Film-making class at Rice University

I took a film-making class while I worked at Rice University. I did not really “take” it, though, I more audited it. But I did a lot of work for it, until I quit with a month left. Here’s why.

First, Rice has some pretty cool creative classes. There’s a class where every student is supposed to write 100 pages for their own fiction book. The class is taught by a cocky (I met him) millionaire author. There’s super high demand for the class. He teaches it every spring semester, and takes about 12 students each time. Cocky or no, I would have really liked to take a class like that.

Second, there’s a class where you make comics. You go to class twice a week, for 3 hours each time! And you draw and learn how to make comics. The professor is kind of stern, though. But seems very committed, and showed us his impressive collection of pens and ink.

And the class I actually took was the film-making class. It was taught by Tish, an American, and Brian, a British guy who kept saying weird racist things all semester long that everyone just ignored. The class is nice because you get access to all this sophisticated camera and sound and lighting equipment — you get to “play” with it. I didn’t actually end up using any of it when I was making my own film, though — it’s all so bulky and heavy. You can’t walk around with that stuff when really, cell phone footage is good enough! But it was still fun to experiment with it.

We got to talk about movie techniques, and we got to learn and practicing using Adobe Premiere.

I didn’t really want to make a fiction film; I wanted to make a sort of documentary film of research in the Earth Sciences department. It was part of my job description to let the public know what sort of research went on. I was able to apply the skills learned in the film class directly to my work. I found a graduate student who was doing some cool experiments, spent a few days recording him; even recorded his advisor. His advisor was female, so I thought it was nice to show a woman professor in a science field. I even recorded the cool thing where you show someone walking into a building, going through the door from the back, and then also recording them from the other side of the door as they walk in. I felt so fancy! I had tons of footage, and I put it all together.

Then coronavirus happened and we all went home. We had the class on Zoom once a week, and on one of these Zoom classes, we all got to watch each other’s films (all the different groups), all the edits people had made since the last time we’d seen each other’s work.

Well, it got to be my turn, and for the next 30 minutes, I felt almost like I was at a firing squad execution (my own). First, Brian and Tish took turns eviscerating my film in front of all the other 12 or 13 students in class … and then, as if that wasn’t enough, each student then had to critique my work. And they, in line with the two professors, finished the work, as if I wasn’t already wounded enough — in case I wasn’t yet dead. I had to sit through each and everyone. Thirty minutes later, when they’d finally run out of bullets, I managed to say, “thanks for the feedback.” And then I waited until they’d pressed play on the next movie. Stealthily, while everyone was distracted by the movie screen, I closed Zoom first, and then flipped my laptop shut with shaking hands. And just never dialed back into that class.

Come to think of it, I never again got any emails from that class, so I must have been removed from the mailing list right away.

I think, by the way, that quitting on the spot like that was the best choice. You don’t always have to stick with things. Seeing as I was dead, I probably wasn’t going to get any more benefit from that class. And the hit to my sense of self was too deep, so that wounded needed to be tended to, rather than demanding myself to continue learning film-making. I have also already “not quit” challenging things often enough, so I didn’t need to prove to myself that I can stick with things if they’re important.

So that’s my story of the Rice film-making class.

 

Should you take time off after your PhD?

I took time off after my PhD, and here’s my thoughts on the matter:

1. I was very tired after my PhD concluded. I really wanted to rest. And this felt like a more important consideration than needing to find a job right away for the sake of being able to have a ready, assured answer when people asked, “so … what are you going to do next?”

2. People say that you can’t have gaps in your employment/educational history … but people parroting the conventional wisdom are often wrong, so this seemed pretty safe to ignore. (Except more on this below, avoid this if possible.)

3. I did not want to go into academia (still don’t) so for my personal circumstances, I didn’t need to get on the post-doc job search interview campaign.

4. I could move back in with my parents. The whole “take time off” thing sort of hinges on being able to live rent-free somewhere, I’m afraid. I really am so grateful that I could do that.

5. I got on Obamacare for health insurance. When your income is 0 (or fine, I had the PhD stipend from the first half of the year, but still), then Obamacare is free — at least, here in North Carolina, and as long as you get a Gold Plan. If you have lots of serious health problems, the Gold Plan might not cut it. The next step up, the Silver Plan, would have cost me maybe around a hundred dollars or more a month, I don’t quite remember. Also, I’m not entirely sure, but possibly the prices go up as you get older (Shouldn’t that be illegal?) So yes, this whole take-time-off experiment of mine also hinged on being relatively healthy. And hopefully on not getting in a car wreck or anything like that.

So, since I had the optimal circumstances, I decided that I would indeed take time off. I didn’t want to run around with my head cut off trying desperately to find a job, any job. I luckily was able to delay that stage by a few months (unfortunately, it eventually found me). And I guess I should also add, I applied to about 30 jobs during the last year of my PhD and the summer after. If I’d gotten any of them, I would have taken them. But the point is, I didn’t get any of them, and also, I didn’t really apply for all that many. It was not a super serious job search that demanded I find a job. I was more or less fine not having found a job.

But … I did realize that it wasn’t an option to do absolutely nothing. Also, I didn’t want to do nothing. I wanted, since nothing else was in the offing, to run my Animations with Kids program. I wanted very, very desperately to do it in Sweden, but everyone knows how that turned out. But as long as I was living rent free in rural North Carolina, I could just do it here! So I did. I worked with 170 kids and they made seven animated films about science, and it was great. It was nice, because programs like this usually are exclusive to big cities with the resources, or rich schools. But this was all in rural North Carolina with many poorer neighborhoods among the school catchment areas. It was really, truly doing something that wouldn’t have been done otherwise, and that is a super-great way to take time off after your PhD. See, you’re doing a fun project … and it’s not full time, it’s all very flexible, so you still get to rest … but it still is a lot of work and it is something definite that you’re doing, so now you can write about it on your resume and you don’t have that pesky unemployment gap everyone is always howling about.

How I got two science communication jobs

I have seen on Twitter the heart-ache for people in science communication who can’t find full-time jobs with benefits.

Well, I found two of them. So let me tell you how I did that.

First, how did I search for job openings? I’m not very good at that, but one thing I did was to keep on searching “scicomm jobs” and variants thereof on Twitter. Apparently, not a lot of people do that. In fact, the first scicomm job that I got seemed to have advertised almost exclusively on Twitter, and from what I could tell, a total of three people applied. Once I had the job, I was given control of the gmail account for it, and I could see the great rush of applications sent in for the job (not). Kind of made me feel like a loser, like, wow, I was more qualified than two others. Great.

Well, this job turned out to be not so great. I complained to all my friends about it, and one of them sent me a job posting she’d seen out of the blue. I applied for that on a whim, mostly because my friend had been nice enough to think of me and send it to me. And then I got that job, too.

So why do I think I got these jobs? From what I can tell, the employers liked the fact that I had a PhD; and they also liked the fact that I can make animations.

The PhD is apparently a big boost when applying to scicomm jobs, from my experience. My first employer did not say this straight out, but I got the impression that is was sort of an elitist issue for him, like, he doesn’t like to deal with people who don’t have PhDs.

The second employer straight out told me that me having a PhD was a big advantage to my application. They wanted someone who had a strong background in earth science, because they want a communicator who knows the science about as well as the scientists.

So the PhD has been a boost, but so has making animations. I think this is a somewhat unique skill among earth scientists, or scientists in general. I make 3D animations in a free and open-source program called Blender. I’ve been using Blender now for years and years. In the interview with the first scicomm job that I got, the animations were something that my soon-to-be boss asked about and seemed interested in. It was probably something that stood out from the grand total of two other applications.

And with the second job, the animation skill was even more important. The job was advertised as earth science visual storyteller. I might have been the only person who applied who both had an earth science PhD and extensive visualization experience.

Because I had been making animations for so long, and making them about my science research and as part of outreach programs, I had many years’ worth of samples that I could show during the application period and interviews for the second job.

When I first started making science animations, by the way, it was during my PhD, and my first advisor, who was a total disaster, was very haughty about the whole thing, and seemed to think it was a big waste of time, and something that perhaps demeaned the field of science. But I loved doing it, so I kept on. I’ve never been officially trained in animation, and I get feedback often that I’m not doing things quite right; but it would appear that despite all that I still need to learn, science + animations skills are a unique and rare combination. And that seems to be how I got these jobs.

So I guess my advice boils down to a very unsatisfactory, very humdrum: “follow your dreams and pursue your passions” and something will work out. Haha, so boring. It’s not true, anyways — it won’t always work out.

But I can’t come up with anything else, except …

For those who are both getting their PhDs and interested in scicomm:

Ignore the people who say that a PhD has to consume your life. No. Absolutely not, not least because of the big chance you’re going to crash and burn out of your PhD. You want to have other things going on for you. Don’t give up everything else that you love.

Oh, and I can think of one more piece of advice for everyone: when I was done with undergrad and had a 9-5 job, that was when I taught myself how to animate. I wasn’t in school anymore, but I still wanted to learn this new skill. I spent a few hours after work several times a week on it, and then usually a full day on the weekends. I didn’t have to force myself to do it, it was so enjoyable. My point is, keep on developing interests and skills even when you’re out of school — it will pay off so much later if you can spend at least some of your after-work hours doing that. Even if you don’t get a job from it, it will pay off — learning to animate was fulfilling and wonderful way before I got any money or reward from it.

 

My 2019 AGU talks

AGU is a conference held in December each year, about a week before Christmas. AGU stands for American Geophysical Union. It’s more interesting than it sounds, promise! Usually it’s held in San Francisco. I’ve been a couple of time.

This past December, I had three talks at AGU. Two were invited. I felt very special.

To get to AGU, I first took the train from Houston to Los Angeles. It was a very nice train — and it didn’t take so long — and look at all the pretty things I saw along the way.

Then from Los Angeles, I took mostly an overnight bus north. Overnight so I wouldn’t waste a day traveling. The bus literally does run all night long, and at long last, just after sunrise (it was winter, so the sunrise was kind of late), we arrived in San Francisco. I stayed for a week, gave my 3 talks, and it was great.

My talks were all about my Animations with Kids program. For the second talk, I got to show everyone how I teach the kids 3D animation.

My protoplanetary disk in Blender3D

A protoplanetary disk is, in my opinion, a stupid word that means something very sweet … it just means a solar system in its infancy, when it’s still a baby, still developing. But instead of just calling it a “baby solar system” or, to be more regal, an “infant solar system”, they had to christen it with an ugly, long, totally unnecessary name. It makes it sound like a super foreign, enormously complex idea: what else could a protoplanetary disk be, if not something that you can only understand if you spend many years getting a PhD? Really, it’s a pretty straightforward, though! It’s an infant solar system. But the people getting their PhDs in this have to pretend that their research is sooooo complicated and would go over all your heads, and therefore … we’re stuck with a “protoplanetary disk”.

I should make one more note: I said a protoplanetary disk is “sweet”. It’s sweet because it’s a baby in a sense. But they’re not actually all that sweet. They’re like violent places full of collisions.

Any case, I made one in Blender 3D. This right here was the image I tried to mimic. And this is what mine ended up looking like:

protoplanetary disk0062

Isn’t it nice??!! You can see it spinning in animated form here.

The spinning might be a little fast.

I made this 3D model on my own. I mean, there’s not tutorial out there titled, “How to build a protoplanetary disk in Blender”. So I had to skulk around in several different tutorials and get tips from each to figure out how I was going to do this. One of the few times I’ve completely improvised my Blender work when it comes to a more complicated object. Makes me proud when I experiment and do this. One tutorial in particular that got me started on some ideas was this one on making clouds.

Once I got the basic shape, this is what it looked like:

protoplanetary draft 1

It’s got the concentric circles, but it’s a bit too solid.

So I changed the material a bit, tried to make it transparent, and …

protoplanetary draft 2

This made the disk look a little more insubstantial, which is what I wanted. On the other hand, it made it look like there was a stump in the middle. There was actually no stump there, but this particular material, combined with the light source, produced the aspect of one.

So I finally just cut out some of the vertices in the center of the disk. And also, I changed the way I was setting up the light source. At first, I had set up a sun lamp right over the disk, and let it shine down onto the center. But once I carved out the hole in the disk, I got rid of the sun lamp; added an icosphere in the gap left by the hole; gave it an emission shader; and then amped up the strength a whole bunch.

So again, it ended up looking like this:

protoplanetary disk0062
Protoplanetary disk built in Blender 3D.

This is how I got there:

Objects

First, this is what the model looks like in Blender: you can see both the disk and the “sun” in the center.

protoplanetary model

Modifiers:

The disk is just a plane, extruded upwards a bit, with several modifiers on it. Here you see all of them:

protoplanetary modifiers

I added a subsurface modifier between all the others not because I knew what I was doing, but because I saw someone do that in a tutorial. So it seemed like an impressive thing to do.

Here’s what the parameters of the wave modifier look like:

protoplanetary wave

Here is the Displace modifier parameters, along with the linked texture:

And finally the Simple deform modifier. This one was super fun! I tried out the Bend, Twist, Taper, and Stretch options, each in its turn, and it was so cool to see the results.

protoplanetary simple deform

Lighting

Like I said, I added an icosphere to put in the middle of the disk, and then this is the material I assigned it. Simple and straightforward: an emission shader, a yellow color, and a high strength of 100. I deleted all the other lights.

protoplanetary lighting

Disk material

The material to color the disk did not end up so complicated at all. Here are the nodes:

protoplanetary material

World material

For the world material, I used a background image:

protoplanetary world material

The background image I used is located in the description provided for this YouTube tutorial. That particular YouTube tutorial is what I used to make the first animation in this Twitter thread.

Animate the disk

To make the disk spin, there’s two things you need to do.

  1. First, go to the wave modifier and make sure the speed is set to 0. Otherwise, the disk will spin all by itself, and no matter if I turned the speed up or down, it was rotating way too fast.
  2. Now you can manually animate the disk by adding keyframes. Save the position at the beginning of the animation, and then go forwards on the timeline, spin the disk however much you want (press R-shift-z; the shift-z will make sure the “R” for rotate doesn’t cause the disk to wobble up and down), and then keyframe the new position.

And that’s it! My approach to making a protoplanetary disk in Blender.

Scicomm made polished, part 3

I finished a new animated Twitter thread for work. This one is on planet collisions. Woah!

You can see it here. It’s nine tweets in all.

I wrote about getting feedback on  my animated Twitter threads earlier. I was sad because I was told about how bad and unpolished my work was.

Well, after all my whining and complaining, I did the teacher’s pet, good-girl act of “let me learn from my mistakes” and “take the feedback to heart”. I decided to act all mature and pretend I was happy to be told I sucked. While making the new Twitter thread on planet collisions, I paid attention to the backgrounds and colors I was using. I worked on it for a month, and tweeted it out last Thursday. It was in fact my last act at work before becoming a Coronavirus refugee.

protoplanetary disk0062
This is supposed to represent a solar system in its infancy.

Then I sent this new thread to one of the people who had given me feedback. What do you think now? And in a very cutesy, inspiring turn of events (thankfully), I was told: this looks great! Big improvement! Nice job!

Isn’t that nice?

Further: that the colors and similarities in style between the different animations makes it much more evident that they all go together. That they have a relationship to each other through the color choices or the dark background.

lava flow0071
Lava flow.

You know what, though, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate my own work. I, for example, thought there should be something distinctively consistent in the background for each animation — something I wasn’t able to ensure. But upon receiving my feedback, that was when it first dawned on me that just the simple consistency of a dark background in each animation was enough — nothing fancier than that. So I still have a lot to learn, but it’s definitely nice to receive praise, and I think if I iterate this cycle of experimentation on my part, and feedback from others, I learn little nuggets of insight at a time.

As always, I use Blender3D to make these animations.

Texture vs Point in Blender materials

I discovered a new, tiny detail in Blender3D. It’s a tiny thing that made a big difference.

I was trying to make etches onto a cube with an image — like engrave the image in.

I wanted it to look like this:

puzzle0017

See, nice and clear! However, it was just looking like this:

puzzle0008a

Much less crisp and sharp, and when I went to print it out (the images were for a poster) it didn’t show up hardly at all.

Almost by accident, I discovered what the problem was. Below are two material settings, one for the ‘good’ image and the other for the muddled one:

material texturematerial point

Yes! The only difference was that for one image, the ‘Mapping’ node in the Materials was set to ‘Texture’ (the bad image) and on the other it was set to ‘Point’. And it made all that difference. Amazing, and so, so easy to miss.

Scicomm made polished, part 2

I was bemoaning the apparent lack of polish in my science animations and not quite understanding all the criticisms, but now it’s a few days later, and something has dawned on me.

I remember now reading people’s blogs, and them saying all all their photos are put through pre-sets in Lightroom. Meaning every photo gets a “finish” on it, or something, and it’s the exact same finish for each photo, and that finish will mute the colors all in the same way; or get the brightness of the photo to look the same; or maybe some other stuff, too. So then when you see photos from that person all together, they all have that same sheen to them, so you kind of can tell they came from the same place.

Honestly, does this not also make it boring? So every photo kind of looks the same, one to the next. But if you don’t do this, then your photos look incoherent?

Well, I’m going to try something: for my next animated Twitter thread, I will choose a color palette carefully and stick to those colors throughout the whole thread. And I’ll see if that helps with the “polish” and the “coherence.”

How to make scicomm look polished

They say you should be open to feedback, and of course, of course, yes, yes. But ugh, I so hate being told that something I’ve done isn’t “polished”. I hate hate hate that.

So I met with a designer yesterday, and I showed her this latest Twitter thread I made for work. And yes, after all that work, my animations in the thread weren’t polished, weren’t cohesive. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

So this is the thread… it’s about the crust, mantle, and core of the Earth. Yeah, I think it’s boring, too, but I tried to make it interesting.

So the problems start at the beginning: here is a still from the first animation …

earth xray

… and apparently this is all wrong, wrong, wrong, because the very next animation looked like this:

crust mantle core

And this is all terrible because for both animations, apparently the font I used is not very readable. And because the background for one is a blue gradient and for the second it’s a basic black, it’s not coherent. And then in the first animation, the girl is 2D but the Earth next to her is 3D, and in the second animation the Earth is also 3D, and apparently this is also very disturbing!!

And the first animation also broke all the rules because that square that says “No access” should not have been bigger than the Earth it was covering. The corners should have been inside the Earth. And the black edge is too thick.

I don’t know why. I can’t see it myself that the black edge is too thick and that the corners should have been tucked inside the Earth. But apparently these are the rules you get taught in design school.

And then I was told that people are so used to very slick and polished videos these days, so it’s of utmost importance that all the work looks nice and clean. Aaaaaaaaaaah. I nearly sank into the floor.

I don’t know all these design rules, but I will try two things: I will look for a font that is more “readable” and I will make the backgrounds look the same in all my little animations.

Somehow, I am supposed to get all my animations for a thread looking coherent and put-together like all the photos on this cat-lover Instagram look.

Yes, I do see that those pictures look coherent and pulled together … but I don’t know exactly how to get there myself!!!

Explosions in blender

I need to make an explosion in Blender for work.

First I used this tutorial, which was only 7 minutes long, and I followed it easily and got the result.

But then I decided it looked too cartoonish, so I went for this tutorial, which was 14 minutes long. So still quite short, and for just double the time, it promised something way cooler-looking.

However, I tried it twice, and what I got looked very bad and different from what I was supposed to get. So I gave it up, and decided my result from the first tutorial was not so cartoonish after all.

You can decide for yourself here.

explosion0041
A still from the explosion animation