are almost always more questions than answers.  Old theories are tested and updated as new information comes to light.  This is what I loved most about being a scientist – the endless questions and the possibilities at where those questions might lead you. 

The problem is that science is almost never ‘done,’ and most of it isn’t causative. Most studies point us in the direction of what the future ‘might hold.’

Those responsible for reporting it need to respect that.   

Roman can’t promise that the reduction in the numbers of whales and their poop can be reversed.  But, he can suggest that we simply allow them to move about freely, and let nature take its course.

Labovich can’t declare that she’s discovered the only reason people fear spiders.  But, she can suggest that, for a subset of people, there may be ways to diminish those fears in the future if we know what’s causing them.   

NEXT STEPS

For more help crafting your own message, here’s a quick cheat sheet to get you started with your own science story.  Simply hover over the PDF below to expand, read and download.

web-scripts-brochure

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