Tag Archives: Video

Botany: What Plants Talk About

Plants.  They are meticulously counted and classified, yet we do not know all their secrets. They stand with attention in open fields, with their leaves saluting the sun, harvesting its energy into its micro factories.  They inhale the carbon dioxide we exhale, and they breathe out the oxygen we breathe – a mutualistic relationship.

The documentary What Plants Talk About is a delightful journey into the botanical world, which synthesizes time-lapse photography, a sense of wonder, and science (video can be viewed for free via link on bottom).

Although they may not have eyes, ears, or other physiological features like humans, they find food, nurture their young, communicate with their friends, recognize kin, and even wage underground territorial wars.

Plants are among the world’s oldest and most successful organisms.  Their adaptations have allowed them to thrive in a wide range of regions.  Although they cannot speak a human language, they emit  chemical ‘screams’ that allow other plants to eavesdrop on the chemical call and ramp up their defenses.

One adaptation is the release of toxins. In the case of the wild tobacco plant, it uses a toxin, nicotine, to protect itself against herbivores.  It is fatal for many leaf-eating insects, though the hornworm caterpillar seem to be immune.  The plant however, has another trick up its sleeve. Once it feasts on the plant’s trichomes, it causes the caterpillar to emanate a unique odor that attracts ground-foraging predators which welcomes a free meal that is ‘seasoned’ and offered by the plant.


In the documentary, you encounter forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard, who recollects watching the film Avatar and expressing awe in the scene depicting the Tree of Souls, a fictitious giant willow-like tree that is interconnected with the organisms on Pandora. Dr. Simard wondered if the film’s producers were influenced by her published papers. In the video, she discusses her work with giant ‘mother’ trees. Simard describes the complexity of  a  giant root system below the ground that interacts with other organisms.  This web-like underground world connects trees and plants together. It shuffles resources to each other and transports nutrients, water, and carbon to those that need it the most.

Plants  generally don’t get enough credit.  They have sculpted the planet and even humans since time immemorial. Earth is a living cell, bathing in the interstitial fluids of the cosmos.


On “Ostracoda” – My First Mini-Science Documentary

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the use of film, voice, and music to communicate science information in a storytelling manner. Science can sometimes be so soaked in jargon that it will scare off the non-science person. Film has the power to convey ideas with visual stimuli and seduce the viewer’s mind with a storytelling narrative. Carl Sagan realized this and went on to create Cosmos, a 13 part science-storytelling series that influenced millions, including myself.

About two years ago, I had created a simple small video based on pictures and myself doing a voice over to introduce NAGPRA in the latter part of the video for a North American archaeology course. This video-presentation was created out of my slight fear of public speaking. However, this placed the seeds of understanding the mechanics of storytelling via digital media and its power to communicate information. These mental seeds kept germinating, leading me to search my current university for applicable courses. Sure enough, documentary filmmaking courses existed.

The first course that I registered for was called “Directing the Documentary.” As an added benefit, there was a last minute change with the course’s instructor: Peter Schnall ended up being the professor. Peter Schnall has directed many National Geographic documentaries, that include Inside the White House, Inside the Secret Service, and George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview. I particularly enjoyed his 2013 All The President’s Men Revisited, hosted by Robert Redford – one of my favorite actor and activist.

Schnall turned out to be one of my most liked professors due to his authentic passion in teaching students. He went beyond the prescribed syllabus and dispensed real-world knowledge, answering every question with Zen-like wisdom. He even brought in his newly acquired circa $50,000 camera/lens kit to teach us the fundamentals of the actual hardware used in his productions and in the real-world. Show off 😉

Schnall and documentary classmates. Photo: A. Kuilan
Schnall, his camera, and documentary classmates. Photo: A. Kuilan

Well, I didn’t have a $50,000 camera, but I did have my trusty Canon T5i. I also decided to shoot the entire documentary on a Canon 50mm prime lens that cost $99.

Armed with Schnall’s teachings and some camera/audio equipment, I set forth to attempt to capture the ostracod research story at Rutgers via video. This is the resulting ten minute documentary, “Ostracoda”:

One of the biggest challenges in creating Ostracoda was not only how to create a story out of something laced in scientific jargon, but how to shape the story out of the footage and interviews that I gathered. In the editing process, I have realized the importance of the art of crafting questions. Luckily, I had good access to my subjects and I was privileged to re-interview them a 2nd time.

I believe visuals are a HUGE deal in conveying material and concepts, especially in science related subjects. Although I’m slightly disappointed on my zero knowledge of creating animations, I did manage to get some informative shots in this documentary.

Some self-critique on my own work are:

  • A lengthy 3 minute talking head segment with NO b roll footage.
  • A couple of transitions are not quite smooth.
  • Font selection and size.
  • Lack of a proper title ending.
  • Some audio hiss/un-normalized levels.

The rendering process consumed quite a bit of time and I uploaded as-is by request to meet the deadline for submission. I’m reworking some parts to hone the issues listed above; I’ll update the original YouTube link and this post when completed.