Browse through many of the most popular YouTube channels and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally stumbled through the contestants for some truly awful “reality” TV show; banal drivel at its worst with an audience whose IQ is presumably in less than triple digits.
There are however exceptions to the rule and 23-year-old former Oxford (now Exeter) PhD student Simon Clark is a prime example.
On his channel of nearly five years – www.youtube.com/simonoxfphys – is a miscellany of vlogs, “science made simple” explainers and advice to new students.
He says: “the channel was aimed at applicants to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge who came from unconventional backgrounds, such as myself (state school, first in the family to go to university, etc.). The channel put out videos dispelling myths about Oxbridge and tried to encourage people to apply.”
“Now that I’m a PhD student at Exeter University, the focus has shifted towards vlogs on student/research life, my research and also more conventional YouTube stuff such as ‘Draw My Life’.”
It’s a channel with a mission not just about science but about widening access to what might otherwise appear to be privileged education out of the reach of mere mortals. Simon adds: “I wanted to do something to address the serious social issue of not enough people from ‘normal’ backgrounds getting in to Oxbridge. Essentially I wanted to give people the advice that I wish I had been given while applying, and to try and change the image that people have of unobtainable, elitist institutions”
He must be doing something right as more than eleven thousand people have subscribed to his channel, though he’s modest about that achievement especially in relation to making any money from the viewers.
“I use YouTube ads to generate revenue, mostly text ads but I also use pre-roll ads on my more popular videos.” he explains. “I’ve considered further monetising the channel but don’t think that I have a large enough fanbase yet to justify merchandise or affiliates”
High quality production values count here, with a Canon 600D DSLR as the main camera with a stock 18-55m lens. Audio comes via a Rode shotgun mic and lighting from a pair of PhotoSEL softboxes. Mobile footage comes from a Sony Xperia S phone and there’s a new acquisition of a GoPro Hero 3 for its timelapse capabilities.
Simon says it’s a close call between the Canon and the Rode for his favourite item – but the Rode just nicks it. “It’s just so flexible” he explains. “It can be used for almost all vlogger audio needs, even recording live music (in a pinch!), and brings up your production values a whole lot with a relatively small investment.”
Simon’s advice for any aspiring YouTube (or other video channel) producer? Start producing! “The best way to become good at something is to know what you want to do and then start doing it” he says. “Learn from your mistakes because there will be a lot of them, so make them useful for something”
As a practical note he cites basic technical checks such as making sure that the camera is actually recording and the microphone is switched on before you start talking. He also films multiple takes of anything critical “because not knowing those things bit me in the arse”!
“Am I allowed two pieces of advice?” he laughs, “because in that case, I’d say good quality audio is more important that good quality video.”
So – the future for this exceedingly smart YouTuber? “I’m now at the point where I can start making more specialised scientific content. In particular I’d love to do a multi-part series introducing concepts in atmospheric science (my field of research) or trace the development of a piece of research from concept to publication, and generally make the channel more about science and the scientist”