Universities all over the world are scrapping face-to-face lectures and pivoting toward audiovisual delivery of events and conferences. What tools and skills are required to create video content that transcends the Zoom aesthetic we have grown so accustomed to? In this essay, I want to share five practical tips I have picked up after producing my first academic video for this year’s Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference. Fingers crossed I will remember them myself next time.
The task: Condense your paper into three minutes
Presenting at AoIR2020 involves submitting a paper extended abstract and/or a video presentation of one to three minutes. The conference committee grants presenters maximum creative freedom:
‘You can create a video in any way you want e.g. direct record yourself presenting content, voice record over a PowerPoint video, Zoom recording of several presenters discussing the paper, edited curation of images that represent your presentation, animation, a ventriloquist performance. We highly encourage creative submissions!’
As much as I wanted to opt for that ventriloquist performance, I went for the simpler video approach. At first, I gasped in disbelief at the thought of radically trimming down the traditional 15-minute presentation. Three minutes! I can barely say my full name and the words hiding behind the CMCI abbreviation within that time. However, producing the video turned out to be more than just a painful ‘kill your darlings’ exercise. In fact, the process has served as a powerful analytical tool that has helped me explore my PhD in a new way. Here is what I have learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Get to the point
Three minutes leave no time for fluff or lengthy descriptions. Clarity is key. You can only share a couple of ideas, and you want to get to the main argument quickly. Viewers rarely stay until the end. On average, people have watched 71 pct. of my video (according to Vimeo’s detailed statistics). Hook the viewer with a compelling first image and try to keep it short and snappy throughout the entire video. Treat your points like oysters – they should be swallowed whole without chewing or savouring. I found this challenging, as I have no overview of my data whatsoever. Detecting patterns at this stage of the PhD has proven useful, though.
Lesson 2: Think with sound and images
Film is a powerful medium, not least due to its three inherent components: image, story, and sound. Transferring academic papers to video means tapping into a more visual and sonic approach to your work. A good way to kick-start a creative spark is by browsing through your recent YouTube history: What kind of content do you like to consume yourself and why? For my video, I mimicked the style of Harper’s Bazaar’s ‘Food Diaries’. Yes, beware: Browsing through your YouTube history is a soul-searching endeavour that might reveal a fascination with what celebrities eat throughout the day.
Brainstorm with others early on and bounce your crazy ideas off them. They might even chip in with brilliant input or agree to perform as actors (thanks, Dad). When the basic story and visual components are in place, write a script and/or create a storyboard with drawings or photos. Combine it all into a game plan you can follow on the day of shooting. This document will also help you at the editing stage, as you essentially have a recipe for the video structure.
Lesson 3: Get some guidance and some gear
I am by no means a videomaking pro, so I rely on tips from videographers like Peter McKinnon and audio producers like Mike Russell. They offer accessible tutorials on how to acquire high-quality image and sound. You do not have to purchase expensive equipment, but you need to adhere to basic rules surrounding composition, lighting, and recording sound. I want to strike a blow for audio here: Audio quality is paramount, and it really is worth getting your hands on a decent microphone. Even a small directional microphone designed for mobile devices, such as RØDE’s VideoMic Me, will significantly improve your sound. In terms of lighting, I used some artificial lights, but you get a long way with simply utilising that big lamp we call the Sun.
Lesson 4: Bring your talking-head video to life with B-roll
Spice up the classic ‘talking-head’ video (i.e. when someone looks and speaks to the camera) with diverse types of footage and camera angles. By using two cameras in the presenting situation, it will be easier to achieve a visually dynamic result. Place the cameras around 30 degrees apart to avoid ‘jump-cuts’ (cutting between two sequential shots without changing the camera angle much) – unless you’re Jean-Luc Godard or just a fan of that jittery style.
Most importantly, shoot or find lots of B-roll, i.e. footage that supplements the primary/A-roll footage, which in this case is the shots of me speaking to the camera. Create a library that contains all the stuff you can potentially use, both in video and photo form. For still images, I recommend Unsplash, which provides a library of high-resolution photos that can be used for free.
Lesson 5: Leave sufficient time for editing
Slicing and dicing the clips is the most time-consuming part of the entire process. Spoiler alert: You will grow very tired of listening to your own voice. Acquire whatever software you need to edit the footage properly. I prefer Adobe Premiere Pro, because it allows you to integrate work done in other Adobe Creative Cloud apps, all of which students and teachers can purchase at a 65 pct. discounted rate.
In short, I highly recommend producing videos alongside doing the actual research, instead of seeing it as a communication task at the end of the research. It has forced me to reflect on my discoveries two years into the PhD, what I still need to figure out – and how this can be communicated visually and sonically.
The video: https://vimeo.com/447194358