Friday, 22 July 2011

Shoulder to the wheel . . .

. . . nose to the grindstone and any other hackneyed old idioms I can think of to explain why things have gone a bit quiet around here recently. Lots of work and trying to finish the EMA I need to submit for my OU course means I haven't got the time to write on the subjects that are stacking up in my head, as well as continuing my occasional series. Keep checking back, because progress is being made on the 3D dinosaur series, albeit slowly.

Books, computers, papers and snails.
This is what I'm doing instead of blogging.

Speaking of slowly, part of my OU course has involved studying evolution in Capaea (banded snails) via Evolution Megalab. This involves rooting around in soaking wet undergrowth and soil looking for the two species under study (Capaea nemoralis and Capaea hortensis), collecting them in a tub and then counting the various polymorphs of each species - wonderful stuff! They kept making frequent escape attempts as I looked for their mates, and had a surprising turn of speed. The sample results were interesting, with three polymorphs of C. nemoralis being found and none of C. hortensis. Of the three polymorphs found all but one belonged to two groups displaying the same alleles on their shells and these were both totally unbanded with the loner being single-banded. For ease of identification I'm calling the pink unbanded polymorphs Stan, and the yellow ones Ollie (the individual snails are virtually indistingushable when encountered alone so I don't think it matters they're not individually named). There are various theories as to why the snails have these patterns and colours on their shells, although bird predation is thought to be one of the main agents of shell pattern evolution in banded snails.

Of course this is all very relevant to palaeontology, and the next post will be back to that very subject.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Science and Communication 2: Museums

Sometime in the late seventies, a small boy who was visiting his grandparents in London was taken on a red Routemaster bus into the city, and guided by his Grandma into a cathedral-like building standing on the buys road where the bus dropped them off. Walking up the steps, into the vast atrium he was confronted by the sight of a giant, long-dead animal. He knew what he was looking at was a Diplodocus skeleton, a type of long-dead reptile called a dinosaur (he recognised the long neck and long tail from his many books on dinosaurs).  What he had never realised however, was just how big it was. It was immense! What did it eat? Where was it from? Were they all this big? Why aren't there any dinosaurs left? He wanted to know more, and his Grandma patiently took his hand and led him into the room of giant skeletons and huge bones. Thirty-five years later, he's as interested and fascinated by dinosaurs as ever, as excited by new discoveries and the science and the fieldwork and the art and . . . this is why communicating science is massively important. It inspires, invigorates and encourages people of all ages and walks of life to indulge their natural curiosity and find out – why? how?

Many of us had our first real experience of science when as children we were taken to a museum to gaze, wide-eyed and fascinated at the various exhibits. I'm sure that I'm not alone when I say that walking through the dinosaur halls of the Natural History Museum in London was a defining part of my childhood. Dinosaurs looked great in pictures, but when you see the skeletons – wow! The seed of a lifelong passion had been planted years before, but seeing the remains of these wonderful animals up close and personal certainly made it take root beyond any doubt. The reality was better than the books.

Ornithischian Hall, American Museum of Natural History, New York.
The best museum in the world? For me, the best I've ever seen as it contains
so many iconic fossils, plus a collection of feathered dinosaurs was there when we visited in 2001.

Museums are one of the main ways scientists and especially palaeontologists, can communicate the results of their research to the wider public. Riding on the back of the public's fascination with all things prehistoric much of the knowledge teased from the bones by the long labours of workers in the field and labs is disseminated through these august institutions. But is it always effective?

The dinosaur hall at the Field Museum, Chicago.
Face to face with a Stegosaurus and Charles Knight's iconic murals,
plus Mould-O-Rama machines in the basement - what's not to like?
The prep lab was empty all day when we visited - not like Dinosaur Isle in the UK.

Although I haven't been to the NHM in London for several years, I was fortunate enough to visit The Field Museum in Chicago and The Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD last year and the American Museum of Natural History in New York just under ten years ago. What all these museums have in common is the displays feature one thing more prominently than anything else: the actual fossils. In fact, they were by far and away better in terms of presentation and information dissemination than virtually any other museums I have visited, relying less on cheesy animatronics (although the Field Museum had a room full of these that used motion sensory technology to react to you as you walked past them - impressive to be sure but those hatchling Triceratops - ugh!) and placing the emphasis on the fossils themselves. Of course these museums represent possibly the greatest palaeontology exhibits in the world with incredible specimens and resources to match . . . except the Black Hills Institute is a small, privately owned concern and as well as excellent fossils it had the best graphic panels of any of them.

Here be dragons: The Black Hills Institute, Hill City, South Dakota.
Small but packed to the rafters with superb fossils and casts.
We went to see Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh (er, bone) after seeing the cast many times
in Manchester Museum back in the UK. We were not disappointed.
Did I mention the gift shop? Bring mucho cash.

The BHI panels were well-designed and informative, containing photographs of the excavations and prep of the various exhibits, as well as site maps showing the distribution of bones in the bed. There was no sensationalism, just information and fossils. I can't recall seeing any interactives in the main hall and it might have been good to get some sort of visitor operated attraction alongside the fossils; these can be quite compact but contain lots of information. They needn't be just for kids either, perhaps illustrated catalogues of the museums specimens and accessions that could be accessed in the fossil hall by researchers and public, complete with description, acquisition and provenance data for example. Combine this with reusage applications on the internet and a powerful new tool will be at the public's and academic community's disposal.

Over here in the UK, outside of the capital our dinosaur museums are altogether more modest but no less interesting. Leading the way in recent years is Dinosaur Isle in Sandown, on the Isle of Wight. Under the curation of Steve Hutt the museum has emphasised the fossils themselves rather than simply animatics (although the kids love 'em!) and through the combination of information-packed graphic panels and an interactive kiosk they communicate the science of the island's dinosaur species very effectively. More than that though, the public can look directly into a working prep lab and talk to the preparators and bring in their own fossils for identification without having to leave them and come back. This direct interfacing with the public is a strength other museums could do with taking note of.

The primate case in the newly refurbished Life Galleries at Manchester Museum, UK.
One of my favourite displays ever. I want this in my house.

My nearest large museum is in Manchester and has a wonderful old Victorian fossil hall, which houses a cast of the BHI's Tyrannosaurus rex Stan, controversially positioned in full running pose. This magnificent mount (I sometimes go up to gaze in slack-jawed awe at it like the small boy I was thirty-five years ago at the NHM) is surrounded by a small but perfectly formed collection of excellent fossils, including specimens from the Burgess Shale, Wigan and some superb marine reptiles from the south coast of England. There are some gems in here and I especially love the dinosaur footprints which show the texture of the soles of the animals tridactyl feet. The life galleries have been recently re-jigged with the old cases of stuffed animals removed and replaced by cases with a more considered thematic thread running through them. In truth, I'm not overly fond of these as I think one or two are a tad abstract (featuring origami birds rather than, er, stuffed birds) and I would prefer seeing actual specimens being displayed; if it comes to science over fuzzy concepts of 'life' I would suggest the science speaks for itself. The primate case display is utterly brilliant though and thankfully the Cassowary skeleton is still there (I can't help thinking that now there is a back room in the museum that contains some wonderful specimens I'll never see again . . . sigh), albeit the lighting's a bit gloomy. Looks like those skeletal reconstructions are going to get ever more difficult to do.

Screen grab from a proposal for a touch-screen museum interactive on my favourite subject, dinosaurs.
The large icons on the left-hand side were designed to be easy for little fingers to press.
Note: The 3D models dinosaur models used here were stock ones, the hammer and microscope my own.

Of course, much of what was written in my last post regarding the advantages of working with science-literate designers will is relevant for museum work too. To avoid repeating myself I'll assume you've read my previous post on the moving image. In that post I suggested working with science-literate creatives can enhance and improve the communication of concepts and current research because these creatives understand the science and can assist in the creation of effective and cost-conscious information delivery methods (there, I repeated myself). Many museums have their own in-house graphic units (perhaps shared with a university) that have designers who understand the subjects they are communicating. In this case, 'understand' means some knowledge of the subject and scientific methodology; this knowledge doesn't have to be extensive but it should be enough that the commissioning expert doesn't have to re-educate the designer whilst delivering a brief - this is important. However, there is a move towards outsourcing as the austerity measures we are experiencing at the moment begin to take effect. Once more, it's worth considering using independents rather than large studios as they will make your budget go much further with no loss of quality; if a larger team is needed to complete a project an independent can organise one or recommend another.

I was going to address symposia and other meetings in this post, but as this has gone on far longer I'll write a separate post for that subject. For now though, ponder over this concept: reusage.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Science and communication 1: The Moving Image

As I've mentioned on this blog before, for my day job as a graphic designer and animator (2D and 3D) I spend a fair percentage of my time working on drug mechanism of action animations for various medical communications agencies. This work consists of liaising with scientists, editors and project teams to create visualisations of how various in-vitro processes occur, from viral replication to signalling cascades and how various drugs in development or coming to market affect the relevant molecules. Despite the controversy surrounding modern drug development, some of the research being done in the private sector is quite incredible, and I always really enjoy learning about the science when working on these projects (I mean, this stuff is all sooooo tiny and gloopy - what's not to like?).

Over the years I've been following my passion for vertebrate palaeontology (especially dinosaurs) I've become more aware of the vast difference in the way communicating the findings of science varies between the commercial sector and those engaged in non-commercial research, i.e. palaeontologists. Is it possible, despite the difference in resources for the results of palaeontology research to be disseminated in a way that takes some of it's cues from commercial graphic design and animation? I've been pondering this for a while and I think it can.

Image from a proposed video for a museum. No CGI here!
© Stuart Pond 2011

There's been some interesting discussion on the dinosaur mailing list recently regarding the current state of TV programming of paleontological subject matter, especially with regard to dinosaurs and this has prompted me to post on this subject (I've been meaning to post about the role of graphics and animation in scientific communication for a while and there will be two posts on the subject pertaining top different delivery methods). As most of us with an obsession with dinosaurs know this area of programming is suffering from a distinct lack of integrity and imagination at present. It seems most of the current crop of dino-related programmes at the moment either interview experts then edit the resulting footage to alter the meanings or simply have a voice-over that contains little or no information. The images are often based on regurgitated, outdated old palaeontological tropes and are quite inaccurate. The same pieces of footage are played again and again within a single programme, perhaps tinted various hues or horizontally flipped to give the impression it's not the same clip. On the whole they're tedious, repetitive and don't convey any real information, and their reconstructions are woefully inaccurate. In short, they're complete crap. There are exceptions of course, as Phil Manning's recent series Jurassic CSI demonstrates; it contained actual science and actual scientists talking about their research. How refreshing was that (paleoartists take note, check out the episode where Phil reconstructs the leg of an Edmontosaurus - excellent stuff)? Also, take a look at David Attenborough's superb First Life series to see how palaeontology can be exciting and interesting. Both these programmes have knowledgeable and enthusiastic scientists presenting them; that they are a cut above the rest is not a coincidence. So what can be done to improve the quality of programmes and get the results of research out to the public?

Although modelled in 3D, this is from a series of 2D stills that created an animated sequence.
Cheaper than animated 3D, but just as effective and you always have models if
you decide to animate later. Result!

There are several issues here that need addressing, but to me one stands out more than the others. Commercial production houses are where the majority of these programmes are made and they often have large overheads and are not specialists in the fields of the programmes they produce; they might have talented staff but these people are not well-versed or even interested in the subject matter and may never even meet an expert. Some, like Framestore who created the memorable footage for Walking With Dinosaurs has developed some expertise in this area, however the programmes they make are often funded by public broadcasting bodies such as the BBC and the budgets can be huge and almost certainly out of the range of smaller commissioning broadcasters.

One of the reasons I do motion graphics for medcomms is I have developed some understanding of my field of work over the years. Whilst certainly not anywhere near to understanding the complexity of some of these processes (there is always learning to be done for each new animation) I do have enough of a grounding to allow the scientists I work alongside to impart information quickly and with minimal recourse to lengthy explanations to how and why this and that occurs, the role of proteins in signalling, the replication of viruses and RNA etc. This enables accuracy and efficiency in production, with minimal downtime as artists struggle to come to terms with the science. So finding artists familiar with the subject matter is essential in my opinion; many of the woefully inaccurate representations of morphology and behaviour could be avoided if the people creating the animation knew what was accurate from the beginning.

Cost has also been citied as a reason why creating this sort of programming is not practical. Here I think a new business model might wrest some of the control back into the hands of the scientists and other workers. It might seem there is no real alternative to large, established production houses but there is: independent specialists.

As I said earlier in the post these large production houses have big overheads and often big mark ups. Their staff, whilst extremely technically proficient at their chosen skillset are not necessarily that interested in the subject matter (and why should they be? they might work on a dozen programmes a year) and tend to be part of a larger team, including admins and generalists and they all need to be paid. But individuals can be found that are interested in the subject matter and these are the people that need to make themselves known to the palaeontology community. There are so many artists and designers out there that would be excellent choices for this sort of work as can be seen by the number of paleo artists on the web.

Of course some knowledge and experience is needed to create successful programmes but like science this is a collaborative effort. Teams of independents can be organised by a producer (also an independent, sometimes an experienced artist or camera person) who will personally know, trust and have worked before with these specialists; far more efficient and cost-effective level than dealing with a production house. Scientists could have direct access to the writers, artists, producers and directors and thus far more input and influence on the final product than previously - far better than handing over control to an in-house editor you've never met in some dark Avid suite somewhere out there. . .  Voiceovers, shoots and animations can all be sourced and created without the involvement of a commercial studio which will mark all of these assets up; everyone gets paid for their time worked without bunging a few quid more to fund the bosses golf holiday.

Concepts, scripts, storyboards, rough edits, finished edits, animatics, voiceovers etc are all sent for approval via the internet, so geographical location is no object to the efficiency of the production process. Without the overheads of big companies, teams of self-employed professionals now work from their own homes and drastically reduce the cost of creating meaningful, quality programmes which tell a story in an engaging and informative way. This means more control of the production, for budget-strapped customers alternatives to tacky 3D CGI can be found that won't make the final result look like it was churned off a virtual production line by a disinterested hack.

I am aware this could look like some big advert for the work I do but it isn't, that's here. I have never animated a dinosaur in my life (although it's coming - a new post soon in the 'Building a 3D dinosaur' series); there are plenty of independents out there far more expert than I at that. What I'm proposing is that people commissioning programmes look at a different way of making them, of giving the research the platform it deserves and eliminating the sensationalist nonsense that passes for the majority of paleo-programming these days.

It is not a cheap business (especially where 3D is concerned), but there is an alternative that might bring in better quality programming at less cost. And who knows, the public might get programmes that actually teach them something.

Next: Museums, symposia and graphic design.