When I was a wee lad, I remember seeing these little animated tv shows that seemed to be mixed in with my Saturday morning cartoons. They were only a few minutes long and were focused on a single subject. But these little shows were unlike anything else on TV. I learned something real. I remembered. I knew, at a very young age, how a bill becomes a law. It was Schoolhouse Rock! and as of January 13th, it turned 40 years old.
Speider Schneider is a family friend of David McCall, the creator of the series, and wrote an excellent article about the people and events that made the series happen. From the article:
While it began as a commercial advertising venture by McCall in reaction to his son’s needs and witness to the very solution based in music, when a print workbook version fell through, McCall’s company decided to produce their own animated versions of the songs, which they then sold to ABC (which was already the advertising company’s biggest account) based on a demo animation of the original “Three Is A Magic Number” for its Saturday morning lineup. They pitched their idea to Michael Eisner, then vice-president of ABC’s children’s programming division.
Although McCall had a leg up on introducing this innovative idea, it reminds all creatives that a great idea can start with a small spark, sometimes noticed in one’s everyday life and it can grow to greatness. After 40 years, the popularity of Schoolhouse Rock! continues to be enjoyed by generations and holds together, never looking dated or losing its impact.
35 years later, I’m making little shows of my own and credit Schoolhouse Rock! for paving the way. And while the need for this kind of learning and explanation is the same, the environment is different in fundamental ways.
First, McCall’s work could only have been experienced by me and my peers with the help of a TV network and expensive animation tools. The network provided the platform and he happened to have the connections to bring his visions to life. Today we have the Web and comparatively cheap tools for building animations and sharing them with the world. The power of the network is now in our hands.
Second, the animation format was much less cross-generational. In the days of Schoolhouse Rock, cartoons were for kids. I doubt any TV executive could imagine adults being the audience for an animated feature. Today, The Simpsons, South Park and many other shows have proven that adults are a viable market for animated shows. On the web, we see animations becoming one of the most effective explanations and marketing tools for startups.
But some things are remarkably similar.
Schoolhouse Rock shows were all about three minutes long. This length is now a rule-of-thumb duration for many animated explanations. This length is enough to relate valuable information but not so long that people tune out. Also, you know, three IS a magic number:
Also, for the most part, they are purely educational. They were not about Cheerios or Barbie Dolls but grammar, civics and history. From our work at Common Craft to RSA Animate to Minute Physics, these kinds of educational videos endure.
Further, the use of music is a big part of Schoolhouse Rock and something that continues to make learning effective. I recently wrote about an number of awesome examples of this today.
My point here is to say that we live in world where a thousand Schoolhouse Rocks can bloom. We have the tools, the platforms, the audience and know-how to carry the torch, to continue making animated media that educates and enlightens. Let’s build on the work of Mr. McCall and inspire a new generation to see ideas from a more fun and engaging perspective. Here's to 40 more years!
Boing Boing pointed me to this beautiful animated video by a German studio called "finally". From the description with the video:
Music is a good thing. But what we did not know until we started with the research for this piece: Music is also a pretty damn complex thing. This experimental animation is about the attempt to understand all the parts and bits of it. Have a look. You might agree with our conclusion!
I think this is a great example of an experience that's both remarkable in presentation and interesting in content. I didn't learn the details of resonance or musical temperment. But I came away with little introductory nuggets of each part. I came away with just a bit of motivation to keep learning. Sometimes that's all an explanation needs - a taste of an idea that invites someone to keep learning.
People often ask about the origins of what has become known as “Common Craft Style” and what inspired us to use paper cut-outs, hands and a whiteboard. The truth is, it was a solution to a problem.
I had been experimenting with drawing on a whiteboard in live action videos and found it frustrating. I felt like such a dork trying to draw and look at the camera at the same time. It felt forced. Sachi, always the problem solver and adult in the room, suggested our current format. She had seen me reach for paper and use drawings when trying to explain something and saw the format as a natural extension of that tendency.
Many years later, here we are. The original format of that first video, RSS in Plain English, is still very close to the videos we make today.
As it turns out, our videos use the same principles of some of the very first animations. They are live action recordings, with stop motion and other visual effects that create animations. I was amazed to see the video below, which was recorded in 1900, 111 years ago:
American animation owes its beginnings to J. Stuart Blackton, a British filmmaker who created the first animated film in America. Before creating cartoons, Blackton was a vaudeville performer known as "The Komikal Kartoonist." In his act, he drew "lightning sketches" or high-speed drawings. In 1895, he met Thomas Edison. Can you guess what this meeting with the famous inventor inspired him to do?
There is amazingly little difference between the animation above and what we do at Common Craft. It's a simple process of holding the camera still and changing what appears on a frame-by-frame basis.
For another example, consider Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python, which doesn't use video, but photos. He was the creator of the colorful animations that became one of the most memorable parts of the show. Here’s a video of him talking about his process in 1974 (via CartoonBrew).
Again, it’s very close to our process. It’s just stop-motion with cut-outs. Take a look at the example of his storyboards from the video above:
We start each project with “thumbnail storyboards” that look like this:
Here’s his lighting a set-up
His hand moving the cut-outs...
So what we do has roots that go back to the very beginning. While these examples came to us recently and were not a part of our early process, I think it’s fascinating that the simple idea of live action animation has changed so little over the years.
We’re approaching the four year mark in making Common Craft videos and over this time, I’ve always wondered: why do videos work? In fact, I think the bigger question is not just our videos, but any short animated video that is designed to educate. What is it about this style of video that hold people’s attention and helps them learn?
First, what is an animated video?
Let’s talk about what it’s not. An animation is not live action - animated videos don’t usually have actors, sets and stages. It’s not a screencast - animated videos don’t usually focus on computer screens. Animated videos, in some ways, exist in a purely fictional world that is completely designed by the animator or producer. They often use illustrated representations and symbols of the world to tell stories versus the objects themselves.
Do they work?
We could debate this point forever. After working on videos for almost 4 years and seeing the success of the members of our Explainer Network of producers, I am comfortable making the claim that yes, animated videos do work. We see demand every day for animated videos, usually meant to explain products or services.
If you need further proof, here is an iconic animated video that helped lots of young Americans learn about government:
But Why? What is so special about this format?
I put this question to the members of the Explainer Network and their responses fall into a few couple of categories:
When you tell a story visually people remember it because human beings are creatures driven by sight. As Medina notes, recognition and recall soar when information is communicated visually.
Now these points are not necessarily unique to animation. However, animation provides a very rich visual medium that can have more power and creativity than others because it’s limitless. If it can be imagined, it can be animated.
Another point from Bryan:
As comic book artist Scott McCloud noted in his phenomenal TED talk, illustrations are very different from photographic images (such as video shot with a camera). Illustrations tap into a deep iconic universal form of communication that is deeply embedded in the human brain. Illustrations illuminate things.
Second: Getting to the Point
Another recurring theme is the idea that animations make it easy to cut through the noise and focus on what matters. We’ve noticed that with Common Craft videos as well. Nothing appears on that whiteboard that doesn’t need to be there - nothing.
Animation in particular gives us the ability to use kinetic illustrations to crop out noise and focus the eye of the human mind on a very specific story.
I think the power of visual metaphor is a big point that is unique to animation. In what other medium can inanimate objects morph into other objects or have personalities?
I think we all associate animations with getting to the core of it… cartoons and animations were presented to us as kids; they helped us make sense of a world that was so new to our eyes. They still appeal to us in adulthood, whether through the humor only understood by adults in Pixar movies or by discovering the world through political cartoons, or…
Putting animation to video as a way of explaining things is the next, logical (and fun) step.
I really like this point. I imagine that most of the videos that we (Common Craft and the Explainer Network members) produce are focused on introducing a new product or service. This boils down to helping people feel comfortable and accepting of a different way of doing things. Animations help people over the hurdle of understanding the big picture.
Communicators have a choice in this context: Going directly into the product or service with all the features and buttons, or taking a step back and building a simple and easy-to-grasp world around it. We’ve seen that animation is the perfect medium for building that world. It helps people feel comfortable and less anxious about learning something new because it’s presented in a format that feels fun and familiar. To Mark’s point - they communicate in a way that helped us as children.
There will always be a place for live-action, screencasts and other formats, but online animated videos occupy a particularly useful niche on the web, one that is often perfectly suited for introducing, educating and informing.