Veritasium is one of the most popular and successful science channels on YouTube. It was launched in 2011 by Dr. Derek Muller and has racked up over four million subscribers, along with hundreds of millions of views.
Video Views: 373,111,659
Channel Type: Education
Created: Jul. 21st, 2010
Dr. Derek Muller’s success on YouTube has helped open doors for him in other avenues, including being a correspondent on the Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves The World. YouTuber sat down with Derek in Los Angeles to get insight into the mission and success of his channel, as well as tips for new content creators who are just starting out.
Veritasium and Dr. Derek Muller
The Veritasium channel successfully navigates the balance of educational and entertaining. In building the channel, Derek draws on his background: both his formal education and other life experiences. He states this is a common trait with other content creators, saying, “With most YouTubers, everything in their lives prepared them for their career.”
Derek has a PhD in physics education research and the title of his thesis, Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education, gives a pretty clear idea of how relevant his academic work is to the Veritasium channel. To oversimplify: he has a doctorate in making videos for science education.
However, Derek’s doctorate is only part of the equation; he draws on a personal history with the arts, particularly performing and filmmaking. “Through high school I was doing physics, chem and bio. I went on to study engineering, physics and also film,” says Derek. “When I was a kid, I was acting and performing in musical theater. In downtown Vancouver, I played Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol when I was 12; as I got older, I was in Shakespeare plays, school musicals, I was playing french horn and guitar. I had these dual interests in science and the arts… so I feel this (Veritasium) is an opportunity for me to use my strengths to bring everything together,” Derek explains. “I love teaching via video.”
Derek wholeheartedly believes in the power of video as an educational tool. He brings up some of the ways that multimedia has a benefit over traditional class-room based learning, “since you’re not doing it live, you can get the explanation word-perfect, you can do demonstrations that are too dangerous to do in class, you can shoot things in slow-mo, you can make things visually much more appealing, and you can edit out what might be boring parts of you class”.
In his quest to make effective educational multimedia, Derek researched how people learn from science videos. His findings indicated that if people had a preconceived notion of how a scientific principle works, they tended not to pay attention to the video’s explanation. He found that the way to get around this issue was to present the commonly held incorrect beliefs before demonstrating why they are wrong and then following up with the correct information. This method generally encouraged people who held those incorrect beliefs to pay attention, learn why they were wrong and, ultimately, gain a better understanding of the principle being discussed. As Derek puts it, “The right sort of videos, I think, can trigger deep thinking, deep cognition — but you have to make the video in the right way. You have to make the video in a way that engages with people’s prior knowledge, which includes talking about misconceptions. Or you need to give people an interesting conundrum, or an interesting problem or question, and I think people will come along with you on that journey.”
The Lead Up to Veritasium
Derek had an interest in filmmaking for quite some time. “When I graduated high school, in 2000, I remember thinking, ‘I want to make films, but I don’t want to… go and be a PA for a few years and run copies for people and eventually direct a commercial,’ that’s not my idea of a good career path… it was a situation of I was good at science, and science is an area where if you’re good at it, it shouldn’t be to hard to get a job, and then there was filmmaking, which is a crap shoot. That’s why I hesitated to go into it.”
Although Derek didn’t see it as a career, he was still drawn to the craft, “I started making videos in 2001 or 2002. These were silly videos I made with my engineering buddies; we made things with vampires, yetis, pirates, ninjas… I was directing and editing”.
It wasn’t until after completing his education at university and having some financial stability that he devoted himself to filmmaking full time, “In 2010, that’s when I realized I’m in an OK position; I could support myself financially, I was teaching a bit on the side, and I thought now is the time — if what I’ve told myself is that I want to be a filmmaker, well, you got to start making films at some point, and doing it with both hands.”
Then Veritasium was born. “I really started at the beginning of 2011. I was working more than 40 hours a week on YouTube videos, on making the channel. I wasn’t expecting everything to happen overnight, but I thought, lets give this at least six months and try it out and just keep making videos and see if anything sticks,” Derek says of the channel’s beginning. “It was probably in my second or third month that one of my videos went a little bit viral on Reddit and had half a million views in a week or two. I couldn’t believe it — I was over the moon — and then things settled back down and nothing happened for months and months and months.”
Working full time on a channel and releasing a video every week without much reception can be daunting, but Derek kept working even though he wasn’t seeing big results. He recalls the struggle: “At some points, I definitely started thinking about quitting, after being in it six months and maybe having one or two successful videos, but I was talking to friends and people were really supportive, so I stayed at it, and eventually I got another hit in my ninth or tenth month, and that kept giving me a little bit of motivation.”
Success doesn’t come easy, but Derek stuck with it and developed an audience. “For me it was six and a half years of challenges, changes, experiments, always learning. That’s one of the fun things about it, and its one of the most frustrating things about it; you never quite know what you’re doing — at least I don’t — you’re always just trying to figure it out.”
In hindsight, Derek has gained an understanding and appreciation of the slow process of building the Veritasium channel, “I look back at those (early) videos now and I cringe at a lot of them, because I wasn’t that good, and I needed that time to develop, and it’s probably good that I didn’t get too big of an audience too early because I had time to experiment and change what I was doing, really develop my process and make better videos… It’s a huge learning curve.”
The Veritasium channel has been, for the most part, a one-man show. Derek explains, “For the last six and a half years, I’d say about 98 percent of the work has been me… Typically it’s me holding the camera, or a friend or a family member, or someone who just happens to be around. I’ve sort of made-do with what I’ve got and done it on the cheap.” He continues, “I think there’s real value in having a team, but I think that’s one of my biggest challenges right now, because relying on yourself to do everything is not a sustainable long-term solution.”
Derek also has to find topics that interest his audience. He says inspiration for videos can come from any number of sources, “In the early days a lot of topics came from things that I knew people found hard to understand, because as a teacher, I knew they were common misconceptions. Sometimes I make videos based on a book I’d read or a conversation I had with a friend, some videos came out of comments on other YouTube videos — from the audience.”
Veritasium is known for having videos about some of the most exotic science-related locations in the world. To create content for the channel, Derek has shot in places that include Marie Curie’s Lab, Chernobyl and an anechoic chamber; he has taken zero-G plane rides and handled the roundest object on Earth. To get to do all these things, Derek gains access through a number of means. For some places, the clout of his channel can get him through the gate. Other locations Derek visits as part of a larger project — a broadcast documentary on Uranium took him to Chernobyl — and he uses the opportunity to shoot short Veritasium videos while there. He recalls that it hasn’t always been easy to gain access to locations, and for new content producers, he advocates networking and developing personal connections to help open doors.
Veritasium is currently shot with the Panasonic GH5 after upgrading from the GH4. For audio, Derek often uses Sennheiser wireless mics, and on occasion, Sony kits. Sometimes GoPros are used to capture alternate angles.
Derek listens to his audience and uses their feedback to help determine his needs in terms of gear. He recently picked up a motorized gimbal because of comments he was getting. “With the GH5, there is 5-axis stabilization on the sensor, but with a wide lens like a 7mm that I put on there so I can do ‘selfie-style,’ the background ends up sort of doing some weird warping… my audience was getting on me in the comments. I thought ‘I gotta do something about this,’ so I got this Zhiyun Crane and the shots are Steadi-cam smooth now.”
At the core of Derek’s decision making is functionality. This is perhaps best exemplified by the quirky way he sometimes uses lavalier mics — holding them for his guests to speak into. He explains, “I really found the omnidirectional nature of the lav pretty effective in doing interviews… the audio quality is great, and with those performance mics you get a bit of noise based on how you hold the mic and they’re quite directional, so you might miss someone’s mouth. I actually love the lav sound, but it did look silly.”
At the end of the day, it’s not about having the most expensive or fanciest gear. Derek advises that content is more important than equipment, “You do the best you can with what you’ve got. Although I shoot these videos on a GH5, I could probably shoot them on an iPhone and it wouldn’t change them that dramatically.”
Advice for New Filmmakers
Derek’s main piece of advice to those looking to start a YouTube channel is simple: just start doing it. Make something, and then keep going. He says, “The thing most people suffer from is the inability to get started, like ‘how do I do it,’ trying to seek that advice from everyone, they just keep talking about it instead of doing it.”
Derek’s main piece of advice to those looking to start a YouTube Channel is simple: Just start doing it.
He paraphrases Ira Glass, host of This American Life, saying “we get into this business because we know what is good, then, when we get started, we don’t have the knowledge or skill on how to make something that lives up to our own expectations, we immediately become discouraged and many people quit.”
Derek explains that it’s OK when your don’t live up to your expectations and that it’s OK to make bad videos. The key is to just keep making them, over and over; you will get better, you will learn more about the technical side as well as the artistry. “You have to be in it to win it. You gotta get yourself in the game. It’s so simple, but it’s tough advice to follow, to get in it and stay in it, just get in there and start experimenting — it doesn’t matter if it’s bad to start with, everyone’s bad. The key is to keep going even though you are bad.”
Derek’s experience has given him insight that should be valuable to any new filmmakers or content creators. He says, “Focus on the process, focus on making the next video better than the last one; that’s what I kept telling myself rather than just looking at the outcome and maybe becoming disappointed. (I was) thinking about ‘what am I doing, what can I do better, am I happy with this?’ Just not getting too hung up whether anyone’s watching it or not. I say that knowing that its a really hard thing to do, because I went through it.”
Understanding the Changing Landscape
The constantly changing landscape of YouTube is an important thing for any YouTuber to take into account. To maximize your channel’s potential you must understand how the platform works and recognize changes and their impact.
For instance, Derek has found that posting regularly is more important now. While the site has always encouraged creators to post every week to most effectively build an audience, Derek and other science video producers found that wasn’t necessary based on how their videos were shared and distributed. However, as YouTube constantly refines their algorithm, strategies must also change. In Derek’s experience, he feels that recent changes to the system give recency and regularity of posting more impact towards maximizing views on any particular video.
In another change for the system, Derek has found subscriber count is now less important than it used to be. Research has shown recommended and targeted videos have resulted in longer watch time as well as return visits to the site. As such, those methods of discovery are likely to be expanded. This means subscribers aren’t necessarily translating to views anymore. He explains that this is beneficial for new creators, “It means you aren’t necessarily hampered by the fact that you have a tiny subscriber base, and what’s in Suggested and what’s in Trending isn’t necessarily going to be from the biggest channels. You can get in there if a video catches the algorithm in the right way, and that can lead you to get exposure and to grow.”
But there’s two sides to the coin — Derek continues, “For the big channels, it’s a little frustrating because we used to have guaranteed views just for posting things… but I think we have to accept that we go with the tide; it’s always changing. Some of the bigger changes have caused seismic shifts which I think undermines creators’ confidence in the consistency and stability of the platform, and their revenue, and what they can do going forward, and that’s very traumatizing for the existing players.”
Dr. Derek Muller has created a hugely popular YouTube channel by being truthful to himself, staying informed, working hard and sticking to it. He followed his interests in filmmaking and science education and created a niche for himself that has led to opportunities on and beyond the platform. He is passionate about video as a medium for teaching and continues exploring how to best utilize the medium to shape the world, inspiring new filmmakers along the way.
As we parted ways, Derek had one last bit of advice for aspiring content creators: “Just get on with it, just freakin’ do it.”