INTERVIEW: Inside PBS’ Webseries “Origin of Everything” with Star Danielle Bainbridge

Nerdophiles got a chance to interview Danielle Bainbridge, the star in PBS’ brainy new webseries, The Origin of Everything. The show explores the historical beginnings of everything from the hashtag to scary clowns. Each episode is incredibly well-researched and the production value is stellar – the visuals and animations alone deserve a Webby, if not an Emmy. Best of all? You can watch it all on Youtube!

Watch the series introduction below!

Danielle Bainbridge is the star of Origin and when she’s not behind the camera, she’s busy graduate student at Yale University in African-American Studies and American Studies with a certificate in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions for Nerdophiles. I’m a big fan of the Origin of Everything webseries episodes you’ve released so far!

Thanks so much for asking me these questions about the show!

I really like your dynamic on camera – it feels effortless and approachable to audiences where a lot of direct-to-camera webseries have difficulty striking the right tone. Have you done YouTube before Origin of Everything or do you have some other background in performance?

So I’ve never done anything on camera before Origin of Everything. The trickiest thing was getting used to looking into a camera lens and not at a live person.

I started doing speech and debate when I was 11, I was a high school theatre geek, and a theatre major in college. I’ve spent a lot of time performing live and (usually) without a mic on, which got me used to really speaking clearly and assertively when I communicate with an audience.

Although the first time I ever stepped in front of the camera I remember asking, “So do we just do this once all the way through and call it a day?” I didn’t really understand doing multiple takes of the same thing or editing. It’s been awesome to learn more as we go along.

I love how well-researched the content of each episode is. What does the process look like from the start of getting an idea to filming the episode? How long does your research/writing typically take?

From start to finish, researching and writing each episode takes about a week, although some are a little longer and some are a little shorter in terms of timeline.

At the beginning of each episode I discuss ideas and topics with my producers Andrew Kornhaber and Eric Brown (Andrew also directs the show). We’ll think about what works, what’s interesting, and what questions we think are exciting. Then I get to work on the research.

I take most of the week to read online content, academic articles, watch or listen to other educational videos and podcasts, and read books on the topic. I also like to look for some people who are experts in the topic we’re covering, so I can cite their work in the video.

Although I have an idea of the question I want to answer, I try to keep my mind open about what conclusions I’ll draw until I find all the relevant information since a lot of times it’s not what I originally expected.

Then I spend about a few more days writing out the first draft. I send it to my producers and then we forward it to the team at PBS Digital Studios. This is the time for people to ask me any questions or make suggestions about points of clarity.

I revise everything in the updated drafts, usually taking time to do some more research to round out the episode. Then once it’s in good shape we shoot the episode once a week and Noelle Smith (our graphic designer) adds all the visuals that make the episodes super vibrant.

The topics you’ve covered so far seem unrelated to each other – from clowns to hashtags to cannibals. How do you pick your topics? Do you have all the topics ready for the rest of the season?

It’s really collaborative honestly. A lot of the topics are a mix up of things I suggested with things that were put on the table by my producers.

So the history of the hashtag episode started with them suggesting I do something on hashtags and then I said I really wanted to make it about language and semiotics.

A lot of the time I push for a certain topic over another, especially if it’s a question I can’t immediately answer. I like topics that make me stop and think for a while, or ones that ask an unexpected question about a really popular theme.

If I want to know more about it, then I assume other people will too. Coming up there’s an episode on why women give birth lying on their backs, what makes us eat artificial flavors, and why do we get grades in school.

At this point we have spreadsheets and lists with at least 60 ideas and every time I go to shoot we come up with at least 1 or 2 more. And all of the other PBS Digital Studios hosts and everyone on the production side love to send suggestions too. History is a huge field so I’ll never run out of weird ideas.

I also really like covering a range of topics, time periods, and regions. Plus viewers share a lot of suggestions and I really want to do some sort of open call for ideas from the audience soon.

You’re finishing up a doctoral degree in African American Studies and American Studies with an additional certificate in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. How do your studies intersect with the web series?

They intersect a lot actually. Everything you learn during a PhD program is centered on creating original research and teaching. And that’s essentially what the Origin of Everything is.

I spend time thinking about the information I want to convey to our viewers and then I find a way to present it in an organized and approachable format after conducting research. So even though the content of the episodes don’t always align explicitly with my dissertation research, the process of teaching and writing and researching is really similar since it uses a lot of the same skills.

The biggest difference is that my dissertation requires a lot of archival research and that takes a much longer time to dig into, especially because that style of writing is a lot longer than what we can cover in 10 minutes or less in Origin of Everything.

Looking forward, what are your goals for the future of Origin of Everything? Do you have any plans for other web series or collaborations?

I really enjoy working with the team at my production company and with everyone at PBS. It’s been such a pleasure so I would love to keep growing the show and reaching more people for a long time.

Right now I’m still finishing my dissertation and I finished a book of memoir essays that I’ve started publishing parts of, so I’d like to see both of those completed and published in full. I also just finished writing my first play and I’m working with a former professor to do a production of this play in 2018. So those are my main focuses right now, although I’d be into the idea of doing another web series in the future.

What is your advice for people looking to create educational content like “Origin of Everything” online?

I think my best advice for anyone looking to create educational content is to ask the right questions without assuming there’s a simple or perfect answer.

History is a really multifaceted process and if you start off thinking that you want one outcome over another, you’re doing yourself and your audience a real disservice. Let yourself be surprised. Dig deeper. If you don’t understand something at first, keep looking. It’s really about pushing through the most commonly held beliefs to discover the under told stories that are equally important.

Rapid Fire Round

What is your favorite web series on YouTube? Who are your favorite YouTube personalities?

I watch Bingeing with Babish which is a cooking show where the host makes recipes from films and TV. And The Mazzy Show which is a really smart and adorable baby that makes recipes with her mom and dad.

What’s something recent you’ve read or watched (book, comic, tv series, etc.) that you would recommend to a friend?

I just finished the graphic autobiography/memoir My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf which I found really compelling. I read and watch a lot of true crime stories and since I write memoir I thought this was a really unexpected merging of genres for me.

I’m rereading Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love, I’m still riveted by Tyehimba Jess’ poetry collection Olio (if you get the chance to look at the physical book, it’s really innovative).

And because I’m a Harry Potter geek who never grew up I’m also starting The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling as my next reading list item.

What’s the most surprising fact you’ve learned during research for your series?

The original meaning of the word “alumnus” which in Greek meant a pupil or a foster child. It made sense that they called colleges “alma mater” or a nourishing mother. I saw that while looking into the “why is 18 an adult?” episode and it was kind of a weird fun fact.

Thank you again for your time – we’re looking forward to the rest of the series and your future projects! Don’t forget to check out Origin of Everything from PBS on Youtube!