By Alex Binks, University of Glasgow
Hearing that I had come first place in the Biochemical Society’s Science Communication Competition was a wonderful feeling. Of course, this feeling was in part due to my excitement over the prospect of having an extra £300 to spend on all manner of sensible and not-so-sensible purchases. But more importantly, I had managed to prove to myself that it’s possible to make a successful science video without any money or any clue what the hell I was doing.
Now maybe this is not a problem you feel like you’ve ever faced before, and it probably isn’t. However, it does seem that these sorts of science video competitions are growing in popularity, and for good reason. Universities and institutes are starting to realise just how important communication skills are becoming, within academia and beyond. In addition, I thoroughly believe that taking time away from the bench to think about your science and others’ in a much more abstract way is extremely beneficial for your mental health, creativity, and dare I say it… can actually be FUN?
I’ve seen people waver in their decision take part in one of these competitions. I feel like the biggest barrier people create for themselves is this idea that you need to be incredibly technically savvy, or already own expensive equipment to make this work. I hope that I have become a shining example that this is not true, and therefore I thought that I would use this blog post to mention some of my best “hacks” for making a video on a budget.
Chances are, if you’re a functioning human in the 21st century, then your phone has one of these stuck to it. If like me you dropped your old phone in a pint, and have therefore bought a shiny new one in the past couple of years, then it probably has a camera that far surpasses any reasonable expectation of quality of anyone looking at your video. This is what I used for all my stop motion and talky bits, and it performed well for both.
To make the most of a good camera though you need to think about lighting. Standing under your bedroom ceiling light can make you look a bit shadowy and weird, so best to find some lamps if possible and point them at your face. Playing around with the position of these a little can be the difference between a good and not so good-looking video.
It’s also worth thinking about whether you need more control over your camera than just the standard phone app. I didn’t like the way my camera would autofocus whenever I popped onto screen. To combat this, I ended up downloading the appropriately named “A Better Camera” app, which has a lot of cool tools for being able to adjust things such as focusing, brightness, colour balance and so on. Have a play around and see what looks best. Just try to remember to keep the settings broadly similar from shot to shot.
I think that the best part of making a video is thinking of inventive ways to display your science through props. Having an outline of what you want to show in your head can help you figure out what bits and bobs you need to scavenge, be it some DNA made of strawberry laces, mitochondria made of Lego, or a histone protein made of marzipan. Rummage through your drawers to see what you have at your disposal, or take a walk around Poundland. Poundland is a shop that seems to sell every item in existence for scandalously cheap prices and has become one of my dearest high street staples.
In addition to lighting, sound is another factor that can make an otherwise nice-looking video, feel cheapened. I struggled a bit over how to achieve good sound for little money, and I think failed. A ‘lavaliere’ mic, is the name for the type of microphone that you can stick to your clothing. This gives better sound than just your phone, because it can help eliminate echo. These aren’t cheap, so I opted to try and rig up the microphone from a pair of headphones to my shirt. While it did give less echo, I think the sound overall was worse than the phone mic, which I just used in the end. The only other advice I can give is to try not to record outside, as even with a good mic this can sound really messy.
Having a tripod for your phone will make your video feel a lot more professional, as well as giving some necessary stability if you plan on doing stop motion. These adorable little phone tripods can be bought at – you guessed it, Poundland.
There is a bunch of good free video editing software out there. I ended up using Videopad, which in addition to being super easy to use, has a lot of great effects such as the ‘old-timey’ effect I used in the middle of my video. The software makes you pinky-swear not to use it for commercial purposes, which unless the 91 views on my Youtube suddenly skyrocket, I don’t think I need to worry about. But this is something to consider.
Adding some quirky music in the background can certainly help to bring the whole thing together. This of course needs to be licenced appropriately for use. Luckily there’s an abundance of free-to-use music online. Bensound.com is a great site, but has very limited selections. If you’re more willing to dig around then I would recommend freemusicarchive.org, which is where the music in my video came from in the end.
I hope that these tips have served as a good jumping-off point for anybody already thinking about taking part in a video competition in the future. More importantly, I hope that this article has helped prove how possible it is to make a video for next to no money. The hard part is finding creative ways to use these tools to create an engaging and informative video, and for that I wish you the best of luck.
The winning article in the written category will be published in the August issue of The Biochemist, which can be accessed here. The second place article and video will be published in the magazine and on the blog in October.