Deconstructing Great Science and Technology Videos

This morning I was sipping my coffee as I reviewed the latest news in the New York Times on my iPad. And, of course, the Top News was depressing – ISIS, Ray Rice, Ebola and so on. So I found my way to the video section and looked around a bit.

I ended up taking a careful look at three entries. Having spent some time in media, and judged more than a few medical media award contests, I have a certain approach to these things which includes a non-judgmental quick viewing followed by a second review that more critically deconstructs.

The three pieces I focused on all fell into the broad science and technology education bucket, and all arguably had a connection to either the human patient or planetary patient or both. The shortest was 2:04 and the longest 6:36. One used a standard, broadcast-tested, interview style backed up by B-roll and liberal use of ambient sound. A second relied on simple, stylized moving graphs. And a third utilized visually stunning and highly creative paper cut-out constructs brought to life through manual animation and stop action photography.

Despite the difference in styles, all three were highly successful in holding the viewers attention, delivering complex messages, and tying those messages to future action. All three had the benefit of a musical score, though only one used an original score that was credited. All three had clearly taken care in their choices for voice-overs or on screen commentators. And all three demonstarted extraordinary discipline in limiting word count and labelling, allowing the pictures and the voices and the music to largely guide the reader.

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The 3:04 standard broadcast piece, “Formula E, Carbon Free” was created by Jonah M.  Kessel. But the real star of the show was a young Chinese racing driver, Ho-Pin Tung, representing “China Racing” and a generation of young tech-savy global leaders with a passion for technology-aided advances in the human condition. Oh, and by the way, the guy is great on camera – a terrific spokesperson for the movement.

The movement is Formula E, a series of urban, Formula 1 style racing events that kicked off in Beijing’s “Olympic City” on September 13, 2014, and will be traveling to nine other cities around the world over the next 12 months. In a little over 3 minutes, the viewer comes to understand that these high performance vehicles are electric and run on batteries; are intended to both entertain and act as laboratories for green development; and that the future is just around the corner.

As the visually appealing Ho-Pin Tung says in perfect English with just a few well-chosen words: ““As in the past, racing has always been proven to be a laboratory, a development center for new technologies needing to be developed for general use in cars. This series is going to only accelerate this. It won’t just accelerate the development, but also the interest of people in electric cars.” He goes on to explain that the low carbon footprint of the event allows it to be staged in center city settings, where pollution is extremely problematic and solutions are imperative.

Finally, the piece uses two black text boxes with white print to catch your attention. Neither one preaches. The first says, “Formula E race cars reach 60 m.p.h. in less than three seconds and have a top speed of about 140 m.p.h.”  And the second, “The Formula E championship will continue on to nine cities across the world over the next year.”   Take-away? “Stay tuned for the next installment.”

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The next piece, “How It Happens: El Nino” is a 2:04 moving graphic narrated by Henry Fountain and produced by Aaron Byrd, Henry Fountain and Ben Laffin. It is a simple, attractive, well-designed and effective short lesson on how weather happens and how these forces impact our lives, and potentially our health. With comforting narration, and simple music to fill the dead space, all eyes are on the graphics which are so simple, clear and concise that they require little labeling. As a result, the imagery is clean, uncomplicated and easy to digest. We learn in a little over two minutes what El Nino is; that it causes dramatic weather effects around the globe; that there are Pacific Trade winds that push ocean water along and, in doing so, push warm water out and allow cold water to rise to the surface; that warm surface waters increase moisture in the air and promote monsoons; that sometimes the Trade winds stop (we’re not sure why) and the direction of the changes reverse; and that this can cause warmer winters in our Northwest like the one that created the snow-less Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.”

And, with the help of extraordinary instructional design, they do this in 2:04 without the viewer feeling rushed.

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Last, but certainly not least, is “Animated Life: Seeing The Invisible”,  a 6:36 highly visual, puppeteer-driven tour de force. Using paper cut-outs, with visible animation aids in the form of wires and navigating sticks, with or without moving cinematic painted backdrops, all made more lush by the original score of Sarah Lipstate, this piece introduces us to 17th century scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who with the aid of homemade microscopes, discovered microbes. Beginning with stingers of bees and legs of louse, and advancing to pond scum alive with miraculous creatures 1000 times smaller than the scientist had ever before visualized, we are escorted through history. Along the way, we learn, for example about the luminescent Vibrio Harveyi. As narrator Bonnie Bassler from Princeton voice-over explains,  “We discovered that bacteria can communicate using a molecular language. We used to think that social behaviors were the purvue of higher organisms. What we now understand is that the bacteria were probably the first organisms on this earth to ever communicate with one another.”

In each of these cases, there is a request stated or implied. We understand that we are invited to attend a Formula E race “in a city near you”. It’ll be exciting, and fun, and it’s a worthy movement that could help our planet. We’ll also be on the look-out for El Nino. What weather surprises are in store for you and your neighbors this year? Stay tuned. And finally, we are all under the microscope. As Bonnie Bassler gently intones, “We’re driven by our ignorance and driven by the idea that the world must be more complex than what we understand right now. And that’s enough inspiration to do an experiment.”