Humanise a rock: how to animate science for a wider audience

Humanise a rock: an animator’s top tips on getting science a broader audience

A scientist sits at a desk with their head in their hands. They’ve made a crucial discovery that they need the wider world to know about. But they don’t know how to get the information across.

Beyond a technical paper, written for other scientists, how are scientists supposed to get their research to its intended audience?

For Dr Tullio Rossi, the answer lay with a humble whiteboard animation.

“I was doing a PhD in climate change – in particular, ocean acidification,” Rossi tells Cosmos.

“My PhD had zero commercial application whatsoever, so the whole point, I realised, was to let the public know what we risk if we don’t act on climate change.”

This encouraged him to look for a medium other than scientific papers and lectures to explain his research.

“One of the things I loved most was animation videos, I love to watch them. So I thought: can I make one? I’m not an animator by training, but I have years of experience in graphic design.”

At the same time as working up an animation, Rossi was getting interested in the literature on science communication – and specifically, the importance of narrative.

Former marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson has a particularly compelling take on storytelling with the And, But, Therefore structure. Olson believes that all good stories start with momentum – ‘and’, introduce conflict – ‘but’ – and end in resolution – ‘therefore’.

“[It’s] the same structure behind the hero’s journey of every Hollywood movie or novel. We’re just not used to thinking about science this way, but the same principles apply,” says Rossi.

Laying down facts, however efficiently, is not usually an effective way to get a message across. But ordering the facts in a narrative? That works.

“That really resonated with me, and it taught me how to present my research in a way that didn’t feel like a lecture, but felt like a story,” says Rossi.

“So the way I approached my video was: here’s the story of a baby fish getting lost at sea.”

Rossi’s first animation.

Ocean acidification is a pretty abstract concept – but a baby fish whose navigation skills have been trounced by rising acid catches our attention.

“Presenting it like a story really made all the difference. I think it was even more important than the animation style,” says Rossi.

It was a triumph. Rossi won three prizes in video competitions, and the video was shared among thousands of viewers.

“It really hit me when I got this email from a stranger saying, ‘I watched your video, I finally understand what the problem is with this thing called ocean acidification. Thank you for doing what you’re doing’,” he says.

“First of all, nobody ever told me ‘thank you’ up until that point, doing my PhD work. It felt nice. But it also made me realise that people will show signs of gratitude if we scientists put a little extra effort to get our work out there.”

Other researchers told Rossi they wanted to do what he’d done, but they didn’t have the time. This was the kernel of Animate Your Science, the company Rossi now directs.

The business makes animations, graphical abstracts, posters and other tools for scientists around the world to explain their research. Based in Adelaide, South Australia, the company now has half a dozen staff.

An Animate Your Science video about invertebrates on Ascension Island.

Rossi says that every animation made by his company follows Olson’s ‘And-But-Therefore’ structure.

“I find that storytelling is something that we intuitively understand, but we are not very clear in our minds on what it is and isn’t. And I find that the work done by Randy Olson really made it clear.”

An Animate Your Science video done for the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

The other crucial component is a character at the centre of the tale.

“All of a sudden, you start caring – intuitively, automatically, without even realizing it,” says Rossi.

“And the beauty of animation is that you can make any character. You can make a character out of a rock, if you want.

“You can humanise a rock, you can humanise a fish like I’ve done in my PhD video, you can humanise a tree or anything you want, just to make it more relatable, and feel more human.”

This was hammered home for Rossi when he created a video on coral bleaching.

“I’m certain that the reason why that video was successful was because I humanised a coral,” he says.

“I started telling the story of Frank, the coral who is hundreds of years old. He was there when James Cook was sailing around Australia. But he could not survive the 2016 coral bleaching event.”

Frank the coral.

Aside from racking up more than 100,000 views across Youtube and Facebook, this animation has made it into museums and educational resources around the world, translated into multiple different languages.

“I swear, I observe people’s faces watching that video in a room, and I see them turning sad when the character dies in just seven minutes of video.

“That’s really the objective of communication: triggering an emotion. It means people you got people to care about something.”

Does Rossi ever get a brief from a client with really flummoxing science? Something so complicated that he’s not sure how to turn it into an animation? Yes, frequently, he says.

“At the beginning, I often feel I don’t know. But by knowing which questions to ask, you can tackle just about any topic and leverage the expertise of the researcher,” he says.

“They typically walk in the door with a spaghetti idea in their head, and our job is to tease it apart and find the narrative in there.”

The trick, for him, is to understand that he’s not the expert in the scientific content, and he doesn’t need to be.

“The researcher is the expert. I’m the expert in communication,” he says.

“We now have a process we go through in our kick-off meetings with customers with all the key questions we need to ask. Then we have all the building blocks we need to then write a good script, and to construct a good compelling character that is relatable to their target audience.

“Of course [the process] took time and effort to develop, but now it’s well tested and we know it’s effective. That makes it so much easier for us, but also for the customer.

“The typical response we get at the end of the one-hour kick-off meeting is: ‘you got it’.”

Please login to favourite this article.