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Earth Science Week 2012
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The Struggles and Rewards of Telling a Story
NASA video producer Ryan Fitzgibbons shares some of the greatest lessons he has learned
October 17, 2012
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Ryan Fitzgibbons
Ryan Fitzgibbons is the Earth Science video producer at Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA.

While the description doesn’t cover everything I do, being a producer for NASA basically means I make short videos that communicate a message for a particular mission or event. There are many ways to work in the science communication world, but I spend most of my time producing videos. Sometimes I get animators and scientists together to collaborate on a cool new way of looking at the Earth, or I may plan a live, interactive webcast for a special event like Earth Day.

One of the best parts of being a producer at NASA is that I’m rarely bored. New projects with new people crop up all the time, so I get to reinvent myself in small ways. That usually means figuring out something new, whether it’s a computer program or a way to film a shot. I am constantly testing myself and learning and expanding my skill set, trying to improve my camera techniques and animating skills. The better I am at performing different tasks, the more useful I will be as a producer. It’s also just fun to learn new things. Here are a few things I’ve learned—and am still learning—about being a video producer.

Be patient and persistent. Editing takes up most of my time. I always wish I were faster at it. Editing is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces are laid out, I have an idea of what it should look like, but it takes so long that, at some point, I’d rather just be watching TV. Much like a jigsaw puzzle, I spend an excruciating amount of time figuring out the framework, making tiny amounts of progress through a disproportionate amount of effort. As long as I continue working on a project, there always comes a point where something clicks. I begin to see a picture forming, which helps me progress faster, generating new ideas. Sometimes I go back and shoot something new and fit that in. Other times I take an entire section out. The whole process can be daunting, depressing, chaotic, and fun all at once. In the end, what once was a blank slate now tells a story.

Accept that good ideas take time. I hate the feeling of not having an idea. There’s nothing more irritating than looking at a big empty timeline in my video editing program. Good ideas take a long time for me. They have to grow from a tiny kernel into something I can actually manipulate on the computer screen. The only way to make that happen is to put something onto the screen and play with it. I’ll often listen to some music and get away from the screen for a little bit, hoping to knock something loose in my head.

Use music to inspire new ideas. I love when I hear a song and can visualize a scene in my head. I try my best to take the tiny idea I get from that experience and produce it in some way. Sometimes a song or music genre gets stuck in my head and creates the tone for a video. Should this story be funny or somber, dry or dramatic, shocking or comforting? What do I hope people will feel when they see this? I obsess about the perfect music to achieve that tone. Rarely do I ever find something “perfect.” Maybe if I had a professional composer on-call that would be easier.

Turn disappointment into learning opportunities. Be prepared to be disappointed sometimes. Learn to live with it. It’s OK to have a finished product and only like a small portion of it. I don’t want to create something I hate entirely and wouldn’t want my name on. If that happens, something has gone very wrong. Maybe I was short on time, or maybe my vision didn’t match the vision of the people I’m working with. It’s important to think ahead to the next project. I can look at something and think, I like this and this, but this part here didn’t work like I thought it would. Or, I really should have gotten a better interview, then I’d have something really great to work with. But I don’t, so I make the best of what I have.

Finally, start building your skill set now if this kind of career sounds remotely interesting. Cameras and editing software—even the low-end versions—are great ways to learn basic techniques. I went to graduate school for filmmaking, but you really learn best when you do it on your own and do it often. I would also recommend watching movies, TV shows, how-to videos, reviews, and more. See what other creative people are doing. Take note what works and what doesn’t. Any career has its share of challenges and disappointments, but it’s a fun to tell science stories for a living.

Ryan Fitzgibbons dressed as an asteroidRyan Fitzgibbons appears as Asteroid 1999 RQ36 in a promotional video for the Name the Asteroid contest, which is in support of NASA's upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission.

Post by Ryan Fitzgibbons, video producer at Goddard Space Flight Center

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