What are the best explainer videos?
January 8, 2021 8:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning to create an explainer video series about a subject that's close to me. The subject is well-known but widely misunderstood. I want to familiarize myself with the best of the explainer genre before I get started. Please share with me your favorite explainer videos to help me out.

I'm particularly drawn to explainer videos that are clear and compelling, have interesting visuals, and spark that aha moment. I love the Vox Explained series on Netflix.

Please share links to your favorite explainer videos. Also, I would love to hear the reasons why you shared your link. Your reasons are almost as important to me as seeing the videos. Are these videos that gave you a glimpse into a subject you've rarely considered? Did you share it with a loved one after a debate? Are there videos that have actually changed your views? I'd love to know!
posted by cursed to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I love explainer videos, but especially ones the one that also have an "edutainment" angle - that is, they are entertaining to watch as well as educational and informational.

One of my personal favorites is CGP Grey's "How Machines Learn" which explains Machine Learning. It's amusing, it has cute visuals, it uses real life examples that everyone can relate to, it explains things very clearly, and it has amazing production values. I knew how ML worked going into the video, but I was even like "dang, that makes a ton of sense". I've shared it with just about everyone, because it's a complicated topic made accessible to everyone. To be fair, I'll watch just about anything CGP produces, and any of his "explainer" videos could be a considered a great example. But it's also a crazy high bar - CGP puts months of work into these videos, has a team helping him, and making these is part of what he does for a living.

Another good example for those of us that have ever been frustrated boarding a plane (in the beforetimes...): The Better Boarding Method Airlines Won't Use. But do see the channel for more examples, I'm tempted to link them all but i'll restrain myself!
posted by cgg at 9:04 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

i really like Kurzgesagt in a Nutshell and CrashCourse. High production value, entertaining, an extremely wide variety of subjects. Those links are for their channels, were they explain their purpose.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:15 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

Would it also be useful to hear things that DON'T work for people? I'm in education and especially this year, teachers use a lot of "educational" videos and I have a pet peeve - videos that throw a ton of information out super quickly with no processing time. I think YouTube has influenced video creators to trend towards this, and CGP Grey is a major target of my ire (sorry, cgg). Videos like these have the narrator speaking super quickly in a weird, unnatural newscaster-y type of way, include a ton of complicated concepts in a very short time period, and often the visuals are distracting instead of clarifying/showing. It's hard for brains to keep up and not just succumb to the firehose of information and give up.

People, especially students, non-typical learners, or people with learning differences, need processing time to let concepts sink in. Even more so when topics are complicated, widely misunderstood, or have lots of parts. Information should be presented at a reasonable pace (the pace should be slower the more complex the subject). Information should be presented visually, auditorily, and with real-life easily accessible metaphors whenever possible. And please, please, please include accurate captions or subtitles (and if you really want to go the extra mile, a full transcript for those that like to take in information via printing, reading, and highlighting/annotating).

I'm sorry I don't have any videos to link, I'm currently just in a minute of downtime from work, but this question was too much of a personal cause to not try to add my two cents! Memail me if you want to talk further or want specific feedback, and if I find any decent examples of good educational videos, I'll come back to link them. I hope this was helpful!
posted by carlypennylane at 10:07 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

(oh, also: not assuming a base knowledge that people might not have. I'm seeing so much of this this school year. You mentioned your topic is widely known - I would be cautious making assumptions about that level of knowledge or how widespread it is. I would start at the super basic, "never heard of this concept before", and build up from there. If that might be boring to those that do know some, a series is always a good idea, so people can choose where to start for themselves. Ok, sorry, done now!)
posted by carlypennylane at 10:09 AM on January 8

Johnny Harris did a series of videos for Vox called Borders (playlist for India) and has his own YouTube channel that are good at this. High quality graphics, especially maps & deep dives into a single topic.
posted by ellebee at 10:58 AM on January 8

I really like these creators on youtube. Some of my favorites:

Adam Ragusea (Cooking/science)
Tom Scott (Latest videos are from guests, but all are really, truly amazing)
SeeJaneDrill (home improvement)
Internet Shaquille (Cooking)
Mike Boyd (how to learn new skills)
Technology Connections (mostly how electronics work, this guy is really good)
Alt-Shift-X (mostly game of thrones)

"makers" do this to some extent, but it's mostly showing what they did to solve a problem. Still educational, but less "learn this" and more "This is what I did".
Mark Rober
Stuff Made Here
William Osman (mostly comedy now)
Michael Reeves (mostly comedy now)
posted by bbqturtle at 11:07 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

I personally like the "5 levels" Explainer videos on YouTube, where they explain the same concept at different levels of sophistication. I'm not qualified to say whether they are very good, but I figured you might want to look at one or two to get ideas (?).
posted by forthright at 11:48 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

The best I'v seen is this video from xiph.org discussing audio digitization and related concepts, and uses clear examples with demonstrations to explain common misunderstandings about analog/digital audio conversions. It does require some base knowledge, but if you do you can learn a lot.

The different Youtive channels of Brady Haran (e.g. computerphile, sixtysymbols, periodicvideos, numberphile often have good videos too.
posted by rpn at 11:55 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

Knowing Better on Youtube is pretty good, although probably on the long side. I also like Geography King, Geography Now, Mr. Beat (general social studies), JJ McCullough (file under social studies, I guess), Rick Beato (music), Company Man (business), City Beautiful (city planning), Road Guy Rob (city planning and transportation, specifically roads, as you may have guessed), Todd in the Shadows (music), and the aforementioned Adam Ragusea. They're all pretty different, but the common thread is that they present entertainingly. I enjoy watching/listening to them, even on topics I don't care about.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:34 PM on January 8

Oh, I left out LangFocus (foreign languages).
posted by kevinbelt at 12:34 PM on January 8

I came to recommend the same "Audio Show and Tell" video from Xiph.org that rpn posted above. In the video, Monty very clearly and concisely presents and explains evidence contrary to a lot of audio-related woo. That respect it falls in the same "well-known but widely misunderstood" category as the subject you want to explain.
posted by zsazsa at 2:41 PM on January 8

I liked Vox's explainer video on marginal tax brackets.
posted by infrathin at 4:22 PM on January 8

Oops, hit post too soon. I liked the video I linked because it didn't make any assumptions about the viewer's knowledge or experience and it used terms that are super accessible to laypeople. I showed it to my partner and now he understands tax brackets too! It was very exciting for both of us. :)
posted by infrathin at 4:28 PM on January 8

Shut Up & Play
This guitarist teaches popular songs to mid-level guitarists.

I point out his tutorials because of the focus: We rarely see the teacher’s face, and everything but his hands and guitar are in black.

Purely focused on teaching the correct way to play the song.
No distractions.
posted by artdrectr at 4:40 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Crash Course, John and Hank Green's educational explainer series, is fantastic and gets my five stars for content and organization. However, presentation gets two stars: delivery is way too fast for many learners who need more processing time of the material. I'm with carlypennylane who said upthread:

I'm in education and especially this year, teachers use a lot of "educational" videos and I have a pet peeve - videos that throw a ton of information out super quickly with no processing time. I think YouTube has influenced video creators to trend towards this, and CGP Grey is a major target of my ire (sorry, cgg). Videos like these have the narrator speaking super quickly in a weird, unnatural newscaster-y type of way, include a ton of complicated concepts in a very short time period, and often the visuals are distracting instead of clarifying/showing. It's hard for brains to keep up and not just succumb to the firehose of information and give up.
posted by Elsie at 3:37 AM on January 9

The best explainer videos require a solid grasp of display of information. The kind of visuals depends on the topic. What you want for history is different from what's needed for the social sciences is different from what you need for math.

Here is a highly admired math video. It's easy to see what technical mastery of the software used to create the visuals brings to the table. https://youtu.be/Ip3X9LOh2dk For music, David Bruce and Adam Neely have great control, not just of music, but also image and video content.

It might be that what you need most is video production skills. Glen & Friends on YouTube is a cooking show from Canada. Glen has long experience creating commercials. It shows in the simplicity and clarity of his presentation.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:02 AM on January 9

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments and links!

There seems to be a wide range of answers under the umbrella of explainer videos. I did some searching, and it does look like explainer videos have several different meanings. The dominant one, which seems to have been popular a few years back, was for business marketing videos. I think the lack of clarity on explainer videos makes it hard for me to search for non-marketing explainer videos.

In my own words, explainer videos use a combination of animation, graphics, data visualizations, interviews, and archival photos, articles, and videos to tell their stories. They attempt to easily and quickly explain concepts that are either cutting edge, very broad, highly sophisticated, misunderstood, or forgotten to a broad audience. They usually lack the scope, nuance, and historical perspective of great feature-length documentaries. (Happy to be proven wrong on this.)

Examples I have enjoyed include Vox's How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history and Why a US election in Georgia matters so much.

I'm struggling to find videos I like outside of Vox, so I know I'm missing some great videos and alternate presentation styles.

I think recorded lectures, tutorials, documentaries, vlogs, and how-to's all share commonalities with explainer videos, but, in my opinion, they are something else.

Grateful for the help and answers so far. I've enjoyed exploring the links.
posted by cursed at 1:39 PM on January 9

Don’t let the slow down people get to you. One person’s processing time is someone else’s time to get bored and tune out. I speed up videos all the time — its fair to have some people can slow down or watch more than once.
posted by dame at 4:27 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

The absolute Best I've found is 3b1b. His videos on math topics are peerless.
PBS eons is also good, as is veritasium, crash course, minute physics, smarter every Day, physics girl, and their compatriots.
I use crash course in my classes, and the FIRST thing I do is to show the class how to turn on subtitles, and how to rewind and adjust playback speed.

For woodworking, I enjoy pask makes because he shows his mistakes and problem solving thought processes. William Ng has the clearest explanations of anybody, though.

Also take a look at this old Tony for machining, and just have a think for infrastructure.

Oh! Also the engineer guy! Check out his video on the drinking bird. I've used that video in class, too. We paused frequently and tried to make predictions and ask questions, and it was very rare that a student asked a question that he didn't cover later.
posted by Acari at 11:56 AM on January 10

One other thing I thought of - on the streaming platform Nebula they have an entire category of Explainers. Not sure if their definition is what you had in mind, but there's a free trial. If you want more, there are also tons of affiliate / introductory offers around - here's one. Basically, Nebula was created by several youtubers so they create the videos they wanted, instead of the ones youtube was encouraging aka those that were tailored for youtube's "engagement metrics" and ad revenue.
posted by cgg at 12:01 PM on January 10

Response by poster: Thanks for all the links, advice, and comments. I will certainly keep them in mind while working on my videos. Appreciate the help!
posted by cursed at 1:22 PM on January 20

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