Behind the Scenes: Breakthrough Junior Challenge 2017

by | Oct 11, 2017 | School, Science

If you’re one of my Facebook friends or if we share at least 20 mutuals, you’ve probably seen one of my ardent (and shameless) calls to like and share my entry to the 2016 Breakthrough Junior Challenge. If you’re one of the amazing people who voted, then I would like to sincerely thank you for taking the time because I owe the recognition to thousands of people like you. With your help, my entry advanced from the Top 30 to the Top 6.

Right after winning the Popular Vote Challenge, I was in such an optimistic (although still a bit uncertain) state. With faithful anticipation, I was hoping the email saying “Congratulations Hillary!” would arrive in my inbox anytime soon. After several days, my fervent positivism started transforming into hopeless anxiety.

Finally, the wait was over. They announced the winners; and needless to say, I was utterly devastated in every sense of the word. I was truly happy for my friends, Deanna and Antonella, who won the Challenge; but I’m sure you know that feeling of defeat after working hard, making it so close to the mark, yet ultimately missing it.

A year onward, I now realize the value of that entire experience. I learned so much from the emotionally confusing mix of victory and failure. Last summer, I decided to put my experience to good use by trying my luck in the Challenge once again. I was actually unsure about joining because of the sheer amount of effort it required but YOLO.

I reevaluated last year’s video with fresh eyes and I easily saw some weak points in the delivery, script, video production, and animation sequences. With renewed vigor, I set out to make a new-and-much-improved entry for the 2017 Breakthrough Junior Challenge. After close to 150 hours of shooting and editing (+countless hours of looking for the topic and making the script), I finally finished it! Here, I’ll be sharing, in excruciating detail, my entire rollercoaster process of joining the Challenge:

Step 1: Discard at least 15 drafts

Finding a good topic is undoubtedly the most difficult part of the Challenge (even Antonella can testify in favor this claim). Since last school year, I’ve been passively looking for topics while casually watching videos by Fermilab and PBS Space Time. It wasn’t until summer that I made active efforts for my Challenge entry.

Initially, I intended to make my entry about waves. I found this Nikola Tesla quote that spoke the undeniable universal truth:

“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.”

Inspired by this, I thought I could do some interesting demonstrations about waves, maybe using Chladni plates. I could also relate the idea of waves to nature’s ubiquitous harmonic oscillators. Perhaps I could use standing waves to demonstrate quantization in de Broglie waves. Unfortunately, I ultimately trashed the wonderful idea for some reason I’ve since forgotten.

Next, I turned to General Relativity. I chose this topic because I believed I could dissect this complex theory enough for laymen to understand. I felt maybe this topic was it, so I immediately started my research.

In my research, I watched PBS Space Time’s General Relativity series repeatedly before moving on to Leonard Susskind’s Stanford lectures on the same topic. I also got lost in random articles and books about the Equivalence Principle and the metric tensor. Once my intuition was primed enough for the subject, I started making outlines for the script.

First, I wanted to explain the core idea of relativity using reference frames. I also wanted to include points about the Equivalence Principle and slowly transition to the geometric aspect of General Relativity. However, the most important – also the most challenging – aspect of writing the script was coming up with original and illuminating ways to demonstrate the concept.

Because I harbored a slightly unhealthy dislike towards the hackneyed trampoline-with-heavy-ball analogy to demonstrate the curvature of spacetime, I was determined to find and make other equally effective demonstrations. I resorted to journal articles, books, and other obscure resources just to find fresh ideas.

Eventually, I hit a wall. Once I finished seven drafts, I found that even with three new demonstrations, my script did not flow as smoothly as I intended it to be. Although proceeding with this topic might give me a perfect 5 in the Difficulty criterion, I would sacrifice 15 points from the other three criteria: Engagement, Illumination, and Creativity. (See Challenge Judging criteria here.) I thought the tradeoff was not worth the gamble, so I threw my drafts in the trash once again.

At this point, the October 1 deadline was only a month away. I had to finalize a topic in two days or else I’d end up with an entry even worse than last year’s, considering all the college entrance tests that would also consume my time.

I shortlisted a few topics:

  • Fourier Transform;
  • Perturbation Theory;
  • Quantum Electrodynamics;
  • Quantum Chromodynamics;
  • Quantum Field Theory;
  • Special Relativity;
  • Measurement Problem; and
  • The Standard Model.

With every minute I spent thinking about each topic, I would raise my anxiety and doubt to the power of ten. Is this topic good enough? Will I be able to explain it properly? How can I make an original demonstration or analogy?

Amid my indecisive reflections, I found this amazing two-part video about Reference Frames from 1960. (Watch it, it’s worth it! Here’s Part 1 and Part 2.)

Instantly, I felt the potential of the topic as my Challenge entry. It was unique, challenging, and illuminating. I embarked on my routine research runs once again and became increasingly convinced. This has got to be my topic! At once, I entered my event horizon – the point of no return. I could not afford to let my hesitant mind rule so I immediately began writing the script.

Step 2: Write the script

I found the scriptwriting much easier than choosing a topic. For one, I did not have to be tortured by my anxious overthinking mind about the merits of each shortlisted topic. I also did not have to do as much research since I already covered most of it when I was topic-searching.

First order of business: I had to build a good set of demonstrations, which I thought was essential in a winning Challenge entry. After some searching, I had my demonstrations ready in my imagination: the 9/6 argument, the Doppler effect experiment for sound, the “Infinitely Many Observers” clone scene, the relativistic Doppler effect demo for light, and finally the Usain Bolt time dilation explanation.

Once I finalized my demonstrations, I wrote the script so that it would revolve around the visual demonstrations I had imagined. I did not want to venture too far into Einstein territory because I wanted my entry to remain unique. I had to stick to the core concept of relativity, not to its consequences.

After eleven drafts, I made my storyboard. I was finally ready to shoot!

Step 3: Get some amazing footage

Two days before shooting, I was still unsure about where I would shoot the video. I couldn’t shoot in my house because I didn’t have enough space. I also couldn’t shoot at school because of the noise from construction work (I’m also shy hehe). I just settled on the location I chose for last year – Rafael’s Farm, a hidden local attraction about 22 kilometers away.

I arrived there at noon excited to shoot (but probably more excited about the great food). I got my storyboard to fit with the Farm’s natural scenery and so the shooting began.

That day was incredibly hot. In preserving my body’s homeostasis, my skin naturally responded by sweating profusely which unfortunately showed in my face. Neither the face powder nor the occasional breezes could stop the incessant sweat manufacturing.

I shot my introduction and conclusion parts first since I believed that these parts were the most memorable. (I also did not want to repeat the rushed and *borderline shameful* video quality of last year’s conclusion segment.)

I shot the car scenes last since those had to be done along the highway. After a few takes and a few more annoying trucks, I announced: That’s a wrap! (A long-time dream of mine, by the way)

Previously, I planned to do some scenes with an improvised green screen but I couldn’t do it at the Farm since the natural lighting was too uncontrollable. As a result, I decided to do it indoors after the shooting at the Farm. After I shot my entire script in front of an impressively long green cloth, I realized something was wrong: THE QUALITY WAS ABSOLUTE TRASH.

While I did shoot the clones with the green screen, the quality didn’t look too bad because they were meant to be small in relation to the video dimensions; but for all the other explainer parts where I was supposed to occupy at least 30% of the screen, I had to throw all the new footage out. Although I missed shooting one entire segment, I just put it off until an unknown date so I could start working on the animations.

Step 4: Try hard to achieve professional-looking animations

If I could say something to my 2016 self, I would probably take the TARDIS and yell at her: Do not, I repeat, do not underestimate the time it takes to animate!

Last year, a 30-second animation easily consumed 30 hours of my time and much more of my patience; but I learned my lesson. A 10-second animation this year only took 8 hours – perhaps a significant difference, perhaps not.

For me, at least, animations take so long because I have to learn everything along the way. Despite my prior experience with the tools in After Effects, I still found it difficult because I did not fully understand how the tools worked.

I knew exactly how I wanted my frames to look but I did not know how to execute them; so I had to tirelessly watch several YouTube tutorials for every single thing I wanted to do:

  • “make 3D shapes after effects tutorial”
  • “crowd cloning after effects tutorial”
  • “jiggly text after effects tutorial”
  • “text reveal after effects tutorial”

While the high learning curve did slow me down, my efficiency also suffered because of my (in this case, reasonable) perfectionism. Knowing my mistakes last year, I was extremely adamant about making my animations as flawless as I could.

Step 5: Return to the familiar feeling of deadline-induced adrenaline rush

Remember the missing scene I procrastinated about? Yes, I shot that at 2 AM – 13 hours before the deadline! Wow, definitely unexpected from Hillary. Wow. (Please note sarcasm.)

Beginning 3 to 6 AM on D-Day, I had to get something amazing out of phone footage taken in the wee hours of the night. With the buzz of adrenaline pushing me along, I animated so hard even my fingers started to get cramps. While fighting my rising fever and drowsiness, I managed to finish an entire 30-second segment in 3 hours (a far cry from last year’s 30 hours, in fairness).

But wait! While the visuals were already finished, I had my sound effects nowhere near my After Effects project. I had to haphazardly put in two random background songs and some *pop*, *tick*, *krrrr*, *woosh*, and *ding* effects here and there.

Finally, I was ready to render the entire composition! It was already 8 AM and my febrile body was craving for some well-deserved sleep. I was sleeping for 2 hours when my mom jolted me awake because of a new error.

The deadline was at 3 PM – only 5 hours away –  and if there was ever anything Philippine Science High School taught me, it certainly taught me how to do some intense clutch gaming.

I fixed all the errors and finally got it to render properly. I finished the Challenge application form with some recycled entries from last year because desperate times call for desperate measures. At 1:30 PM, I SUBMITTED MY ENTRY!

Last summer, I promised myself that I would pass the day before the deadline. Well, maybe 1.5 hours before isn’t that bad (certainly not as bad as last year’s 10-minutes-before-the-deadline submission).

Step 6: Wait. Wait. Wait. Hope!

Putting together this entry was not any less challenging. Even when I started my preparation months ahead, I could not resist the familiar adrenaline rush of submitting the entry no more than 90 minutes before the deadline. (I totally blame my cramming habits for this. Please do not try this at home.)

Nonetheless, despite the unavoidable cramming frenzy, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I learned my lessons and improved on my weaknesses. Although uncertainty about the result still plagues my mind, I remain calm. At this stage last year, anxiety about the Challenge consumed my thoughts.

Now, however, I feel inexplicably calm. It is certainly not because I’m confident about the results. Maybe it’s because I don’t fear the unknown since I underwent the entire process last year; or maybe I just know that I did my best and I’ve exhausted all the physical and mental resources I had.

Either way, the only thing left for me to do now is wait. Patiently. Hopefully. Maybe anxiously. If that verification call arrives on October 15 (or not), only then will I know the fruits of my long and arduous hours of labor.