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How to create a science animation: Behind the scenes at Animate Your Science

Scientist at a desk working for Animate Your Science

Animations, simply put, are magical. They have the profound ability to simplify complicated ideas, storylines, and concepts, making them incredibly effective for communicating the intricacies of science.

But, have you ever wondered what goes into the making of a science animation? If you've been holding onto thoughts of outsourcing your own animation, this article is a great place to begin! ✨

Today, we're thrilled to take you on a journey behind the scenes and share how our talented team transforms scientific concepts into engaging animations. From the inception of an idea to the final polished product, we’ll be sharing more than just a single slice of the creative process with you. Specifically, we’re featuring a recent project where we created an educational 2D motion graphic animation for Associate Professor Dan Worthley, an Australian cancer researcher. This animation aimed to simplify and explain his groundbreaking research about a novel tool for early detection of colon cancer published in Science.

So how did we create an animation about a tool for detecting cancer? Read on to find out. 👇

Image of director's equipment next to the words Lights, Camera, Animate!

Communicating with our clients 🗣️

The journey of a science animation begins with a single step: a conversation.

When Dan approached us with his vision of an animation promoting and explaining his research paper, we were more than excited to jump on board. We suggested our video abstract service, which is designed specifically for promoting a research paper.

To kick off the project, Dan filled out a simple guided questionnaire. This questionnaire has targeted questions to learn more about the research topic, its key messages, and the client’s vision for visuals. This information prepares the team to create a bespoke animation that hits all the right notes. 👇

Excerpt of guided questionnaire for video abstracts

Which service is right for you?

Here at AYS, we understand that different projects have different requirements. We offer two flagship animation services: our video abstract service, and our custom science explainer video service. The former is perfect for promoting research papers like Dan's project, while the latter is great for explaining any technical concept, even those outside of research papers. If you're contemplating starting an animation project, we'd love to discuss which service would best suit your needs.

Writing an engaging script 📝

After establishing the animation’s direction via the questionnaire, the next pivotal step is script writing. Our team considers the script as the foundation of the story. Like the base layer of cement for a home, it sets the tone for everything else that follows.

In our project with Dan, we needed to showcase the bacteria species Acinetobacter baylyi and its unique talent for ‘theft’.

Wait, theft? 🤔

These resourceful bacteria are extremely skilled at 'stealing' DNA from their environment or other bacteria, which they then incorporate into their own genome. Dan's research team demonstrated that A. baylyi is an excellent diagnostic tool for detecting mutated DNA, which is a hallmark of cancer through the very art of theft. And it was this very analogy that became the cornerstone of our script. Analogies are extremely handy literacy devices for explaining technical concepts. For example, we wrote A. baylyi’s character as a rogue Victorian-era pickpocket. This got the gears turning in our heads for how we’d visually depict the bacteria later in the process during storyboarding! ⚙️

Acinetobacter baylyi transformation, transduction, and conjugation diagram
Our job was to turn THIS A. baylyi diagram into an equivalent layman story. Source: Brito, 2021 Nature Reviews Microbiology.

While writing a script, the team considers both methodical and creative processes. Methodical, in that we always write scripts with the guidance of a nifty storytelling structure called the ABT. Creative, in that we take our time finding words to explain or replace jargon, all while fine-tuning the story to be most appealing to a specific target audience.

How to modify jargon in a science video script

It’s important to highlight that our client collaboration doesn't end here. Upon crafting the script, we give our clients two opportunities to provide feedback to ensure the messaging aligns perfectly with their vision and accurately depicts their research before we lock it in! 🔐

So with the script finalised, how do we bring each word to life? 🤔

Recording a voiceover narration 🎙️

With the script locked in 🔐, we move to the next step of the process – the voiceover. At this stage, we bring in talented voice artists from our network who can capture the script's mood and tone perfectly. This is especially crucial as the voiceover is a key part of the audiovisual experience we’re creating.

For this project, we engaged the services of a US-based voice artist. Given the script's light-hearted yet impactful spirit, we directed our voiceover artist to echo the same in her delivery. Her performance needed to reflect both the playfulness and authority of the content. The artist also needed to understand the nuances of the script and the intention behind each message. Because it's not just about reading words off a page; it's about infusing them with the right tone, emotion, and rhythm to connect with the audience.

Giving directives to a voiceover artist for an animated explainer video

Once the voiceover is complete, it gives us a clearer picture of the animation's pacing and flow, guiding us as we move on to the next steps – developing styleframes and storyboards.

Giving choice through styleframes 🎨

Styleframes are the first chance to look at what the built animation can look like. Think of them as a sample catalogue of room designs for a house you're planning to build. We create two styleframes, offering a preview of what the final artwork could potentially look like. 🖼️

Styleframes for a science video about bacteria
The client chose the left styleframes for their animation, which we call ‘2D flat vector’. But we also offered the right styleframes incase they wanted a different style approach, which we call ‘Hybrid-whiteboard’.

For this project, styleframes were crucial for visually communicating our Victorian pickpocket representation of A. baylyi. We explored a range of art styles and character designs, making sure they aligned with both the playful and authoritative undertones of the script.

While fashioning styleframes, we also consider the client’s institutional branding guide, if they have one. Branding guides help us create an animation with consistent colours and fonts (like we do for scientific posters) to adhere to a brand identity (i.e. for a University). However, don't fret if you don't have a guide; our experienced team can intuitively create an appealing look for any animation. In this case, Dan gave us the creative freedom to take the lead, and we delivered a range of options that he loved!

Sketching a storyboard ✏️

With the script approved and the styleframe selected, we proceed to storyboard creation. Storyboarding is like putting up the walls of a house—now beginning to give shape to the story. This critical step involves dissecting the script into manageable sections and conceptualising visuals that support the voiceover, making any complex scientific concepts more comprehensible and engaging. 🧠

Our team of artists sketch out each scene, usually in black and white. During this process, we consider different scene angles to add interest and variation to the story. A seasoned understanding of cinematography comes in handy here, enabling us to craft a storyboard that's both visually appealing and effective at conveying key messages.

Example of storyboard for a science video about bacteria

We then presented Dan with the storyboard, allowing him to see how his story unfolds visually. At this stage, two revisions are available to ensure the visuals aligns perfectly with the client's vision.

By selecting a styleframe and approving the storyboard, our client can visualise how the scenes would look and feel in their elected style. After this, we push forward towards asset creation, which we will delve into in the next section.

Creating animatable assets 🎨

Asset creation is the stage where we bring our characters and scenes to life.

What is an asset?

In multimedia terms, an 'asset' refers to anything that can be seen or heard in the video, including illustrations and audio.

In this stage, we focus on creating illustrations.

For our project with Dan, all illustrated assets were produced in Adobe Illustrator, the industry's go-to software for creating 'vectors', which is a kind of 2D digital illustration commonly used in our animations.

Let's consider our star bacterium, A. baylyi. Our animator meticulously creates and separates details like eyes, arms and more into individual layers in Adobe Illustrator to create a rig. This is like preparing a puppet for a performance, making each part movable independently.

Splitting layers in Adobe Illustrator for Adobe After Effects for Motion Graphics Animation

Drafting an animatic 🎞️

Once assets are ready, we move on to creating an animatic which is essentially a rough preview of the animation. It allows our team to see how the animation flows and the timing of each scene. Our animator simultaneously times the storyboard scenes to the voiceover, defining how long each scene or action lasts.

Essentially, this step is a playground to test how the narrative flows.

The next stage involves putting all these components together and breathing life into our animations.

Producing an animation 🎬

Now comes the exciting part — the animation! With all the preparation completed, it's time to piece everything together and set our story in motion. Much like putting the roof on a house, this phase seals everything together, encapsulating the essence of the story in a visually appealing and dynamic format.

This project was brought to life using motion graphics, a type of animation that allows 2D graphics to, well, move! The style was chosen at the very beginning of the project by our client. We also offer different animation styles, including whiteboard animations, and differing levels of visual complexity.

Regardless of the style, all of magic happens in Adobe After Effects, the industry standard for motion graphics animation. The magic involves a concept called keyframing, which define the start and end point of any movement in the animation. Let’s explore this.

In the diagram below, A. baylyi's "arm" starts at Position A at 3 seconds into the animation, then moves to Position B at 4 seconds. The transition between keyframes can be tuned for 'smoothness', or 'ease', within Adobe After Effects.

Keyframing and rigging a bacteria-shaped character in Adobe After Effects

As you can imagine, this process involves a large amount of meticulous work, as every single movement in the animation requires keyframes (and other animation magic! 🤫)

Keyframing in Adobe After Effects for a character rig

To complete the scenes, we animate various different assets, including:

  • Character Movements: Bringing each character to life by: moving limbs to emulate walking and gesturing, moving eyes and mouths to change facial expression, and so much more!

Character assets for a science video

  • Animating Elements: Inanimate objects, are animated in an endless number of ways. DNA could float away slowly. Proteins could ‘pop’ onto the screen. Arrows could fade or swipe in! The imagination is the limit.

DNA and environmental assets for a science video

  • Scene Transitions: Transitions are used to guide the viewer’s eyes to the subsequent scenes. This includes panning in a particular direction, direct cuts, or even special effects.

Transitions and movements in science video animation

  • Emphasising Keywords: Important keywords appear in line with the voiceover to highlight their significance. This helps to enhance the audience’s memory of key concepts.

Dynamic text in animated explainer videos

And then there’s quality assurance. After the whole team has had their say on the animation and is happy with how it looks, the next task is to work on how it sounds.

Arranging a soundtrack 🎧

The last layer of our science animation is the sound design. It's the finishing touch that truly elevates our production, which also ties the visuals and voiceover together to create a dynamic audiovisual experience.

Our skilled sound designer views the animation, taking note of the movements and transitions. This allows them to start visualising the sounds that would complement the visuals and enhance the storytelling. The rest of the team also provide their input on what would sound best.

Providing directives to a sound designer for an animated explainer video

For instance, if there's a sudden movement in the animation, perhaps a ‘swoosh’ effect is needed. If text appears, a crisp 'pop' or ‘typing’ sound might drive attention to the important point. We have access to a massive library of sounds, and sound designers can even create original sound effects when necessary.

In addition to effects, sound design also involves selecting and mixing the perfect music track to suit the mood and feel of the animation. This requires a precise ear and a strong understanding of how music can shape the emotional response of the audience.

The sound design is then carefully placed onto the animation like a glove, and is ready for the world.

And that's a wrap! Here's how our animation turned out 👇

Dan loved his animation, and while he had two revisions available, he approved it right from the start! The animation made its way into the world to support Dan’s release of his brand new paper which absolutely knocked it out of the park. According to Altmetrics, the paper was featured across 99 news outlets, 11 blogs, and so much more. Our animation was a key part of this success, being featured in news articles like this one! 🎉

And with that success, the team takes a bow and we gear up for the next big project!

A recap of the process! 👇

  1. Discussing the vision with the client: A clear understanding of our client's vision and research forms the basis of our work.

  2. Script Writing: Our science communicators craft a captivating script that forms the foundation of the animation.

  3. Voiceover: Talented voiceover artists bring the script to life, capturing the right mood and tone.

  4. Styleframes & Storyboard: Through styleframes and storyboard sketches, we start giving visual form to our script.

  5. Asset Creation: We create all visual elements or 'assets' in Adobe Illustrator.

  6. Animatic: We preview how the scenes play in time with the voiceover.

  7. Animation: Using Adobe After Effects, we bring everything to life, creating a captivating motion graphic.

  8. Sound Design: Powerful sound design rounds off our animation, ensuring that it captures attention and leaves a lasting impression.

Let’s Animate Your Science! 🧬

Animation is a process that's both creative and highly methodical—the perfect intersection between art and science.

Are you inspired to tell your scientific story with a captivating animation? At Animate Your Science, our team of PhD-trained science communicators and professional artists are prepared to transform your science into a compelling and impactful animation—one that'll turn heads for all the right reasons!

Get in touch with us today, and we'd be delighted to discuss how we can bring your vision to life.

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