What Video Abstracts Can Be

When, for a recently published article, I was invited to produce a video abstract, I had no idea how to start. I was attracted to the idea of making a movie about my work to reach out to a broader audience, but hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to do. A Google search on this topic was disappointing. All I found were suggestions that I produce a 3-minute script (fair enough) and then read it out loud while facing a camera. But that seemed not to really exploit the possibilities of the medium. I dreamt of an abstract that would pop, that would both be an accessible introduction to what the article was about, but also a visually attractive one.

Still clueless, I skimmed Youtube videos when a “related” link to a “How to make an animated movie” gave me an idea: would there not exist a tool that allowed me to make my own animated film with a voice-over? The supreme advantage of animation is that it’s much less likely to be unsharp or be bad quality, particularly when you don’t own professional equipment. If such a tool existed, it would also allow me to combine attractive visuals with the clarity of a powerpoint presentation.

I am lucky to live in an age when such a tool exists. Enter Powtoons. Below, you’ll first find the Youtube clip that I made using this tool. Then, I’ll write a bit on my experience with it:

Making just this 3-minute clip took a lot more time than making a powerpoint presentation and then doing a voiceover of it (another common technique of making video abstracts). I think overall it took me about 8 hours of work. If I would make another one, I would guess this time would be shortened since by now I’m familiar with the tool.

What’s awesome about the tool is its user-friendliness. The website allows you to access tons of very well-made tutorials, and the user interface is super-intuitive. Basically, it’s like making a powerpoint, only an animated one with a lot more possibilities.

More time-consuming than making the actual visuals was the voice-over. Although you can do a voice-over for the whole video–a strategy that powtoons recommends–I don’t think this is a great idea. Because you want the video to complement the audio. To do this, you have to make sure that when you say something, something also happens on the screen: for example, when I mention the koan “what’s the sound of one hand clapping?” I also want that text to appear on-screen exactly when I say it, not before, not after. What worked for me (and Powtoons give you this option) is recording the audio per individual “slide.” Unfortunately this type of audio is limited to 20 seconds max, which for an academic presentation can be short (but which challenged me to stick to the essence, basically what an abstract already asks you to do :). Recording the audio per slide allowed me to micromanage everything. But it also resulted in a mixed audio quality, as you can hear in the clip.

Once you’ve made a clip, I’m not so excited about what you can do with it. Although making a powtoons account is free, and you get some access to premium content for a short time, without a paying subscription Powtoons not only technically owns the copyright to your video but also disallows you from downloading it. Luckily you can export to youtube (although for some reason I couldn’t do this within Firefox), but when you do so make sure to delete all the weird tags Powtoons will dump in your video (unfortunately the “created using powtoon” banner cannot be deleted). From Youtube, you can then use any kind of video capture tool to download your content. Should you want to change something, altering your video and re-exporting it is easy. Export quality without a subscription is low, but for an animated video this isn’t really a problem.

Once you’re on Youtube, you can also create closed captioning for your video, something that for me, due to the bad audio quality in my clip, was really useful. Youtube’s video editor makes this process as smooth as transcribing your own voice can be.

So those are my thoughts. Though I have my gripes with some aspects of Powtoons, I’m really happy with my video. Still, if I was to use this often, I’d ask my institution to get a subscription.

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