The Element of Truth: an interview with Derek Muller

Science film maker Derek Muller shares his experiences in producing the popular Veritasium films.

Veritasium videos

Veritasium is a science video blog created by Australia-based producer Derek Muller. The project began with an attempt to present a ‘word of the day’ for scientific concepts but it has quickly evolved into a larger endeavour with over 90 videos now posted on a popular YouTube channel.

Derived from the Latin for truth, ‘Veritasium’ is defined as the ‘element of truth’ and the videos aim to break down popular misconceptions about science and how the world works.

We've recently featured a selection of Veritasium videos in a collection for the Ri Channel, so we got in touch with Derek to find out a little bit more about the project. Derek very kindly took the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions, you can read his responses below:

What are the aims of the project?

The initial goal was to make science beautiful, starting off with the simplest ideas and building them up into more complex theories. The focus has shifted somewhat to addressing counter-intuitive concepts in science, usually beginning by discussing ideas with members of the public.

Video: Derek explains the basis of his PhD project on 'designing effective multimedia for Physics eduction'. 

How many people are involved in the project and what are their roles?

Mainly it's just me. Sometimes I recruit friends to hold the camera or appear with me performing experiments, but the writing, directing, editing and animating is largely a solitary process. I have a few advisors who have been invaluable screening drafts and helping me polish any videos I'm not sure about.

Who are the videos targeted at (who is the audience)?

The videos are for anyone who is interested in science but perhaps hasn't had a lot of formal training in science. Having said that, I try to make videos that I would like to watch. I know many teachers watch and use Veritasium videos in class and the number of students using them has increased dramatically over the past six months.

What challenges have you faced creating and publishing the videos?

There were many technical challenges. For example the computer I was using when I began was seven years old and required at least 10 hours to output a 3 minute video. Filming yourself is incredibly difficult; it normally takes twice as long and when you watch the footage later you find many shots are out of focus and/or the sound is terrible. I think the biggest challenge is not giving up when videos don't turn out as you envisioned. Rather than focus on producing perfect videos, I have set my sights on improving with each film.

What have you learnt through the process?

The camera subtracts 20% of your energy.

Videos don't need introductions, they need to get going.

The best interview technique is silence.

I should plan more.

What makes a great science communication video?

A great video engages you in a story, a mystery, or a challenge, something to be worked out. It helps you understand something usually perceived as mundane in an exciting new way. I strive to make my videos more visual, more personally relevant, and more surprising. 

What is the future of the project / any new projects on the horizon?

The number of exciting projects always seems to exceed my capacity to complete them. I would like to make a series personifying atoms and discussing bonding. In fact I am nearly finished a duet about atomic bonds. I would also like to do a series on wave properties filmed on a lake in the Australian bush. I think this would hopefully hit home the relevance of the topic but also make for a beautiful video. In the longer term I would like to work on documentaries for festivals and/or TV.

You can watch a selection of Derek's films in our Veritasium Collection, or visit his YouTube Channel to view the full series.

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