Animating science: the role of the scientist in a world where anything is possible

Computer animation (CGI) has revolutionised the film industry.  No longer is a writer or director limited by the constraints of delivery and execution, literally any action stunt or visual world can be created.  The limitations are now those of the digital artists, of the computation required, of time and budget.  Jurassic Park (1993) showed what was possible; dinosaurs reborn as you had never seen them before.  By the time of Jurassic World (2015) and its sequel (2018) hit our screens the wonder was gone; CGI was taken for granted.  Given that anything is possible, should we not now expect a greater degree of scientific realism?  The Martian, for example, was widely lauded for its scientific veracity, but even here scientific veracity (i.e. the dust storm, radiation risks and geological aspects of the landscape) were not allowed to get in the way of a good story; after all we go to the movies to be entertained not educated.  Or do we?  Subliminal learning particularly in challenging scientific and gender stereotypes matters.  After all, aside from a rampant genetic hybrid of a dinosaur in Jurassic World it was ultimately the male and mad geneticist that is the true villain of the pierce.

Most scientists would agree that there are lots of good science programmes and documentaries out there today, but there are also some very bad ones.  Many documentaries and films play to the lowest common denominator, ‘sexing’ up the risks to humanity of a particular phenomenon and combine stock images and video carelessly.  The last point is a good case in point; just about every documentary that involves a volcano plays to the geological stereotype of red hot molten lava, when in fact gases and volcanic ash are perhaps the norm and only a few of the world’s volcanoes actually produce such fluid molten lava.  It is a volcanic stereotype reinforced by countless movies such as Volcano (1997).  Similarly the fact that the velociraptors of Jurassic World remained without feathers, despite the advance in science since 1993 that suggested they were in fact feathered is another example of a stereotype at work; we don’t see birds as frightening in the same way we see reptiles.


But is it really the fault of the film maker or animator?  After all their objective is to entertain not educate and stereotypes are essential ‘short-cuts’ in storytelling.  Is it not the fault of the scientist who fails to stand up and point out these failings?  Perhaps as scientists we should challenge the loose use of science-based stereotypes, not just around gender, race and the mad-demonic and out of control geneticist, but all those stereotypes that miss-inform and miss educate?  If we as scientist demanded more, were more vocal as critics especially of those who set out educate via documentaries, as well as those that seek to entertain would things change for the better?  The Martian was subject to a surprising level of scientific scrutiny – with countless blogs and newspaper reports documenting what was right and what was wrong with the science.  Perhaps fuelled by the claim to be the ‘most scientifically accurate film yet’.  It was good to see.  While ‘feather-gate’ (Jurassic World, 2015, 2018) still has palaeontologist grumbling into their pints (or not) perhaps they should have done more through public engagement and the use of their own animations to change the stereotypical dinosaur?  In the world of CGI where anything is possible scientists have an increasingly important role in constraining the art of the possible with a dose of scientific reality.

social contract

Portrayal of the social contract between state and university in the UK

There are bridges to be built since animation has huge potential in public engagement.  Public engagement is now an important part of most scientists work, a requirement of research funds and part of the agenda in most UK universities at least.  It lies at the core of the social contract between state and the university; that money is received to educate and research and while freedom to explore both is essential the reality of societal and economic are clear.  The growth of the impact agenda as part of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK has strengthened this as a drive to demonstrate both value for money but crucially societal return on investment.  Scientist now blog, hold numerous outreach events and some are actively researching the process of impact and engagement itself.  Animation offers one route to engagement.

A University funded project (2015/16) saw us working with a BU animation graduate (Katie Hill) to produce a series of short animated video clips to promote research in human evolution.  After all BU has one of the World’s leading animation courses and also has some great scientific research to shout about.   The clip showcased here shows what is possible with animation alone, and was generated to support footprint research at BU and to stress the importance of human evolution in a dynamic landscape.  The story is based on published scientific research, the terrain is based on digital elevation models derived from satellite observations, the vegetation assets reflect those present at the site and the footprints are based on detailed 3D models captured by photogrammetry in the field.  The behaviour of the volcano and the eruption is consistent with volcanoes of the region and referenced to real-life still and video images throughout.  The only nod to fictional composition was to move the signboard inside the site enclosure and to reverse it orientation.  The rest is accurate; a level of scientific veracity that in truth was not hard to achieve although the animation as a whole was not quick to produce taking six months of work. We used a second animation to help promote our work on springs and human evolution.

The point here is that getting things right in a world of CGI is actually not that difficult, but is matter of care and belief in its importance and collaborative working between scientists and animators.   Scientists have to stand up and engage, not just grumble from the sidelines and if they embrace the tools of animation they have much to gain.

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