HESP September 1, 2017

Edited by Kelda Fontenot

HOPEWELL JUNCTION, N.Y. — The father gets ready to shoot a new video in the house basement with a green background behind him.

Virol Vlog new logo

His son hardly reaches the camera holding the clapboard and says, “EBOLA. Take four. Action.” Then he claps it.


                                    Islam Hussein gets ready to shoot a video about EBOLA                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Adham directs and shoots his father’s video

Islam Hussein, an American-Egyptian virologist and scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his middle-school aged son, Adham Hussein, have a YouTube channel called Virol Vlog. Hussein said the name is composed of two parts. The first part, Virol, stands for Virology, and the second part, Vlog, stands for Video blog.

Adham said, “In this world, we try to input what we can do to make it a better place. I feel that we are adding when one person learns from our videos and correct his knowledge.”

They counterattack how the unprofessional media mishandle the science of viruses, Hussein said. They present an alternative channel by producing funny short videos for the general public.

Moreover, they contribute to the Arabic content on the web. According to a report published by the UNESCO, only 3 percent content on the internet is in Arabic.

Adham said when he grows up, he wants to pursue a filmmaking degree, then another degree in another technical field.

Hussein laughed and said that Adham will take a degree in engineering first then in filmmaking.

Adham said that he is still young, and they can discuss this issue later.


The start

Hussein said that the spark to produce these videos was on Feb. 22, 2014. He said he was shocked by an announcement made by the official spokesman of the Egyptian Armed Forces claiming that they invented new devices for treating HIV and Hepatitis C patients.

The media in Egypt produced propaganda that these devices can cure all viral infections.  

The inventor of these devices, Major General Ibrahim AbdulAtti, said on the national television that he could cure the viruses with a kofta kabob.

“Outrageous claims that AbdulAtti clinic can cure AIDS with ground beef kabob,” Hussein said. He posted a video on YouTube to prove Major AbdulAtti’s false claims.

The video went viral.


The process

Hussein said, “I deal with these videos as if I am publishing a scientific paper.” He said that he takes much time to generate the ideas and research them.

Then he writes a script. “I try to live it. If I have to give a particular facial expression, I digest it like a small acting scene,” Hussein said.

Afterward, Hussein and Adham go to their basement to shoot the video and the audio, often with multiple takes. Hussein said the shooting of a 15-minute video might take half a day, or even a whole day.

Adham said they shoot the scene 10 or 20 times till they are satisfied with the quality. “We are both very stubborn, and we want the best,” he said.
Hussein said that their learning curve was painful as they started without any experience in filmmaking or video editing. They learned by trial and error, YouTube tutorial videos, Udemy, and Lynda courses.

As any academic researcher might produce a presentation, Hussein initially recorded the first video as a PowerPoint presentation along with the audio.

“People hated it,” Hussein said.

  Their scientific videos comprise humor with virus puppets and funny shots

Consequently, Hussein said they revamped the video style by buying a studio umbrella for lighting with a green screen background, a camera, and some virus puppets. Then they shoot Hussein explaining.

Finally, they combine humor to the scientific videos with demonstrating diagrams and some fun shots from related Arabic movies.

Nevertheless, Hussein said the audio was terrible.

Over time their technique has developed through experience. They now record the audio with two mics independent from the video and sync them later in the editing, he said.

Hussein said that he keeps a log of any comment that he finds useful whether negative or positive in Evernote. Adham did not know about that.

Adham said, “He keeps things from me!”

They laughed.

It takes about a week after shooting to edit, render, and upload the video to YouTube, Hussein said.



The main challenge they face is funding as the devices are expensive, Hussein said.

Last year, they ran an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign. It enabled them to buy a new computer to replace the 5-year-old laptop that used to take extended time in rendering videos, a new camera, and mic, Hussein said.

He said, “The Indiegogo campaign still accepts money. However, we seek a sponsor.”

Currently, they rely on their fans and peers to fund them monthly as their patrons.


Future plans

Hussein said if they have enough funding, they will produce scientific videos for children. Kids videos need a myriad of animation which is a high cost. Moreover, they plan to produce videos in English and to add English captions to their Arabic videos.

“The problem with Arabic is that our videos have cultural inferences and jokes,” Hussein said.

Unless they hire professional translators, the captions will be gibberish. According to Unbabel, a prominent company that develops artificial intelligence powered human translations, Arabic is the second toughest language to translate to English.

Hussein said he hopes to have a working group to brainstorm ideas with and to be able to produce regular videos. However, Adham said that for now they are a team of two, and it works well.

“I am glad to be part of something bigger than just being myself and help in educating people,” Adham said.


Father-son relationship

From left to right: Reem Hussein, Randa Azab, Islam Hussein and Adham

In regard to their father-son relationship, Hussein said the Virol Vlog added to their relationship.

However, he said that in this initiative, he works with Adham as his partner not his son. Hence, he relies on Adham in learning any new technical skill; then Adham teaches it to him.

“It brought us much closer as a family. For example, I can criticize him,” Adham said with a laugh and said, “For example, about the funny references, I provide input as I can.”

Adham said, “My older sister, Reem, and Mama put immense input, comments and critique.” His sister, at times, has helped in shooting by being behind the camera.

Randa Azab, Hussein’s wife and Adham’s mother, said that Islam always shares his knowledge.

Azab and Hussein were peers in the same class at the veterinary medicine faculty. They met during her first day at the morgue.

“Our love was at the morgue,” she said. She said the formalin scent was so vehement it blurred her eyes. Then she saw Hussein holding a horse leg and explaining its anatomy to his peers.  

“It takes a lot of work. They don’t profit from it. People don’t realize how much work and money that goes into producing [the Virol Vlog videos],” Reem Hussein said.


This Essay was submitted as a Proseminar, to Dr. Sallie Sharp


About the author:

Engy Fouda is an author, freelance engineer, and journalist. Pursuing master’s degree in journalism at the Harvard Extension School and the Team Leader for Momken Group (Engineering for the Blind), Egypt Scholars Inc. She lives in NY and is originally from Egypt.

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