A cross section of science on the cyberscreen

Engineering made Engaging


In Carin's recent post about the winners of the Inaugural Science Online Film Festival, we were introduced to the first place video, "Copier: A Playful Look at How it Works", created by Bill Hammack. I am very pleased to introduce this week my university colleague, friend, and an incredible source of advice for my own videos.

The Engineer Guy

Bill Hammack, The Engineer Guy

In his videos and radio pieces Bill Hammack, The Engineer Guy, has explored the technological world. He's revealed the secrets of his high-tech underwear, explored the mysteries of mood rings, probed the perils of nanotechnology, and examined the threats to privacy from technology. Bill's work reflects a humanistic approach: He emphasizes the human dimension to technology - from the trial, tribulations, and triumphs of inventors and scientists to the effect of technology on our daily lives. He teaches in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois - Urbana. He's been a regular commentator for American Public Media's premier business show Marketplace, for Illinois Public Radio via his home station WILL-AM 580, and for Radio National Australia's Science Show. Many journalism, scientific and engineering organizations have recognized his work. He's received the top awards in science journalism: The National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Award, the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award, and the American Chemical Society's Grady-Stack Medal. He spent 2005-06 as a Senior Science Adviser at the Department of State.

Joanne: Share with our readers a bit about your background. How did you become interested in engineering and ultimately how you began outreach via radio and your duties in your appointment as a Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois - Urbana.

Bill: I don't recall how I became interested in engineering; in many ways it was just the natural choice of someone with an interest in science and mathematics. I thought about going into physics, but my Mother, a scientist herself, counseled me that job prospects were better for engineers. Since 1999 I've focused exclusively on reaching out the public, principally via public radio from 1999 to 2006 or so, and now internet distributed video. The reason I got into this is a mix of reasons - some noble and some just plain practical. Right after finishing graduate school in 1988 I starting teaching and doing research at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. After about ten years I realized that the type and style of research I was doing would make me a dinosaur by the time I was 45 - it was a kind of old-style materials characterization. I realized that I needed to re-tool. Once I'd decided that then the everything was possible and so I explored all avenues, taking into account what I thought I could do well. I realized in a practical way this the "niche" of explaining engineering - not science, but engineering - was open in using media outside of books; I also felt this was a good thing to do. I tried several media ideas eventually settling at the University of Illinois and in public radio. I did about 300 pieces for public radio over the years - even appearing from time to time on Marketplace and frequency in Australia!

Joanne: Explain how it is you decided to pursue making videos. Did you have experience with video production or editing prior to this endeavor? How did you learn to make your high quality videos?

Bill: I had done a lot of radio work and frankly was a little burned out. I'd always been curious about film and video. When I was kid - eight or ten years old - I tried to make movies with a friend. We used a 8mm camera; it was, of course, silent and so we did everything possible to get sound synced with it. Impossible! So, for years I've followed with truly childlike interest the rise of digital film making which brought the process of making videos down in cost so that amateurs could make them. I had left the radio work for a year to work at the U.S. Department State, which made it natural to try something else when I returned. Not only was I interested in video for its aesthetic qualities - the challenges of work in it - but also was very interested in the distribution model, in aggregating audiences across the globe. To find like-minded people who wanted to know how, say, a pop can opens. In many ways it is different that a media like radio or television where you aim for a standard "profile", instead you target a niche on the internet. I had done a lot of the editing for my radio pieces and found that while the tools of video where difference, I had a vocabulary that allowed me to be comfortable editing in video pretty quickly. To learn how to make videos I did several things: 1) I just shot for a many months to learn the grammar of the medium, 2) I read books like "The Grammar of the Film Language", and 3) I watched movies and television with a critical eye.

Joanne: What is your philosophy that is behind creating videos featuring the engineering found in everyday items?

Bill: What fascinates me most is mass-manufactured engineering objects. It has to be made so that's it reliable and on a budget. Contrast this to research, which doesn't really excite me because I'm not interested purely in "clever", but in "clever" that has been tested in the world. So, a lot of the stuff I talk about in the video I just go get at Lowes or Target - LCD screens, smoke detectors, pop cans!

Joanne: Part of the purpose of this blog is to answer for our readers "How does he do that?", so here are some questions that address the practical side of your work: What type of facility do you use to film? What steps do you take to plan and execute your videos? Your videos are of high quality. What type of equipment do you use? Your projects seem time intensive. How much time does it take to make a new video, from start to finish? Do you have assistants? How are these projects funded? What editing system do you use? Animation program?

Bill: Now this question I can go on and on about - in fact I'm pretty sure there are dinner parties I will never be invited back to because some asked a question like this and I just prattled on. We film in a "studio" we build ourselves. For an early series we had a set with a ceiling, but now we shoot against yards and yards of black cloth from JoAnn Fabrics. (One tip for anyone setting up a studio: Never try it with less then 12 foot or so ceilings, otherwise everything will heat up; also you will want to put a camera high in the air at some point.) We typically have a four to six week process for producing a video. We spend a lot of time on pre-production; in fact the hardest part is figuring out exactly what we want to say that goes beyond what everyone knows, but also isn't too in depth. Filming occurs over two days - about three fours to set up and decide on the shots, to block and perhaps to shoot some 2nd unit shots; and then we film for about an hour to an hour and half. Typically a four to five minutes video has about 45 minutes to an hour of footage. We shoot with three cameras running simultaneously, this gives a spontaneity in the final cut. We shoot with prosumer cameras - HV30 and HV40s which use tape; tape has a nice archival quality to it, although is cumbersome to use. We work in a format called HDV - not broadcast quality typically, but more than good enough for internet. We use a lighting kit from Lowel -- these were designed by Mr. Lowel himself for mid to high-end amateurs. We use a Sennheiser 416 (if I recall the number correctly!) with a pre-amp. This microphone is very sensitive and takes care to use; it is very directional which helps use with our high level of background sound and also lets up pick up the sounds of any thing we are demonstrating in the video. I have two students I work with - Nick Ziech and Patrick Ryan - they are extremely talented. We are currently working on a project about the elements funded by the Dreyfus Foundation. We edit in Final Cut Pro; animations are done with still images in Final Cut Pro. We are looking into using Maya by Autodesk for this.

Joanne: What is the most useful thing you have learned as you have been creating videos? Where have you improved most and what would you like to improve upon?

Bill: The most useful thing is a pretty mundane, but cannot be over emphasized or overlooked: You must know in advance what your workflow will be. You need to solve as many problems as possible in pre-production and then film accordingly so in post you don't have a mess to edit. We have improved greatly on delivering what viewers want. Our first series was goofy and didn't do that well, with one exception. When we become more "earnest" and focused on doing the best possible job to explain something then everything took off. My error? Assuming that YouTube was all about pooping cats and the like; really it's about being organic. Punchline: If you are an obese middle-aged man who is enthused about the engineering of everyday objects then do just that on camera!

Joanne: I know you have opinions about science television and new media and have written a white paper on the topic for engineers and academics. Could you summarize your message for Scientific American readers?

Bill: The book you mentioned is available for free in PDF at my website, and in paperback from Amazon. (Why Engineers Need to Grow a Long Tail.) It is a very, very short book. There are a number of messages, but here's the main one: Twenty years ago we (engineers, scientists, science communicators) were at the mercy of the gatekeepers of big media, but now WE can take over the means of production and reach the audiences we need to reach. Let's do it!

Joanne: What advice would you give to up and coming videographers who want to share about science and engineering using new media?

Bill: First, don't skimp on learning the grammar of the medium. Study it, play, study, and then play. Second, write a brand statement - what will viewers get EVERY time they watch your videos. Third, if you budget is limited don't spend it on better cameras, spend it on sound and lighting. And fourth, remember what your parents told you before your first date "just be yourself.

Visit all of Bill's videos on his youtube channel.

Follow Bill on twitter @engineerguytwit

So what do the experts have to say about Bill’s videos?

David O'Donnell has produced and written more than 70 hours of primetime

David O'Donnell, producer

television programs for networks such as Discovery, History, TLC and National Geographic, as well as an independent feature film currently being distributed worldwide. With over 12 years experience as a producer, writer and development executive, he has been the chief creative for dramatic content enjoyed by viewers in more than 80 countries and with budgets ranging from $2000 to $6.3 million.


Video: Light Bulb Filament: How to Make Tungsten Ductile by Bill Hammack

As someone with a lifelong love of science but no formal education in it beyond standard high school courses, I very muchenjoyed Bill’s video on light bulb filaments. It was a great choice of topics – something that is relevant to us all, which we almost never think about, yet which is pretty amazing when you take the time to break it down. Which is what Bill does so nicely for us, giving viewers an opportunity to focus for just three minutes about the wicked cool stuff that makes that light above our desks burn.

Bill organizes his visual explainer very well, starting with the bulb and drilling down to the filament, a tiny thing most of us take for granted but which is actually complex and remarkable. His breakdown is succinct, clear and not intimidating for us non-scientists. For example, his rundown of the process of turning tungsten powder to wire is perfect – visual, straightforward, with enough info for viewers to understand the complexity of the process without overwhelming us with dense details.

Bill’s delivery is excellent – he comes off as a smart, easygoing everyman with a firm understanding of the science. The undefined limbo space setting is perfect – it helps us focus on Bill and the object he’s investigating. The animated graphics are clear and attractive, providing helpful perspective, context and visual support of the spoken content. The music is appropriate in tone: light, simple, enjoyable and not overwhelming.

As for suggestions for improvement, I have very few. The pacing was a little brisk and perhaps could be slowed down so important stuff doesn’t slip past viewers. I might recommend more moments like when Bill says, “I love that” after the filament burns out. I think people love seeing passion, and a few more bits of it might make it stickier for viewers – without being goofy and clownish of course. There was one part that I had to listen to twice: “Take note that Coolidge used empirical observations, intuitions and past knowledge, not purely scientific knowledge of tungsten.” That sets up a potentially interesting new direction, but it’s never covered – perhaps think about either omitting something almost tangential like that, or direct viewers to where they can learn more.

Overall, a most excellent piece of science learning for regular folks!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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