BBC

BBC Explainers videos

How to make great information films

BBC Explainers videos

Explainers are short online films help inform the public about big and often complex subjects—like astronomy, pregnancy, or DNA—in an interesting and accessible way. 

BBC Explainers guide

After the flood made a ‘how to’ video and a production guide for BBC-partners making Explainer films. The importance of narrative structure and scripting is emphasised as much as visual direction and graphics.

Key to this was the play between the Voice Over track and the Visual track. In visual media, like film, the voice and sound serves the visual ‘stream’, all of it pinned to the main story structure.

In the interests of storytelling economy, it’s important to take an integrated approach to script and visuals from the beginning.

Explainer videos are different from more poetic ‘brand identity films’ that exist to encourage emotional connection—they need to impart a much higher degree of factual information, but in a way that is sophisticated and relevant to the subject.

Below we present key parts of the production process and some of the films we created.

The Big Idea

With a running time of just three minutes, an Explainer video needs to get its point across very efficiently. It’s impossible to cover all the ground in a particular area, so you need to focus on a story ‘hook’ that is fundamental, understandable and repeatable. Examples from previous Explainer videos include: ‘The stars are us and we are the stars’ and ‘The Titanic was unlucky, not doomed’. This message should be carried throughout the script and throughout the choice of visual elements. Conversations between the scriptwriter, creative director and an external subject expert will help to identify the most appropriate ‘hook’.

The big idea in the Stars film was that ‘we are the stars and the stars are us’, meaning that we are all made from the same universal matter. This meant we needed to use visual elemenst that showed ‘matter measurement’ as foreshadowing/binding elements throughout.

Although each video will deal with one specific topic only, they are also intended to spark interest in other, related areas. We want to inform as to certain subjects, but we also want people to discover new ones. Your explainer will need to contain ‘jumping-off-points’ to related content.

Your story idea will have to accommodate three distinct layers of information, and it’s worth identifying these at an early stage:

 

  • Primary info: the core material in question (e.g. the human circulatory system)
  • Secondary info: required for explanation (e.g. the role of oxygen in the blood)
  • Tertiary info: signposts that lead to related topics (e.g. exercise and cardiovascular health)

 

Can you simplify complex ideas without making them simplistic? Think about how to avoid patronising your audience (for example, with bright colours, bouncing type and intrusive music). Respect the subject, but be selective and clear; look for magic moments in the story that help you to avoid getting bogged down in too much detail.

The overall structure of the film is broken into parts or ‘acts’.

Five principles of information design

These principles are general to the field but useful in video too. They may help you to think about how you organise your information, textually and visually.

 

Set the syntax

Set out key structural elements at the beginning, introducing consistent way-markers in v/o, graphics and sound. For example, if you are using a timeline, show a date early on, so that people can work out how they are going to read it.

 

Overview and drill down

We like to see the whole information field first—to see its general shape and areas before zooming into a guided place. But use your judgement too far out, the information is illegible; too far in, we lose sight of the context.

 

Use editorial ‘signposts’

Some facts, people and place are well known. Use these to signpost and pace your script so that people are never too far from a known concept. Keep familiar information arriving at a regular beat, so that you can suggest new and more challenging things in between.

 

Problem and solution—our need to compare

Good stories often set up a problem before showing how it is resolved. Likewise, when we are trying to understand something problematic, it helps to show what a neutral state looks like and then show how something (e.g. pollution) turns it bad.

 

Network visualisations are the maps of our age

New ways of measuring and displaying network—be they social, economic or organisational—now mean that the public is more aware of the connections between people, events and things. Use this newfound literacy to tell stories about networks and how they work and fail.

Editorial script ideas are converted to visual storyboard sketches ...

... which are then ordered best to meet the needs of narrative and structure.

Storyboarding

Storyboards give a strong sense of the shape of the Explainer. Preliminary sketches will be part of early script discussion and may take place concurrently as a way to explore the visual content of the script, but realistically the main task of storyboarding must wait until a workable script is available. Allow for the fact that most scripts are re-edited at least a little once storyboarding has shown where the script works and where it needs changing.

Working with reference to the script, match each numbered scene to a visual data event represented by one or more storyboard panels.

Each storyboard panel should be marked with the scene number, the beginning of the part of the script it refers to and a sketch describing basic features and movement in the shot. Notes outside the box fill in detail of form, objects included and movement.

Key elements can be colour coded so that the eye can follow them throughout the storyboard. These colours are not necessarily taken through to the final video, but they will help with reading the storyboard.

In the Explainers film, we show how visuals motifs are introduced early on in a film ...

... then shown  later in the video—repeating key themes, adding a cognitive bind.

The Stars 

This was the first film in the Explainers series. It allowed us to try out a lot of new ideas that would define the format including pacing, use of music, plot foreshadowing and information design elements.

Voiceover and Sound

With a script and storyboard signed off, you can proceed to the sound stage. It greatly helps the designer/animator if they can work to the actual soundtrack, to save them changing scene lengths later. The music and incidental sound effects are added later, once the final video track has been matched to the v/o.

Make sure that there are a few points where the graphics associate literally with the v/o script, so that the voice explicitly makes something happen, or describes what’s happening on screen. This binds the two tracks in the mind of the viewer and provides an anchor point, but be sure not to overuse it. If you do the voiceover will be no more than karaoke, describing the visuals all the way through.

Once all visuals are complete and laid over the v/o, the sound designer will use effects and some music to enhance the emotional mood of the film, to further accentuate important details and to underline thematic connections.

Original compositions are preferable to library music, if budget allows. When batch-producing a number of films on a similar theme, elements of music and sound should be reused to keep costs down and tie the films together as a coherent set.

Sound designers can be briefed at the storyboard stage but they cannot do their work until they can see the finished video with its voiceover. 

Similar sound design elements add structural integrity by their binding gestalt.

Titanic (for BBC History)

A film for the BBC marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. After the Flood short online film focuses on the ship’s route, structure, and survivor data as an alternative to the traditional picture of the disaster. The film shows different data from a different perspective wherever possible. The mapping was inspired by Richard Edes Harrison, whose 1944 Look at the World Atlas shows destinations from where they're seen—inspired by the new technology of civilian air-travel. (His ‘Europe from the East’ illustration has pride of place in our office.)

Titanic specific issues

The BBC wanted the subject matter of the to be timely and relevant so we looked at their upcoming site launches/news anniversaries and decided on the sinking of the Titanic to coincide with the 100th anniversary. It was important to sign of the main direction of the story early on—that we would retell the story but would avoid regular tropes such as hidden causes or blame. Their main input came in the script sign-off stage. As well as signing off the script, they saw an indication of visual style early on.

During the production period, we had about 28 renders to go through. We would only send the main ones to them—when we had something major to show. It was more about just showing progress than the need for sign-off though for more controversial subjects, we would probably insist on more stages of sign-off.

We merged all the renders in the film to present an ‘amlgam’ ship that was sunk.

We looked through deck plans to route all possible exits for the lower levels.

The ‘journey’ map was based on the ‘Point-of-View’ aesthetic from Richard Edes Harrison.

Information graphics were played straight, with the bar charts showing the loss of life.

There is obviously a lot of effort involved (the full method will be in the AtF Playbook) but here are a selected five things we did:

  • In the story, we wanted to avoid the the usual conspiring about causes—we just felt that there were a  lot of bad circumstances that all piled up at the wrong time.
  • We also wanted to show that people of all classes escaped and that the ‘women and children first’ order worked as well as it could.
  • We wanted to avoid the usual glistening 3D models and concentrate on views that would instil meaning into their story sections.
  • The sinking secene is an amalgamation of views of the boat —that acknowledges its un-reality. So we showed versions of the boat in plan or skeleton form.
  • We had to represent the ship and it’s interior—but all at the service of the main story. So instead of endless cutaways, we looked at the engines in context of Belfast, escape routes for the sinking and the cabin plans in context of passenger types and so forth.