New Track for Web Series

I’m currently in the process of developing a new science series for YouTube. Rather than buy a stock track for the intro, I decided to create the music myself. It will ultimately take longer than going the stock route, but I think it’s worth the effort because a) I won’t have to worry about rights and b) I can cut multiple versions of the track as needed. Let me know what you think!

Your Ears Are Stupid: My Top Ten Tips When Writing for the Ear

Writing for videos and podcasts has taught me an important lesson: Compared to your eyes, your ears aren’t the brightest sensory organs in the room. I’m no neuroscientist, but if you look at the amount of grey matter dedicated to making sense of what we see versus what we hear, it’s apparent that we’ve evolved to rely on our eyes more than our ears.

Primary auditory cortex, featured in magenta. (Source:

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Point and Shoot at the Bronx Zoo

I work with big cameras. Big honkin’ cameras with a multitude of inputs, buttons and switches; professional audio inputs and often interchangeable lenses. But sometimes it’s nice to bring things back down to manageable proportions.  So this past weekend I grabbed our household’s trusty point-and-shoot camera and headed for the Bronx Zoo to see what it could do. As they say, it’s not how sophisticated your camera is, it’s what you do with it. (Although, obviously there is more you can do with a fancy camera.)

Canon Powershot A4000 IS (Credit: Canon, Inc.)

The camera I brought with, the Canon PowerShot A4000 IS, is the top camera in Canon’s A-Series consumer line. The MSRP is $179, but I picked one up for around $100 at a well-known New York retailer. I chose this camera for features like a 16 megapixel sensor, 8x optical zoom,  image stabilization and 720p video. But it also needed to be simple to operate, so that anyone could grab it and start shooting. It also didn’t hurt that it has Canon glass–which is generally great, even on their cheaper cameras.

Compared to larger DSLR-style cameras, the stills from this camera aren’t anything spectacular. Here’s a shot of a Gelada, a baboon-like monkey that lives in the highlands of Ethiopian. It’s thick coat protects it from cool mountain temperatures.

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Digging around inside nature’s giants

Credit: Windfall/Richard Taylor/Jones

A sperm whale’s penis has no bones. This allows its flexible member to penetrate a female sperm whale from any number of directions; a necessity when two multi-ton animals are trying to line up tab A with slot B in an unsteady ocean environment.

This and other interesting facts about sperm whales are the subject of the first episode of the documentary series Inside Nature’s Giants, which premiers in the U.S. on January 18th. Each of the series’ four episodes centers around the dissection of a large animal, which is used as a starting point to explore the animal’s biology. (A clever device, which I also used in this Scientific American video about jumbo squid.)

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A crocodile’s salt water surprise

Crocodile near the beach in La Manzanilla, Mexico

It was a bit unsettling to see a crocodile occupy the same several square meters of ocean where I’d swam only a few days before. The croc must have been over ten feet in length and appeared suddenly and silently in the surf near the beach. He was probably chasing after a morning meal of fish. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this beach is where I happened to be eating breakfast with my family. We had planned to spend the day swimming in the same stretch of water now occupied by the croc.  It was Thursday and earlier in the week this is where we’d been swimming, body surfing and even taking my 16 month-old niece Lucia for a dip.

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‘Tis the season for ARKiving

Horsfield’s tarsier on

I had planned to blog about crocodiles this week and post an accompanying video. But unfortunately my video editing program developed a mind of its own just before the car showed up to transport me to the airport and back to my hometown of Seattle for the holidays. Ah, techmology [sic]!

So I started looking for something else to write about and came across the website.  ARKive is an initiative of  the  UK-based Wildscreen organization, whose mission is “to promote the public understanding and appreciation of the world’s biodiversity, and the need for its conservation, through the power of wildlife imagery.”

Living in the U.S., I’d never heard of ARKive  before, even though it’s been around since the early 2000s. It was launched by legendary broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and the basic idea is to collect and consolidate high-quality video and images of endangered species into a massive database. The goal is to “create a unique audio-visual record of life on Earth, prioritising those species at most risk of extinction.”

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Should broadcasters pay to protect the ‘stars’ of wildlife films?

A lion cub in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Discovery Channel’s reluctance to air the climate change episode of the Frozen Planet series–an episode they helped fund.  I asked that we label this act ‘unsustainable nature filmmaking’ because Discovery had failed to use its bully pulpit to protect the species that feature heavily in its films. An opinion piece in the journal Science this week, penned by Oxford geography professor Paul Jepson and colleagues, takes this argument one step further and asks that broadcasters like Discovery make direct monetary contributions to protect the ‘stars’ of wildlife films:

We ask whether it is time..[for] media corporations
producing and commissioning nature-based
programming…[to] adopt PES [payment for ecosystem services] principles.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of ‘payment for ecosystem services’, this is basically the idea that the many benefits provided to us by nature have a monetary value and that corporations profiting off of those services should give a percentage of profits back to conservation efforts.

Continue reading Should broadcasters pay to protect the ‘stars’ of wildlife films?

15 books to improve your filmmaking

Filmmaking, like any other craft, is best learned by doing rather than reading. The reason? You need to fail–a lot. Along the way, you learn the tricks to overcome the many obstacles thrown at you throughout the filmmaking process. As someone once told me, at its heart, filmmaking is “an exercise in creative problem solving.” However, this hasn’t stopped me from devouring anything and everything on the subject that I can. I’m always looking to add skills to my filmmaking toolbox (and hopefully avert disaster before it happens.).

What  I discovered is there’s a lot of half-baked junk written about filmmaking. Many directors turned authors (who shall remain nameless) turn filmmaking into some kind of abstract, academic exercise and give short shrift to the technical and logistical realities that play an equally important role. Among the flotsam and jetsam are a few books that rise above. The fifteen books that I’ve listed below range from the inspirational to the technical but each one will kick your filmmaking into the next dimension.

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Discovery Channel and unsustainable nature filmmaking

On Tuesday the Daily Mail reported that the Discovery Channel will not broadcast the final episode of the popular Frozen Planet series in the U.S. Why? Because the show deals with climate change, an emerging threat to animals living in the subzero regions of our planet. Apparently, Discovery thinks this topic will offend the political sensibilities of some portion of its U.S. audience. How ridiculous. Climate change is a matter for science, not politics (or at least it should be). And even more ridiculous is that Discovery helped pay for the production of the very episode that they now refuse to air.

This got me thinking about the genre of so-called ‘blue-chip’ nature documentaries like Frozen Planet. These docs are built around charismatic megafauna engaged in life or death struggles. And honestly, some of these films are my favorites.  I mean, who can resist the pull of a full-grown male lion chasing down a hyena in a battle to the death? Who can say they don’t like Discovery’s ‘Shark Week’–just a little bit? Continue reading Discovery Channel and unsustainable nature filmmaking

Tsunamis, rovers, scientists and sea level take top AAAS video journalism awards

The winners of this year’s AAAS Kavli science journalism awards were announced today, which included four awards for stand-out science video. And the winners are (drum roll please!)…


“Going Up: Sea Level Rise in San Francisco Bay” KQED QUEST/Climate Watch (San Francisco)

A look at what climate change means for the San Francisco Bay Area. Somehow making climate change local makes it real. An artfully-produced piece with beautiful cinematography and flawless editing. The only place I ‘glazed’ was the section about government agencies that manage coastlines around the Bay Area. This obviously isn’t of much interest to those of us that live elsewhere, but then again, we aren’t the target audience.


“Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers” PBS NOVA Online

Each profile features a fun little peek into the scientist’s personality, a ten-question Q & A, an explanation of their work and an thirty-second ‘elevator speech’. This formula works perfectly for the web because the viewer can choose how much they want to watch.

These profiles in particular clinched the award:

Jean Berko Gleason: Psycholinguist

Andre Fenton: Neurobiologist

 Steffie Tomson: Synesthesia Researcher

IN-DEPTH REPORTING (an umbrella category that covers anything over 20 minutes)

“Death of a Mars Rover” National Geographic Channel

Based on the synopsis in the AAAS press release this sounds like the plot line to the Disney movie WALL-E transposed onto a Mars mission. But that’s about all the info I can find on it. The doc doesn’t turn up in search, it’s not listed in IMBD, nor is it available on Netflix. It might be very good, but I guess those of us without a subscription to National Geographic Channel will never know.

“Japan’s Killer Quake” WGBH/NOVA

I missed this when it aired but remember being amazed when I saw the promos for it running only two weeks after the tsunami hit Japan last spring. The team at NOVA must have put it into high gear to pull this together in such a short time frame.  Fortunately, the entire episode is available on-line (as are all NOVA episodes–go public broadcasting!)

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners and here’s to hoping I’ll see my name somewhere on that list in years to come.

Image via