Derek, who graduated from Queen's with a B.Sc in Engineering Physics and went on to complete his PhD at the University of Sydney, was the landslide winner of the 2012 Cyberscreen Science Film Festival. His prize-winning film, 'Mission Impossible – Graphene,' is just one of a huge collection of online videos he has created. His YouTube channel,Veritasium, has close to 30,000 subscribers who are captivated by Derek's talent for creating unique science-themed films that are both entertaining and educational. You can also see Derek talking about creating effective educational science videos at TED @Sydney here.
Did you always want to combine science and film-making in your career?
I didn't really plan from the outset to combine my passions. It's just something that happened as I tried to satisfy competing drives. I always wanted to be a filmmaker, a writer and/or director, but I felt trepidation about pursuing a career in a creative industry. I wasn't sure that it's as much of a meritocracy as other fields and it seems to involve an unstable and unpredictable lifestyle. Perhaps this is why I set out first to get a degree in engineering. This was something of a backup plan, but I enjoyed the course on its own merits as well. I am fascinated by many things, including science and engineering, and my undergrad degree at Queen's allowed me to explore these things in depth.
While at Queen's I made films with my engineering housemates. We called ourselves WingIt Film due to our loose planning and as a reference to the aerospace engineering aspirations of some in the group. We made over 25 short films on subjects like ninjas, yetis, private detectives, and vampires (before they were popular). In my third year, I worked for the drama department, producing a documentary about the history of the department. I also took additional courses in film studies, including Foundations of Production, which was my first real introduction to filmmaking.
Describe a day in your life as creative director at Veritasium.
It's nearly impossible to describe a typical day running Veritasium - in fact there is no such thing. Over the past five months I've been travelling around North America and Europe. I was in London for the Olympics, making films about the science of sports like sailing and high jump. In Switzerland I filmed with a crew for the Australian ABC science show Catalyst. We went to the Large Hadron Collider to talk about the recently-discovered Higgs Boson. In Paris, I spent a few days filming extraordinary demonstrations at the Palais de la Decouverte. Most days involve keeping in touch with viewers through YouTube comments, Twitter, emails, and Facebook posts.
I also combine Veritasium with several other commitments. I work as a presenter for a TV program called Catalyst on the Australian ABC. I teach high school physics at a tutoring company in Sydney. This is usually done in a small group setting of a dozen students. I also give guest lectures to teachers and science communicators about my PhD research and making science films on YouTube.
You're now branching out from pure physics videos. Where do you get your ideas for short films?
I've always wanted to do more than just physics. The original idea of my YouTube channel was to start with the atom and work forward, with each video leading into the next. Predictably this turned out to be too hard so I just make whatever interests me at the time. I have a backlog of things as a physics educator that I always see people mixing up – or things that have mixed me up. I'm most excited about creating videos about this stuff.
What are your ultimate goals for your films and for your career?
1. To get better. It really helps me to think of each film as a stepping stone – as a chance to learn more about the craft and improve my process. I look back at the early films and think I've come a long way.
2. To make science more beautiful. That was actually one of my main goals – to show its relevance, comprehensibility, and lack of dry, boring, textbook-style exposition. For example I have always wanted to demonstrate properties of waves on a still lake in the bush – hopefully I'll get to do it one day soon.
3. For my films, I just want them to reach a wide audience, to encourage people who wouldn't ordinarily be interested in science to take a more critical eye to their surroundings, and to revel in the things they can learn.
4. For my career I would like to make documentaries, longer form work for TV and festivals. I am happy presenting for science TV shows as I am in Sydney but I would also like to make things with a longer lead time. I think the big goal is to question the assumptions that everyone holds about life and the world around them.
Finally, Australia is a long way from Vancouver. Do you have plans to return to Canada at any point or have you found your home down under?
Sydney is an incredible place to live; having said that, if the right opportunity came up I would be willing to move. My main priority is continuing to improve the work I'm doing and hopefully get the chance to work with other creative people.