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 The images are often based on regurgitated, outdated old palaeontological tropes and are quite inaccurate.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.