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 The images are often based on regurgitated, outdated old palaeontological tropes and are quite inaccurate.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


  1. I also lament with your thoughts on this issue, but think that going completely with independents brings up other issues. First off is the issue of resources. Assuming you could organize a whole suite of dedicated paleo-enthusiast modelers, riggers, animators, shading/texture artists, fx artists, lighters, compositors, render-wranglers, editors, etc. from all over the globe.. it would be very difficult to develop a pipeline that would streamline the production process, and homogenize everyone's work. There is also the issue of resources, and needing access to some sort of render farm in order to get the project done.

    Another direction to go would be to use a couple of generalist freelancers, but that also comes its own share of problems. With fewer people, there's less room for people to focus on one aspect of production. As a result, even if artists are true to the science, certain parts of the visual appeal could easily fall short. For example, there are too many independent short films that are lit and rendered well, but the motion of the characters is just horrendous. It also goes the other way too, pieces that are well animated, but ugly, or where all the technical prowess is there, but there's no sense of artistic design sensibility.

    There's just a lot to think about, and most of this depends on the scale of the production, of course. What I'm getting at is I don't think the solution is to necessarily cut out production houses altogether, but rather for directors, producers, and supervisors (at the LEAST) commit to a very high standard of science. With the current production model of many studios these days: hiring an army of freelancers for the sake of a production and then laying everyone off after the show is completed, it opens room for new talent to cycle in and out of the company. This can be used to a project's advantage, by specifically looking for artists who have an interest in the subject matter, and hold themselves to a high standard of science, in order to maximize the effect of the final product; people who are credible, passionate people.

    So my final thought on this is that cutting studios with great talent and resources isn't necessarily the best way to go. What needs to happen first, is for people to hold everyone on a production to higher standards of scientific integrity, instead of just being overly excited/blinded by the bells and whistles of CGI.

    Another thought- to save time from artists getting things wrong over and over again, and having supervisors constantly tell them to make changes, it would be beneficial to do something like having a specialist come in and teach a class on the subject matter during pre-production, to make sure everything is headed in the right direction from the start. Too often, scripts are written early, without input from experts, and then interviews with scientists are hastily conducted after the fact in order to make it appear as if there's scientific credibility to the program.

    I think executives care too much about using digital technology because it sells, and not because it can be used to maximize scientific integrity...which is where I think the real problem starts.

  2. Lots of good points there Evan, I'll try to address a few of them.

    I'm not really suggesting that creating a big-budget show like Walking With Dinosaurs could be created by independents as obviously the resources needed would be immense and a large animation studio would be a better bet. I think a shift in the way the types of programmes we see constantly on Nat Geo and Discovery channels are created and produced with more attention to their script and visual content might mean the quality of the shows would go up.

    The obsession with 3d CGI has become rather unhealthy and has led to a ruck of sensationalist and uninformative programmes and you're right in saying their is some really poor animation out there, and this is what I think can be addressed within the context of structuring an entire documentary. Primarily this restructuring needs to begin with the content. Without meaningful, engaging and informative content there's no point in even creating a programme, unless you're interested soley in the money. So sourcing content is vital, and for that you need experts and from reading the discussion on the DML there are plenty of experts ready and willing to contribute. The specialists need to be involved in every aspect of the production, from concept to reviewing edits.

    As you suggest using independents raises other issues, but don't underestimate how much they are used in the industry already. In over a decade of being a dedicated motion graphics and animation professional I have worked via production houses and agencies on many large accounts, including work for BBC Sports, 10+ minute MOA animations created in 3D, TV ads, live footage incorporate into case studies etc. All of this done on a computer in my one-man studio set up. Many production houses don't have camera crews, sound recordists etc as staff let alone mograph artists and animators or 3D modellers.

    So like may independents people I work alongside effectively operate as a production unit without the overheads of, er, a production unit that exists as an in-house facilities. All the trades you cite, editors etc can be sourced quickly and easily; they might not of course be interested in palaeontology but if the producers/director/artists are (roles that often overlap as we create our own motion work) then quality can be maintained. Render farms can be outsourced as many other assets are such as music and voiceover. I know editors who have worked in the big Soho production houses, for all the major broadcasters and who are quick, work well under direction and most of all understand the art of editing - and many live with 15 miles of where I'm typing this. Independent producers can locate cost effective and efficient services that need to be outsourced, and be responsible for QC too.

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  3. Comment 2 of 2

    So dumping the CGI is a good idea. It's often just filler, eye candy to distract from the fact the script has had no time spent on it and is essentially total rubbish; the use of independents could mitigate against this lack of quality and inattention to detail. For a start, the script needs to be worked on by someone with a modicum of scientific knowledge and there are freelancers around who would be able to do this (indeed I work with many Phd'd writers in the day job). Similarly, for developing the look and feel, concepts, storyboards and development of graphics and any animation needed then some knowledge of the subject would be extremely useful and would deliver better programming.

    As I said earlier, getting the experts involved in the entire process instead of having them as just talking heads would ensure quality is being kept high, and something more than vacuous schedule padding is being produced. Smaller budgets could be accommodated and more controversial and exciting viewpoints could be expounded in the view of the public, hopefully engaging them and informing them at the same time.

    Content. Detail. Concept. These are the key ingredients to good programming, and this can be achieved without recourse to an army of 3D specialists or the costly option of going with a big production company.

    It can be done.

  4. Totally agree. Most of my comments were regarding larger scale projects like Walking with Dinosaurs. I completely agree with having the experts drive the content of the shows instead of just consulting on the side. It's a must if these things are to have any sort of credibility.

    I've had great experiences working alongside of experts, and changing content based on their input (as well as my own research), sometimes drastically. Working with enthusiastic experts to create a better result has been one of the more rewarding experiences of my life. I just think that more of these sorts of programs need to come from such a perspective.