Of Time and Tides: Making the “Tides of the Menai Strait” Video
It was back in December of 2014 that Bangor University’s Professor David Bowers first came to us with the idea of making a video about the tides. We thought that something as visual as the tides was just the kind of subject that would suit a multimedia approach, so we were very happy to take the project on as one of our first collaborations.
The video has now, at last, been released. It’s taken a while, but it’s been worth it. Working on the project has been a positive experience for all, and the result is a piece of work that we can all be proud of.
For me, this video is exactly the kind of educational media we’d hoped the CADARN project would promote. It’s also, I think, an excellent example of what our collaborations are able to achieve.
So how did we get to this end result? What I want to do here is chart the production process we went through, which I hope will show not only how we achieved the quality that we did, but also why the collaboration itself was such a success.
A Collaboration Begins
To start off, I need to explain a bit more about our collaborations. As joint projects between the CADARN production team and individual academics or members of staff at our partner institutions, their aim is to do more than just promote the production of more educational media. They are also an opportunity for the individuals involved to learn new skills, enabling them to go on and make more multimedia learning objects on their own. As such, the academic or staff member is expected to do as much of the work as they can, with the production team providing guidance and technical support where needed.
Professor Bowers seemed to have a clear understanding of all these things going into the project. He knew it would be quite involved, so to help him with the work load, he enlisted an extra pair of hands. On board from an early stage, Cai Ladd, the PhD student who presents the video, not only helped David write the script, but also did some of the filming and most of the editing.
Developing a Script
One of the first things Cai and David needed to do was get a clearer idea of what their video was going to look like. They knew they wanted to make something that explained how the tides worked. But it also had to be an effective piece of educational media - something that used the language of the visual medium to engage learners and make a complicated concept easy to understand.
One of the best ways of developing and clarifying a video concept is to look for “creative references” - in fact, I would call this an essential part of the early research stage of any media project. The process helps define what you want to say, and the references are useful in communicating your vision to other people.
Showing their enthusiasm from the start, Cai and David really got the ball rolling by finding some great examples of the kind of thing they wanted to do.
This is one of the videos they showed me:
Once I’d seen their references, I was able to answer in kind by carrying out my own research. I looked for other examples of things like the animation above to work out what creative options there were. And I got my production team together to think about the technical side of things to determine what would be possible and what not.
So - Cai and David were coming up with ideas, and my team were helping define them. Bouncing the ball between us, we soon knew what the video was going to look like. The next step was writing the script. This is probably the most important part of pre-production. Getting the script right means you can get everything else right, from the video’s message to the shooting schedule. So it’s important to spend time on it.
The script was something that Cai and David needed to take the lead on - not only were they the content experts, they were also the ones with the Welsh language skills - and making a Welsh version of this video was something they were very committed to doing. As before, they showed their enthusiasm and fully engaged, taking the script template I’d sent them and really thinking about their medium. What I got back had all the academic rigour I’d expected, but it was also a proper script. It had a chatty and engaging narrative with directions for a presenter and pictures to match the words. It was already good - but it needed to be perfect before we could start shooting. Cai and David understood this, and never tired as we went through the long process of revising the script. As their first audience, I was able to ask them to clarify points I didn’t understand. And I also gave them tips on how to catch and keep people’s attention as well as how to flow from one scene to the next. Six versions later, I reckon they were teaching me a thing or two about snappy and accessible writing!
Resolving the Technical Challenges
In the meantime, to match Cai and David’s hard work, my team and I were carrying out some experiments. To help them with the technical side of the project, one of the things we needed to work out was how we were going to illustrate the movements of the Earth and the Moon. With our talented animator Matt on side, we knew we’d be able to do something very similar to what we’d seen in the ‘Minute Physics’ video Cai and David had found. But we wanted to make it better than that. Having seen similar animations utilising whiteboards, we reckoned that would be cleaner than paper and also easier to light. And to give it more flow, we decided it would be better to have one continuous drawing instead of several. With these parameters in mind, we asked Cai and David to do some drawings of what they wanted to happen in the animation.
Although these sketches look simple enough, we knew that to make a quality animation, even of a line drawing, there were a lot of things we’d need to work out. So we headed over to the whiteboard to give it a go. By doing the drawing in front of a camera, we got a clearer idea of where we needed to position the different elements and how we needed to time it. We also found that we needed to simplify the drawings and use different colours to make it more interesting. Then we gave the footage to Matt, who had a go at animating what we’d drawn. This threw up a whole new lot of questions about things like the correct movement of the Earth and the Moon. But with Cai and David’s patient advice, we were able to get the animation good enough to know that the drawing was going to work. It was only by going through this process that we could be confident that the real shoot, with Cai doing the drawing, would be a success. To make sure of it, I made a careful record of all the drawing actions Cai would have to go through, as well as the movements Matt would need to create.
The other main technical challenge thrown up by this project was the time-lapse. We’d done time-lapse before, but never over 24 hours. We needed to make sure we’d be able to power our equipment for that long and fit all the media on our SD card. We also had to find a way to flow from the presenter to the time-lapse, because the two shots needed to look the same despite the fact they would have to be recorded in different ways. I asked my team’s resourceful camera expert, Russ, to tease out these technical issues. He came up with a solution that was literally magic - a piece of software called Magic Lantern that would allow us to use our DSLR camera for the time-lapse as well as the presenter. This meant we wouldn’t have to use more than more camera for the shoot, making it easier for Cai, who had volunteered to look after the equipment over the 24-hour period of the time-lapse. But Magic Lantern is a little unreliable and tricky to use, so Russ carried out a series of tests to make sure everything was going to work smoothly, and I made sure to write up careful instructions for Cai to follow.
It’s All About the Planning
In the meantime, I was working with Cai and David on the practical arrangements of shooting this time-lapse - a challenge in their own right. One of the most important things we needed to sort out was a suitable location. Being local to the area, Cai took on the job of location scout. Using Google and a bit of real-world exploring, he came up with a great selection of views of the Menai Bridge.
These views prompted us to consider what the sun would be doing during the day as well as whether we should shoot from high up or down at sea level. But we needed to think about more than just aesthetics - we needed to find a safe place where we could put a camera for 24 hours without it being disturbed. David suddenly remembered he had a friend with a house right next to the bridge that had a fantastic view and a garden that edged the beach. The friend was more than happy to host our little crew, and even said we could put up a tent for Cai and a gazebo for the camera. We had our location, and it was better than anything we could have hoped for.
We were almost ready to shoot now. Time to draw up a schedule - not something that’s easy to do when you’re dealing with the natural world. To record our time-lapse, we not only needed the weather to be good, we also wanted an impressive tide. David told us that would mean planning around a spring tide, when you get the biggest difference between low and high water. But a spring tide only happens twice a month. We’d need to be lucky to get the weather on our side just when the tide was right. Being in with a chance of good weather was one of the reasons we’d planned from the start to wait until the middle of the year to shoot this video. By now, we’d already reached May, but it wasn’t turning into as fine a summer as we’d hoped. We’d just have to try our luck. So we checked the tide times and picked a date.
Now we could plan the shoot. We decided that Russ and I would drive up to Bangor from Aberystwyth to help Cai shoot the whiteboard drawing and the tank scene on the first day. Russ would then stay overnight to get up early the next day and start the time-lapse off, leaving Cai to take over and look after the camera until the next morning. In this way, if the weather didn’t play ball for the time-lapse, we’d at least have two scenes in the bag.
So, we had a plan and we were ready to go. But no matter how much planning you do, you never know how things are going to go on the day. As it turned out, we ended up being grateful that the weather decided not to play ball.
Day One dawned cloudy and miserable. We got ourselves to Bangor, meeting Cai by the side of the Menai Strait to check out our time-lapse location. By then, there was a gale blowing and we knew there was very little chance we’d be able to shoot the time-lapse. But we had other scenes to shoot, so we headed indoors to David’s office to find our whiteboard.
It wasn’t much of a location. But we were ready for it. David had cleared space for us and given the board a good clean. And Cai had borrowed some lights from Bangor University’s collection of CADARN equipment to brighten things up a bit. Thanks to these preparations and our earlier experiments, the whiteboard shoot went very smoothly.
The tank scene, however, proved slightly more difficult.
Not being in situ and without a tank of our own, we’d not been able to do as much preparation for this scene as we would have wanted. Cai did a wonderful job in our stead, even going so far as to try the experiment out so we could see what it would look like.
From this video, we were able to prepare a few things… not least of which was a clean lab coat for Cai (although in the end, this turned out to be a waste of washing powder)... What we weren’t able to plan was a good location for the shoot. Cai did what scouting he could and found out what rooms would be empty. But without our experience of filming, he wasn’t able to decide which would be the best place. So one of our jobs was finding a suitable location, and that didn’t turn out to be as easy as we’d expected.
We explored the basement lab in which Cai had filmed his experiment, but, as expected, it was too dark and way too cluttered. We tried a cleaner lab upstairs with big windows, but we couldn’t find a suitable backdrop, and with the wind blowing outside, the light was too changeable. So we ended up next to David’s office again in a small room that wasn’t exactly ideal, but was at least clean and easy to deal with.
By now, we’d wasted quite a bit of time. And although we did our best to shoot the whole scene, we were only able to get through the English version before the end of the day. One of the reasons for this was the fact that Cai had quite a lot to say in front of the camera, and without much experience of presenting or an autocue, he didn’t find it easy. He did a heroic job though, and for us, it was more important to film something good than finish on time. Luckily, we could now turn the bad weather to our advantage. With the wind and rain forecast to continue, it was clear we’d have to cancel the next day’s time-lapse shoot. But Russ was still booked to stay overnight in Bangor and was ready to keep shooting the next day. So now we had the extra time we needed to finish the Welsh version of the tank experiment. And thank goodness, because it turned out we’d need more time than we thought.
During that evening, Russ was able to review the footage we’d shot - and he discovered a problem. The lovely clean lab coat that Cai had been wearing during the tank scene was giving us a really bad case of moiré.
Moiré is a wavy distortion of the picture that happens when lines or dots are too close together. It can often happen when you film someone wearing a stripy shirt. This time it was happening because of the weave of Cai’s lab coat. Moiré is horrible to watch and really difficult to fix in post production. The only way to deal with it is to reshoot.
Russ had done really well to discover this problem. But now he had an even busier morning ahead of him. And he also had to find something else for Cai to wear. To make sure we got an outfit that worked this time, we asked Cai to bring in as many clothes as he could. Russ then started the day off by doing a series of camera tests, sending the clips to me in Aberystwyth to help him choose the right shirt. Luckily, there was one that looked smart enough and didn’t have a problem with moiré. So the boys were able to get to work.
They had a lot to get through, but the tank was already set up and Cai was more practised and at ease than he had been the previous day. Russ had also been doing some thinking and had come up with an ingenious way of speeding things along by turning his phone into a makeshift autocue. By holding the phone just above the camera, Cai was able to read the script instead of having to remember it.
By the end of the morning, Russ and Cai had finished shooting both the English and the Welsh version of the tank experiment. We had two scenes in the bag and only the time-lapse to go. All we had to do now was wait for the right conditions. Our patience was rewarded just a few weeks later. Russ went up to Bangor again to help Cai, and this time, despite a few clouds, everything went smoothly.
“Are We Done Yet?” - AKA Post Production
So - we’d finally made it through the production stage and we had some great footage. But there was still a lot of work to do. Luckily, Cai and David’s enthusiasm was showing no signs of waning. Cai was keen to learn some new skills and help with the editing, so I got him to come down to Aberystwyth to be trained on Adobe Premiere Pro. I also gave him some tips on how to record a voice over for the video. Then I left him to get on with it while Matt busied himself with the whiteboard animation.
The plan was that Cai would get as far as he could with the edit, then send the video to me for fine tuning. But as a busy PhD student, he was only going to be able to work on the project when his scheduled allowed. As such, it was October before he’d finished. I was very impressed with the work he sent me, but there were a few things that still needed to be done, such as grading the colour grading and mixing the sound. Just like Cai, I had other commitments, so I wasn’t able to get these finishing touches done as quickly as I would have liked. But both Cai nor David were happy to wait for me to find the time to finish the video properly.
It’s a Wrap
And finish the video properly is exactly what we did, right down to finding the right music and making a distribution plan. It’s been a long journey, but without the amount of time we’ve been able to spend on this project, we wouldn’t have got the results that we did. More than that, we wouldn’t have been able to make it into such a successful collaboration. As it was, Cai and David were able to get involved and learn the ropes at every stage of the production process. And they were able to enjoy it too.
But it was more than time that made this a successful collaboration. It was Cai and David’s unwavering commitment. It was only because they kept the ball rolling that we were able to give them the support that we did. And it is only because of their enthusiasm that we have such a quality piece of work to share.
Now that it’s done, I am more than sure that this video will not only serve to illuminate the fascinating subject of the tides and inspire students with the urge to find out more, but also encourage educators to get out there and try their own hand at making something similar.