Research in Ecuador
- Video Producer
- UI/UX Designer
- Social Media Coordinator
- Assistant Director, Digital
- Video and photo editing
- Frog spotting
- Mud tromping
- Web design
- Social media strategy
What Was the Challenge?
UMarketing seeks out stories that showcase the diversity of research conducted by Texas State faculty in pursuit of worldwide impact. After the success of our Study-in-America story in the U.S. Southwest, we had our sights set on an even further-afield project. Dr. David Rodriguez and Dr. Shawn McCracken of the Biology Department and the Education Abroad office gave us a fantastic opportunity with their trip to Ecuador.
Rodriguez specializes in the ecology and evolution of pathogens; McCracken is a canopy ecologist and volunteers as the education director for a conservation nonprofit. In Ecuador, they would be doing research on a fungus that causes an enormously deadly disease in amphibians (not harmful to humans, fortunately). Graduate students on the trip would help with the fieldwork, and undergrads would learn about tropical ecology from the tropics themselves. We couldn’t wait to document such an exceptional learning experience.
How We Got It Done
Our first discussion with Rodriguez was at the beginning of October 2018. (McCracken lives in Quito, so we didn’t meet him face-to-face until much later.) We learned about the basics — that the trip would be in June 2019, with a maximum of 16 students — along with details like the lodging (a bamboo house), technological specs (no internet, no or minimal electricity) and exertion level (packing all our stuff up and down mud trails, on foot).
We learned that on previous iterations of this trip, Rodriguez’s catchphrase was “not your summer vacation”: it would be a physically and psychologically rigorous excursion, requiring the ability to hike, stay alert to one’s surroundings and not freak out about snakes or big spiders. Rodriguez and McCracken were going to interview each student applicant before admitting them to the trip, and they wanted to be just as certain about our readiness as well. We had a few serious conversations, but ultimately, underneath the nervousness, we were all in.
Once the student registration period was closed and the trip was officially a go, we jumped into action. UMarketing worked with the trip’s partner, Third Millennium Alliance, to be included in the group’s ground transportation plans; we bought plane tickets to Quito; we got vaccinated against typhoid; we assessed our gear.
It takes cameras to make a video. Cameras use batteries that need charging. With little access to electricity, this was going to be a lot harder than normal. The video producer did an energy audit, figuring out how many hours of operation he could get out of his total battery capacity. Luckily, in the month before our trip, the research station installed a hydroelectric power system. Still, using battery power wisely was a must: the generator only ran a couple of hours per day, and it supplied one power strip, which was in high demand for students’ cameras, too.
Meanwhile, the writer had the advantage of being able to go low-tech: good old pen and paper, nothing to recharge or plug in. Admittedly, this wasn’t the lowest of tech — it was waterproof. That got tested on Day 1 (no joke) during a bus pit stop when both pen and notebook fell into the Pacific. They were fine.
On-Site in Ecuador
We were fully embedded on this trip, with cameras rolling and pens scribbling right from the start: We rode the same bus for six hours out of Quito down to the coast, hiked the same trails, ate the same food, listened to the same discussions, and even put the same giant stick bug on our heads, just like the students did.
The function of our work was just like normal — seek out the stories, gather rich information, capture evocative visuals — but the mechanics of it were significantly different in this environment.
The on-camera interviews were tricky, as opposed to in our campus studio, where they’re the most straightforward part of the process. For an interview to look good, it needs light, space and quiet: “Pretty much the opposite of what the rainforest has to offer,” noted the video producer. In the house, everyone was always talking, and every step made the floors creak a bit. On a trail through the understory, we’d have quiet but very little light. Some of the action took place at night. We made the most of it by using open spaces near the reserve’s structures and, after dark, aiming our headlamps strategically.
Each day, the video producer transferred all of the still photos and video clips from the cameras onto a laptop, freeing up space on the memory cards for the next day’s adventure. We debriefed together periodically, going over our content strategy to figure out which shots we’d covered and which ones we still needed to get. This was vital to ensuring that we didn’t get carried away following one fascinating activity while something different and new was happening in another part of the reserve.
Amazingly, despite all the steep, tricky trails, we never face-planted an open camera lens into the mud. One particularly slippery, pre-dawn hike led to the writer falling over a downed tree, putting a gentle bend in the camera monopod and acquiring a two-inch rainbow-colored bruise. That was the only piece of gear we broke on the whole trip.
Putting it Together
As with any of our videos, we filmed a lot more raw footage than we ever intended to use in the final piece. Combing through the footage picking out the best interview clips and the most meaningful B-roll took a huge amount of effort and strategic thought. One shot after another after another does not automatically make a story; there needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end, tied together through purposeful visuals and audio. Plus, we needed slightly different stories for different purposes (such as social media platforms vs. the university website).
A similar strategy went into selecting photos: pulling out the shots that best illustrated the themes of the experience and fit the specs of the intended platform. Our photographer edited the final photo choices to perfection where needed.
It was a major undertaking to turn the numerous scribbled pages of notes into a focused, structured, scientifically accurate narrative. Writing is not only knowing in the moment which parts to capture in notes, but also recognizing which notes aren’t actually important to the story after all. By necessity, we left out a lot of things, like the glowworms in the river, the discussion of tropical diseases and some of the most hilarious quotes. It took about 35 cumulative hours of hands-on-keyboard writing to arrive at all of the finished written content.
Once our editor had reviewed the writing, it was time for the UI/UX designer to put everything online. We built a landing page to hold all the different pieces of the story, published it on the university homepage, and released each piece on social media over several weeks.
“They were consummate professionals, interacted well with the students, never interfered with our activities, handled the conditions well, maintained positive attitudes, and were liked by the students. I can’t think of a better pair to have sent.” — David Rodriguez, assistant professor
“What they have put together so far has exceeded our expectations.” — Shawn McCracken, extension educator