20 February 2017

Making “Kate Tectonics”

Posted by Callan Bentley

I recently discovered a terrific series of videos on YouTube called “Kate Tectonics.” Watch episode 2, “The History of Geology,” here, to get a taste of the series’ excellent production values and its hip, humorous style:



I asked one of the creators, namesake Katelyn Salem, to share a bit of information about the series:

  1. Who’s involved in the series? The credits seem lengthy! Can you give a bit of the “backstory” for key personnel?

Our director is Michael Aranda. He’s worked on some great YouTube shows like Crash Course, SciShow, and The Brain Scoop. Both our animator, Marcus Schlueter, and our cinematographer/editor, Sarah Meismer also work for SciShow. Marcus has his own weekly web comic, Consistent Tangerine, which is just a joy to see every week. Our writer is Khyan Mansley, an amazingly talented and funny man who’s acted and written for several short films. He also has his own YouTube channel which he writes comedic skits for. Todd Williams and Michael Morgan are our producers and money guys. They try to hold everything together. I am the Kate of Kate Tectonics. Along with hosting I write up the basic outlined script of science we want to teach in each episode.

  1. Where did the inspiration for the “Kate Tectonics” video series come from? What’s your background in geoscience?

Michael and I came up with the idea together. He was already very involved with online video and I had just gotten my degree in geoscience from the local university, The University of Montana. He was looking to start his own production company and we noticed that there wasn’t a lot of highly produced geology content on the internet. I had the degree and we lived in this beautiful state of Montana surrounded by the Rockies, so we went for it!

courtesy of Kate Tectonics


  1. How would you describe your “approach” to the material?

We try to go into each episode thinking about different ways to present typical, not always very interesting, topics in a bold and new way. We wanted to make each episode “more than just a talking head” as Michael would say. So, with the help of Khyan we try to throw in some comedy and interesting visuals for each episode.

  1. What role do you see for fun, informal videos like this in the greater “scene” of science education? Are they a supplement to traditional classroom science education? …a replacement? How do videos like yours relate to other media like science blogs or TV series such as Planet Earth or Cosmos? I see you’re offering “merch” for sale as part of what I presume is a larger branding strategy. Can you comment more on the “big picture” of the “Kate Tectonics” initiative?

My interest for the show has always been to first, try and get the general public interested in geology and the Earth since it’s not a very popular science and second, to try and make good, cinematic content for the people who are already interested in the science.

With any science and especially with a science like geology, some of the topics can get very “heavy” and difficult to learn either without visuals or with the fact that the topic may just be boring to someone. In this case, I think it’s great if teachers have videos like these that are a break from the typical coursework and are entertaining but are also just as likely to teach students about a topic as the teacher teaching it from a book would be.

The great thing about YouTube is that you can make the videos as short or as long and complex as you’d like and you can do it in any format that you think will work best for your audience and what you’re trying to do. You aren’t stuck with only trying to teach things verbally and with pictures like in books or a blog, and you aren’t restricted to certain topics or certain formats like you would be in a TV series. You can literally make a video about any topic in any way you see fit.

Our long term plan for Kate Tectonics is to make it a go-to place for geology and earth science videos and provide videos with a style and personality that people can enjoy to watch even without the desire to learn. We would love to see a community of viewers form and to continue making videos as long as we’re able to.

  1. How many episodes are planned in “Kate Tectonics”? What’s the time line for the series? What else is in the works?

Thanks to the Big Sky Film Grant from the Montana Film Office, we’re able to produce 10 videos for the series for the first half of this year. If the videos are successful and we are able to financially produce more, we have ideas for 50 possible episodes in the future solely based off of a basic geology course curriculum. The actual amount of topics for videos we’d love to cover is nearly endless. Our next video will take Dwayne, my pet rock, and me to space to learn about the creation of the elements!

  1. Describe your workflow from conceiving a video, to planning, to filming and postproduction. When do you employ props, and when do you opt for digital effects?

Our process starts with an outline of the basic science topics to cover in an episode from me, then gets handed off to our writer to come up with a script. After a few meetings between, myself, the writer, and the director to decide on the direction of the episode, the whole production crew meets for a pre-production meeting to talk about props we need to find or make and animations that need to be started. The director and cinematographer then decide on how they want to shoot each scene and the producer makes any calls for permissions if we need to visit a certain location. Once everything is planned and gathered together, we set aside a weekend or two days to shoot the episode on our set. The footage goes through a rough cut, we double check for scenes that maybe need to be changed or audio that needs to get re-done. A finished edit then goes to our animator to add in our animations, then any final coloring, editing, and sound design are done to the video.

Our second episode went with puppets instead of digital animations. We did this because we knew almost the entirety of the episode would be much more entertaining if the scenes were changing constantly instead of having myself talk in front of the camera about the history of geology for most of the time. We didn’t want a “talking head”, so we opted for a video of just animation, and practical animation instead of digital to keep the video as unique, practical, and interesting as possible. There aren’t a lot of videos out there that use paper puppets, that I’ve seen.

“Dwayne” the pet rock (in his space helmet), courtesy of Kate Tectonics


  1. How has feedback been so far?

The feedback for what we’re doing has been so overwhelmingly positive! More so than any of us expected. Only a couple out of hundreds of comments have been anything but supportive and excited about the videos. We’re excited other’s excitement for it and hope that the positivity continues to grow as we grow the channel.

  1. What else would you like Mountain Beltway readers to know?

We’re producing these videos because we love film, we love science, and we love a smarter general public. We encourage people who enjoy the videos to share them and help make people smarter and more knowledgeable about the Earth. I also think that people don’t quite realize how much a single share helps small channels like our’s when we’re starting out. More eyes means more attention, more attention means more attention from communities like Mountain Beltway that can really help us spread this information to more and more people. Once our grant from the state for the first 10 episodes is done, we will need support from people like our amazing patrons on Patreon. Anyone who is able and would like to support financially as well is able to at our page patreon.com/katetectonics if they’d like to help us be able to make more videos.