Try and Be Clever: an Interview with BrainCraft’s Vanessa Hill

BrainCraft logo. Image coutesy of Vanessa Hill.
BrainCraft logo. Image coutesy of Vanessa Hill.

I first met Vanessa Hill in early 2014 while touring a forensic anthropology lab in North Carolina. At the time, she was working for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and had recently launched a web series called BrainCraft that explored issues related to psychology and neuroscience.

Fast forward about a year and Hill is living in the U.S. and working full time on BrainCraft, which is now part of PBS Digital Studios.

I recently had the chance to talk to Hill about what she thinks separates an online science video from a really good online science video, and about her transition from government public relations (focused on science) to professional web video producer (focused on science).

Communication Breakdown: What’s your educational background?

Vanessa Hill: I completed a Bachelor of Science Majoring in Psychology at the University of New South Wales and a Masters of Science Communication at Australian National University.

CB: You now have your own video series, but what did you set out to do when you left university? What was your first job?

Hill: Growing up I wanted to be a zoo-keeper of sorts – I did some work experience at the education centre at Taronga Zoo in Sydney and loved it. One of the reasons I wanted to go to UNSW was because I could study creative writing and zoology in the same degree. My first job was working in science outreach for CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. I travelled around the country with a “lab on legs,” teaching workshops and performing shows from all areas of science to kids from early elementary school to senior high school. It was lots of fun and great experience. I do miss being in the classroom, and my easy access to dry ice and liquid nitrogen.

CB: How did your work as an education officer for CSIRO prepare you to host a web video series?

Hill: My work in education at CSIRO involved translating science so it was easy to understand, developing analogies and educational materials to try and teach a concept, and keeping audiences engaged so they enjoyed learning. Although I now work in a completely different medium, some aspects of my work – like researching, writing scripts and storyboarding explainers – are quite similar.

CB: While still at CSIRO, but before launching BrainCraft, you started doing video news segments for the Australian science news site ScienceAlert. How did that come about? Was that your first real experience working with video for a large audience?

Vanessa Hill. Image courtesy of Vanessa Hill.
Vanessa Hill. Image courtesy of Vanessa Hill.

Hill: At CSIRO I had an opportunity to move from their education team to their media team, where I started managing their social media presence and talking to the media as a spokesperson. We produced a wide range of video – for press releases, business partners and I even hosted an educational series on do-it-yourself experiments. This was my first real experience working with video for a large audience.

I also had the opportunity to work for ScienceAlert, an Australian-based science news service. We started an initiative aiming to get more science news into the media landscape. I had regular radio segments on stations in regional areas, having conversations about recent research that was relevant to those areas.

CB: What inspired you to start BrainCraft, and how did it differ from the work you were doing for ScienceAlert?

Hill: I really enjoyed writing, media work and have a passion for education, so I felt starting BrainCraft was a way to bring together my interests. I wanted to create a show where I could communicate science in a creative way, a little different to what was already online – that’s where the paper craft and stop-motion come in.

CB: Why focus on psychology and neuroscience?

Hill: I was a psych major so I’ve always been interested in brain science and behaviour. I think there’s a big popular interest in brain things too, and I had a desire to communicate research in ways that were more accurate to the findings than I was seeing in popular media. For example, short articles that say “Chocolate can make you smarter!” – perhaps, if you’re over 60, experiencing cognitive decline and are consuming a small amount of dark chocolate on a regular basis, processed in a way that it retains flavanols (the benefit, that also has a bitter taste). Oh, and a lot of chocolate research is sponsored by Mars [note: Mars is one of the world’s largest candy companies].

CB: Has BrainCraft evolved as you’ve gotten more familiar with the technology involved in creating web video programs? Has the quality or the nature of the content changed over time?

Hill: I started BrainCraft just over a year ago and it’s definitely evolved. I spend a lot more time creating the episodes than when I first started, if you look at my old and new stuff it’s easy to see that the characters are more detailed and there’s a more happening on screen. It’s also noticeable that the production quality is a lot better, I have better lighting and now I use a professional voice over booth rather than recording voice overs on an iPhone surrounded by pillows inside my wardrobe.

CB: You’d been working on BrainCraft for about six months before leaving CSIRO and joining PBS Digital Studios. Did PBS approach you, or did you approach them?

Hill: Around the time I started BrainCraft I travelled to the U.S. to attend some online video and science communication conferences. I was lucky enough to meet some of the folks from PBS Digital Studios, who liked what I was doing. I had the opportunity to join Digital Studios, who now support the production of my show. They’re such a strong brand in education and have a phenomenal network of educational content online. They really don’t pay me to say that! I have always enjoyed their programming and I’m chuffed to be a part of it.

CB: Did you have to make any changes to BrainCraft after joining PBS?

Hill: I have to send them content for approval, but I wouldn’t call that a disadvantage. They often have constructive comments. I now have to include their branding on my channel and in my episodes too.

CB: You also moved to the U.S. after joining PBS Digital Studios. Why?

Hill: Giving up a lifestyle in Sydney was tough – it’s a beautiful city with an amazing climate, a fun place to live and full of my family and friends. The science media industry is smaller obviously, as we have a small population. It would have been difficult to stay and be supported by a network like I am now. YouTube is very U.S.-centric and, sadly, there aren’t any science education channels based in Australia.

PBSDS are based on the east coast and I wanted to be close to them. Most of their other online programming is produced in New York, there are great media and creative industries and a wealth of researchers to interview at the universities.

CB: I know you host and write the BrainCraft video series, but do you also do all of the camera work and editing? Are there other staff involved?

Hill: Yes! I’m a one-person band, so to speak. I research, write, produce, film and edit. It’s a huge and very time consuming process, so I have been lucky enough to get a few more people on board recently. I now have a sound designer and someone who helps with research and fact-checking. They are both fantastic.

CB: How do you determine whether a video is a “success”?

Hill: Generally I would consider a video a success if it has thoughtful comments and converts new viewers into subscribers and followers of my channel. It helps to have a decent number of views, but if it has no engagement it’s a somewhat empty metric.

CB: What are the key ingredients to making a good science video?

Hill: It really depends on your style and audience. If it’s an online video for a general audience, some key ingredients are accessibility, shareability, strong visuals and audience involvement.

Good science video needs to make topics accessible. Use everyday language instead of scientific jargon, and use clever analogies and examples to explain the science. In the past I’ve anthropomorphised brain proteins as combatting street fighter characters and used competing memories of tacos and burritos to explain interference theory.

The best way for your online audience to grow is to make sure your content is shareable. Having around three nice facts in your video that people can take away and tweet or easily tell someone makes that easy for them. Also, involving your audience is key – asking them questions, inviting comments or doing an interactive experiment. People will likely enjoy the video more, and learn more, when you have their attention.

And online video competes with all of your other online activities – Facebook, email, The Onion; not to mention the high quality of content and late night TV that is accessible on YouTube. Leaving your video is a quick click away. Try and be clever with your visuals and audio. Animation and graphics lend themselves well to explaining scientific concepts. I use quirky characters and sound effects to add some humour too.

CB: Creating science-oriented videos calls for a lot of different skills. You’ve got to identify an audience, figure out which stories will resonate with them, write the script, come up with good visuals, tackle the technical aspects of creating good video and audio, and edit it all together. To an outsider, like me, it seems kind of overwhelming.

If someone is interested in making good science videos, where should they start? How should they start?

Hill: It’s overwhelming even when you possess those skills. I think the first three things you mentioned are the most important to initially master – identifying an audience, figuring out which stories will resonate with them and writing a script. This is always the longest part of the process too. It’s always nice to have high production values and good skills, but you can always record something with a mobile phone and have minimal editing if it’s really interesting subject matter.

It’s best to start by crafting good stories, researching and writing. If you’re doing something in a narrative style (compared to an interview for example), write a script, record the audio and play it to a friend or colleague to see if it is engaging. Then you can decide if you want to record it again with you on-camera, or if you want to add some visuals or animation to the audio to tell your story.

CB: Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, is there anything you wish that you could go back and do differently?

Hill: I wish I had started earlier! There is so much online content now that I think it’s more difficult to find and build up an audience as a new creator.


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