Video

Dripping with Magnetism

Ferrofluid – The Magnetic Liquid!

A short film I made with materials scientist and science presenter Mark Miodownik demonstrating some of the weird properties of ferrofluid –  a liquid with a suspension of ferromagnetic nanoparticles locked within it, causing it to respond to external magnetic fields.

Using a powerful neodymium magnet and a large steel bolt, Mark demonstrates how the fluid behaves in the presence of a strong magnetic field – forming some very strange, but very beautiful patterns. The fluid is pretty messy and has a similar consistency to oil, so it was important to avoid direct contact with the magnet (it would literally coat the magnet and become inseparable) – so the bolt is effectively used to channel the magnetic field and act as a temporary magnet over which to pour the ferrofluid.

Lessons learned from this vid:

  • Definitely need a macro lens to get more detail.
  • Shoot against a lighter background next time.
  • Ferrofluids are cool.

You can learn about more strange materials in Mark’s Ri Discourse here and you should also check out his latest project The Institute of Making.

Flame’n Elements

Rubidium Flame Test

Flame Tests with Group 1 Alkali Metals

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I recently shot a short series of flame test films demonstrating the different coloured flames produced when burning group 1 alkali metals. The films were shot at the Royal Institution and produced for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Learn Chemistry site.

Here’s what happens when you burn Caesium salts:

Metal salts were disolved into a methanol solution (the fuel) and this was soaked into the wireframe structures of the element symbols (Rb = Rubidium, Cs = Caesium etc.) – these were then lit to produce some really beautiful flame colours, ranging from red (Lithium) to blue (Caesium). Each element has its own unique colour or spectrum – almost like a signature colour which is directly related to its chemical properties.

Rubidium has a sort of red-violet colour:

By burning the metal ions, we’re exciting electrons causing them to move into higher energy states. These are fairly unstable states to be in so the electrons eventually move back down into lower energy states and as they do this they emit light. The wavelength and resulting spectra of light given off during this process are specific to each element (giving a range of pretty colours!) and can be used to identify different metals from one another. If you have a spectroscope (an instrument that essentially lets you look at the make-up of light) you can see the individual spectra given off by the flames.

The RSC has published some learning materials around these videos which will give you a much clearer idea of the chemistry at hand if you’re interested.

Aside from shooting pretty flames, these films also gave me opportunity to play about with titles and compositing – using the flame footage as flickering colour fills for the Element names.

I really like this effect and hope to experiment with it further in future films.

The flame test demonstrations were originally featured in the 2012 Christmas Lectures – which you can view here (around 30 mins in).

Video: When Fish Stopped Being So Lazy and Made it Onto Land

Cast of Tiktaalik roseae fossil

Neil Shubin on Finding Tiktaalik

Recent video shot and produced for the Ri Channel, featuring Professor Neil Shubin who discovered the remarkably well preserved fossil of the transitional organism Tiktaalik roseae.

This monumental find, is believed to bridge the gap in our evolutionary history between sea dwelling and land living organisms, occurring sometime in the late Devonian period (around 375 million years ago). As a tetrapod, Tiktaalik was able to support itself on limb like structures and along with basic lungs was able to make the big move from sea to land.

Essentially, Tiktaalik is the fish that finally got off it’s gills and made the effort to have a wonder about on land, for which we must all be thankful.

Shot on a Panasonic AF-101, with the Lumix GX Vario 12-35mm lens, close up stuff shot on a Tamron 70-200mm.

Christmas Lectures 2012 – Behind the Scenes

The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine

The Modern Alchemist

One of the great pleasures of working at the Royal Institution is witnessing the frenzy that goes on behind the scenes in the lead up to the Christmas Lectures. This year the lectures cover the chemical elements and are presented by Dr Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge.

The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine
The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine

The lectures themselves are available for a limited period on iPlayer, but will also be available to stream indefinitely on the Ri Channel, the team behind them have done an incredible job and so they’re well worth a watch – you don’t necessarily need any scientific background or knowledge of Chemistry to enjoy them!

Naturally this year’s subject lends itself well to the presentation of scientific demonstrations and there has been plenty of opportunity for loud bangs and fire spewing explosions. However, the lectures have also provided chance to perform some very rare and unusual demonstrations – and it’s these that have formed the subject of a couple of behind the scenes films produced for the Ri Channel:

Reacting Caesium and Fluorine (First time on camera)

Fluorine and Caesium are the two most reactive elements in the periodic table and so for the lectures, Peter was very interested in trying to react them both together. However their extreme reactivity also means that they’re both very dangerous to work wit, so it was important Peter found the right person to work with! Enter Dr Eric Hope a Fluorine specialist at the University of Leicester and so on a grey day in November we travelled up to see how this reaction might work and I think it might be the first time it has ever been caught on camera!

What was particularly nice about this meeting was that Peter had never previously seen Fluorine and Eric had never seen Caesium! This demo features in the second lecture, ‘Water: The Fountain of Youth’.

Cloud Chamber

I was so pleased I got to see this demo with my own eyes, I’d previously heard a lot about cloud chambers and seen a few bits of ropey footage on the internet, but never actually seen one in the flesh (so to speak). It’s essentially a particle detector with a sealed environment that is supersaturated with alcohol vapour and as charged particles zip through the vapour they ionize it, allowing condensation trails to form.

It’s an absolutely beautiful thing to look at, as it makes visible the background radiation that exists all around us and on the last day of recording I was lucky enough to capture this close-up on camera:

This demonstration features in the third lecture entitled ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’.

Testing Hydrogen Balloons

Lastly, the Christmas Lectures wouldn’t be complete without some sort of gratuitous explosion and so here’s a little film about testing different sized hydrogen balloons:

Taking a Peek Inside the Living Lung

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For the final Royal Institution Advent film, I travelled to the University of Sheffield MRI Unit at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, to look at how a very strange element is being used in a pioneering MRI technique to image living lungs.

The film is presented by this year’s Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers (University of Cambridge) who takes part in the research programme by having his own lungs scanned. Conventional MRI is usually pretty poor at imaging areas such as the lungs, which have very little fatty tissue and water (MRI scanners essentially detect radio frequencies given off by protons in Hydrogen nuclei) – and so this novel technique involves the inhalation of hyper-polarised Xenon to image the ventilated lung. Xenon is an inert gas so is relatively safe to inhale, although it does have some unusual effects on the human body, especially on the voice – it’s also a mild anaesthetic – so watch the film to see how it affects Peter!

Xenon Lungs

As the Xenon is only present within the respiratory system, signal is only detected within ventilated areas – areas in which Xenon is not present appear black on the resulting image. This therefore allows medical professionals to identify damaged or obstructed areas of the lung which may be poorly ventilated or not at all, providing a novel method of efficiently and non-invasively examining the lungs of a living patient.

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Images of Peter’s lungs captured through the Xenon MRI method.

The research is being conducted by Dr Jim Wild and his research assistant Helen Marshall (both featured in the film) at the University of Sheffield and is funded by the EPSRC. More information on this technique can be found here.

The films forms part of a series of 24, released daily in the Ri Advent Calendar here. The films are also available on YouTube and on the Ri Channel.

24 Films for Advent…

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…or how to kill yourself slowly before Christmas.

Advent Tilt

With the 2012 Royal Insitution Christmas Lectures exploring the chemistry of the modern world, we wanted to produce a suitable project to promote the lectures online.

So for the last two months I have been working frantically to create 24 short films, each asking a bunch of well known scientists, science communicators and famous faces what their favourite element is – the films are being released daily and are housed within a beautiful interactive advent calendar built by Archive Studios. View the advent calendar here.

Trailer for the series:

It’s a bit of a silly question so the films are all a bit tongue in cheek to a certain extent, but there’s a nice variety across them – from simple pieces to camera, to more involved short films centered on specific elements. The films also include a lovely animated ident produced by the friendly folks over at 12foot6.

The idea for the series came from a question posed to interview candidates for the Christmas Lectures Researcher role – who were asked what their favourite element was and why – the answers given were often surprisingly personal and often witty, it seemed like a great way to explore the elements from a very personal perspective.

We’ve worked hard to produce a nice variety across the films to avoid repeating the same format – hopefully this will encourage people to keep checking back on a daily basis! The series also includes a huge range of individuals including, amongst others: Brian Cox, Mark Miodownik, Dick & Dom, Helen Czerski, Dara O Briain, Liz Bonnin, Andrea Sella, Jerry Hall and this year’s Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers. We hope there are a few surprising faces amongst the line up.

My favourite films of the series so far are…

Andrea Sella in the glassblowing workshop:

Helen Arney’s Boron Song:

Jerry Hall talking about Copper:

Helen Czerski’s piece on Calcium:

Tech stuff:

The films were pretty much all shot on a Panasonic AF101 – using a range of lenses, however mostly with a Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm lens. For a couple of the films I was lucky enough to work with BBC producer Tom Hewitson, who brought with him a Cannon XF305. Sound was recorded via Sennheiser ew100 G3 wireless radio mic set and also with a Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic. Edited on FCPX and exported as 720p, h264. The films can also be viewed on YouTube and on the Ri Channel.

Hope you enjoy them!

Expanding on the power of the image

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Non-linear use of Multimedia

I was recently made aware of the online platform Thinglink.com – which essentially allows you to ‘tag’ an image and embed media from around the web – such as from YouTube and Soundcloud. Anyway this really got me thinking about some of the potential that such a platform offers – images provide a really powerful and direct way of communicating something (an image is worth a thousand words, bla bla) – and being able to combine an image with additional multimedia or information can offer a much richer experience to the audience.

For example, you could use an image as a backdrop for presenting other media (such as related video and audio), or you could expand upon an image, by tagging key areas and providing additional context with video, audio, text and other images.

I thought a lot about how this could be used in terms of story telling and perhaps even communicating science, particularly by augmenting image diagrams. There’s loads of cool interactive / animated diagrams and educational apps already out there, that essentially bring textbooks into the digital sphere, but they take a lot of ‘know-how’ and time to develop. Thinglink offers a quick and accessible route for users to create their own interactive diagrams and multimedia packages, through which to share a rich wealth of information and also tell stories through non-linear pathways.

So I took my recent audio documentary on the vOICe technology (you can listen to it here) and I cut out sections that matched up with a diagram I found in a New Scientist article on the same subject (you can read it here).

Diagram below:

I then uploaded my clips to Soundcloud here:

and used Thinglink to embed the short sound files into the New Scientist diagram image – to produce an interactive diagram of sorts. The audio accompaniments augment the visual impact of the New Scientist diagram with some added ‘context’ from my documentary. Users can explore the subject at their own pace and explore the clips in any order they choose. Click here to see it all together.

This was just a really quick proof of concept mock up, using existing work – but I’m really keen to start using this platform as a way of quickly creating rich multimedia packages, which combine images, video and audio to communicate stories, ideas and information in a non-linear fashion.

Video: The Alkali Metal Match

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Lighting a match with a single drop of water, sort of…

A break from audio related work – here’s a little video I made recently for the Ri Channel. It’s not exactly the most of significant of experiments, but when someone commented on a previous YouTube video asking whether it would be possible to ignite a match with a piece of Sodium and a single drop of water, we thought we should have a go.

The video was shot in a morning on a single Panasonic AG-HMC151, in the Royal Institution’s legendary prep room with demo Technician Andy Marmery.

Pod Academy – In The Morgue

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I’ve recently started producing podcasts for a new non-profit organisation called Pod Academy – they release weekly podcasts on academia and research, covering everything from the arts and culture to science and the environment. There’s a really nice range of subjects covered by the podcasts and their library is growing on a weekly basis. You can browse what they have to offer here.

Auto-erotic Asphyxiation

My latest offering takes a trip around the morgue of the Sunderland Royal Infirmary, with pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton as a guide. The piece provides a glimpse into mortuary life,  from working with the dead on a daily basis, to dealing with cross dressing ‘auto-erotic asphyxiation’ fatalities.

You can listen to the piece over at the Pod Academy website here. Or download it here. The piece takes material recorded for my larger documentary piece ‘The D-Word’.

If you want to stay up to date with the podcasts you can subscribe to their podcast feed via iTunes.

The Plankton Chronicles

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A creative mix of beauty and knowledge

Recently on the Ri Channel we featured a new collection of videos from the Plankton Chronicles – a gorgeous web-video project created by research biologist Christian Sardet working in collaboration with Montreal production company, Para Films. Although I tend to refrain from reposting content from the Ri Channel on this blog, I’m really captivated by the work this project is producing, it’s simply stunning – see below:

The series takes you down into the dark alien world of plankton, a category of aquatic life that encompasses an incredibly diverse collection of organisms; one which includes animals, plants, bacteria and archaea. Each episode delves into the life of a particular organism – from iridescent comb jellies to gelatinous zooplankton – all presented through a stunning mix of high definition video, abstract sound design and narration to guide you along. The project aims to illuminate the hidden world of these bizarre creatures and ‘magnifies our fascination for the wonders of underwater life’.

Easily the most attractive feature of this project is the incredible macro photography, with illuminated organisms scurrying across jet black backgrounds in exquisite detail. The sound design is also commendable, with synthetic bleeps and pulses underlining the ‘otherworldliness’ of this complex ecosystem (and is reminiscent of a particularly cherished episode from the BBC Blue Planet series). The videos have also been carefully scripted and tightly crafted for the ‘quick-fix’ web-audience, with episodes only running for around two minutes each. With this in mind it’s important to note that these videos are beautifully paced – allowing the content to breath and flow under its own rhythm, and providing a delicate balance between eye candy and information.

The videos are all presented across an interactive web-platform which pulls together additional information, imagery and extended links. The videos are also available in a choice of either French or English – opening up accessibility further.

We asked project founder Christian Sardet for a bit more detail on the project and I’ve reproduced some of his comments below:

What are the aims of the Plankton Chronicles and what are you trying to achieve with it?

The series was conceived in the context of the Villefranche sur mer Marine Station an ideal place to study plankton and the Tara Oceans expedition devoted to exploring plankton in all oceans. This scientific adventure definitely raises ecological awareness. Plankton Chronicles deal with biodiversity, but focus mainly on the visual splendor of marine organisms. The series magnifies our fascination for the wonders of underwater life.

What challenges did you face capturing your footage, and producing the videos?

Catching and maintaining species in perfect shape is tough. Luck and patience are keys to success. Filming animal behavior and movements can take hours of trial and error. Use of dark field macroscopy and microscopy help reveal the exquisite patterns of transparent and gelatinous organisms. Filming requires lots of light and  sensitive cameras. We benefited from the great new SLR cameras able to film in HD format which just appeared on the market when we started the project.

What role do you think the internet and online videos play in today’s communication of science and education?

A major role. It is possible to produce quality documents like the plankton Chronicles episodes on a shoe string budget and make them accessible to large numbers of viewers. The ability to create a site with complementary videos, texts and photos is also a great advantage provided by the internet.

What makes a great science communication video?

A creative mix of beauty and knowledge

The project is continuing to update new content on a regular basis – check out a selection of works on the Ri Channel or visit the Plankton Chronicles directly to browse the full library of videos.

TED Ed have also made a great short using footage from this project: