November 2, 2015

How We Made a Whiteboard Video to Communicate our Research

by Liz Haswell & Eric Hamilton


A short video, usually on YouTube, that aims to illustrate a scientific concept or discovery using simple illustrations and animations, using a whiteboard. For scientists, this can be a great way to convey things to a general audience.  


LIz here: On a Friday, we found out that our newest paper was going to be published in 2 weeks and that the press packet for the journal was due on the following Tuesday. The email about the press packet asked us to contribute any video or other types of media we might have. Eric and I had recently seen a presentation by Marty Chalfie, where he showed this incredible whiteboard video made by UCSF graduate students called "Funding Basic Science to Revolutionize Medicine". And I suddenly really wanted to try to make one of our own for the press packet.


Over the weekend, I read a bit about whiteboard videos online (not very useful) and watched a few examples (mostly uninspiring). I spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to say and practiced drawing several scenes. I picked a single broader message, and tried to think about the minimal number of concepts that would be needed to convey that message. I recommend trying to reduce the number of new vocabulary words that are introduced. Not recommended: I also spent a lot of time worrying that it would look like a kindergartener made it, or that I should be spending my time on something else more important. I planned out four scenes (one was eventually cut) and the rough order of presentation, and practiced drawing things out a few times, taking notes as I went.


I wanted to use my iPhone 6 because we were pressed for time and didn’t have the liberty to try out an actual video camera. I quickly discovered that the iPhone Camera video recorder doesn’t have a pause button, so I purchased MoviePro which was cheap ($4.99) and easy to use. I mounted my phone on my office desk using a clamp and ring stand from our cold room (see below). Instead of using an actual whiteboard, I drew images with my beloved erasable Frixion pens on white printer paper. This approach had a few advantages. First, paper doesn’t reflect light the way that whiteboards do. Second, it’s much easier to draw well on a horizontal surface, the way you are accustomed to writing and drawing, than on a vertical surface.

The lighting was a struggle. I tried a range of approaches including microscope lights and the overhead lighting in my office. In the end I discovered that a bright light (an algal growth light from the Goodenough lab) shining down and towards your hands will prevent shadows from the drawing hand or from the hand that is stopping and starting the video. My animation studio, complete with algal growth lamp and cold room ring stand.


I spent a full afternoon doing this part, and still feel guilty about the amount of paper I used in the process. I made a lot of mistakes that I might have been able just edit out in iMovie but instead would just start the scene over again. The advantage of this approach was that I refined the animation each time and my confidence increased as I went along.

Some tips:

  • Tape down the paper and mark out the edges of the video frame on the paper. Then try to fill that space as much as possible when you are drawing, moving from left to right. This can also help you keep your non-writing hand out of the frame. You can crop it out in iMovie easily, though.
  • Before starting each shot, choose and lock the focus, the white balance, AND the exposure time, or they will change depending on where your hand is.
  • You can draw really slowly and carefully, and it will still look fast when sped up 4X.
  • I paused for 2 seconds on each frame when I was animating anything with stop-motion or switching pens.
  • Oh yeah, don’t forget a credit page! We added ours at the last minute, and I wish we’d thought more about it. A title page would have been nice, too, now that I think of it.

Picture of an outtake (not floral mutant!). You can see the guidelines I’d drawn to outline the frame here as well.

I uploaded each video into iMovie, put them into the same Project and dragged the best scenes in order into the MyMovie window for that Project. This is where you can adjust the speed—we chose 4X for the main movie and 8X for the credit page. By the end of the day on Monday, I had a full movie in iMovie, and downloaded it for Eric to narrate.


Eric here: After Liz gave me the animation, I watched it through a few times before starting to extemporaneously narrate out loud the story I saw on the page. I chose to start with an introduction about the importance and ubiquity of flowering plants, and I worked hard to minimize the jargon. For such a short video, this off-the-cuff method of script writing worked well enough, although Liz and I realized afterward that writing a script and storyboard together would have been even better. For a more complex project (such as the excellent FASEB video), this would be a must. As I developed a spoken script, I discovered which phrases fit well and how much time I had to describe each scene. I wrote down the entire script I had developed in this way in order to not forget the exact phrases and transitions, which also helped greatly with editing. I then used the native voice over feature in iMovie to record the script as I watched the animation. This step required several re-recordings, mostly to get the timing correct in order to match my words with Liz’s animations in a way viewers would be able to follow along. It was short enough to record in one step, but longer videos could be narrated in several sections. Once I had a first pass narration, Liz and I watched the draft version together several times, discussing changes to the script. Then I recorded a final version with better timing and some slight word changes. In whole, I spent 2 to 2.5 hours, a lot of that fumbling around with iMovie.


I was also in charge of finding music. All I knew was that it would be illegal (and uncool) to take somebody’s music for our purposes without the right permissions. So I searched Google for “open source music” and found the Free Music Archive. I didn’t have a lot of time to listen to all the possible tracks, so I jumped straight to the “soundtrack” genre the website curated. Eventually I stumbled on “Revive” by Adriana Krikl which had a license allowing free use with attribution. The title was perfect for our story about the reanimation process of pollen, a nice bonus! I dragged the track into the iMovie interface, and the only thing I had to do was adjust the volume of narration and music to appropriate levels and then drop off the music volume gradually during the credits page to avoid a sharp and distracting cutoff. After that, I exported to the project to a .mp4 file, a compatible format for most computers (and uploading to YouTube). 

Liz again: That was it! I created the a YouTube channel for the Haswell Lab and uploaded the video for easy sharing. You can check out our final product here

Screenshot of a still from our final animation.

We hope this was useful and that you'll contact us with any questions or just to show off YOUR new whiteboard video!