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Film & Music, Science

How to draw a star

The woman behind astronaut Chris Hadfield’s new cartoon series, It's Not Rocket Science shares her inspiration from classic science animation

Science has a history of using cartoons to simply explain complicated concepts. It’s easy to understand why; in animation we can draw anything. Want to show a metaphor involving a chair floating in space? No problem. Need to make some DNA talk? Easy. Nowhere is this better illustrated than Frank Capra’s weird and wonderful 1956 film Our Mr Sun in which a live-action scientist and fiction writer (played by Dr Frank Baxter and Eddie Albert respectively) chat with an animated Old Father Time and the Sun himself about the origins of stars, photosynthesis, solar power and even where religion fits into an increasingly science-oriented world.

Capra also directed Hemo the Magnificent, the animated story of the circulatory system. It’s weirder than Our Mr Sun, if such a thing is possible, largely because of the inclusion of cute talking animals, but it’s solid science for the time and incredibly well-animated.

Another of my favourite examples of science in animation is The Dot and the Line: A Romance In Lower Mathematics. Written in 1963 by Norton Juster (most famous for his wonderful novel The Phantom Tollbooth), it tells the story of a straight line who falls for a wonderful dot. Heavily influenced by the equally wonderful (and happily now public domain) 1884 novel Flatland, The Dot and the Line is simultaneously a satire on human romance, and a straight up geometry lesson. If nothing else, you’ll learn the names of some of the more obscure shapes.

The Dot and the Line influenced our choice of colours and tone for my own first major science-based short, Tim Minchin’s Storm, a pro-science rationalist polemic set to beat-era jazz, and, like Storm, is evidence that humour and art are natural partners of science, not the enemies that they’re often painted to be. Indeed, my first thought when writing or producing science communications is “How can I make this funny?”.

As Billy Wilder said, “if you’re going to tell the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you”. Although this is the internet, they’ll kill you anyway, so you might as well go down laughing.

The Dot and the Line won an Oscar for its Director/Producer Chuck Jones, who is better known for his Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies creations, including this fellow.

Marvin the Martian started life as an an unnamed enemy of Bugs Bunny in the 1948 short Haredevil Hare, but quickly became an anti-hero in his own right and popular to this day. Although the plots of Marvin cartoons were strictly science fiction, he was adopted as the mascot of real-life scientists, engineers and astronauts. In 2004, Marvin was featured on the Spirit rover launch patch and encoded into silicone chips on both Spirit and Opportunity by engineers Mark Wadsworth and Tom Elliot. Dr Wadsworth designed the image sensor used in the rovers’ cameras, and included the microscopic artwork as a tribute to his and Elliot’s friendship.

Dr Wadsworth's microscopic artwork. Source



Spirit Rover Launch Patch. Source

The Mars rovers are not the only time Marvin has been to actual space. In 1995, astronaut Chris Hadfield flew his first space mission, aboard US/Russian shuttle STS-74. One of the personal items he took from home was a pencil illustration of Marvin the Martian, drawn by his young son Evan.

Many years later, Evan Hadfield went on to produce his father’s viral smash hit video Space Oddity, a cover of the David Bowie classic recorded and filmed onboard the International Space Station. The world hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it cemented Commander Hadfield and his son’s reputations as extraordinary science educators.

Meanwhile, my partner Dan 'DC' Turner (with whom I run a small animation studio, and I were making educational science cartoons for a range of clients, including this short history of the human genome for Nature Magazine, narrated by Tim Minchin and co-written by me, Dr Adam Rutherford, and IT Crowd and Red Dwarf script editor Andrew Ellard. I went to Andrew to inject some additional humour into the script, making a potentially dry subject amusing, warm and accessible. Plus we put a big robot in it, that always helps.

Still from ENCODE: The Story of You

Our next science animation had a very different brief. The client, EUMETSAT, wanted us to make a cartoon that explained how to monitor the weather from space, aimed at 12 to 16 year olds. Although the script had no room for jokes, EUMETSAT was keen for us to make the visuals in our trademark style, most notable for Dan’s wonderful character facial expressions. The resulting short was, I think, some of our most charming and accessible work.

Still from EUMETSAT: How Do We Monitor The Weather From Space?

Until now. It's here that the Venn diagram of "Tracy King makes science animations" and "Chris and Evan Hadfield are science educators" intersects. In early 2015, Commander Hadfield tweeted a request for animators for a new YouTube science series to be written and produced by Evan. I responded, and one lengthy pitch later, a new partnership was born. Dan and I set to work bringing the beloved (and possibly sacred) astronaut to life as a cartoon character while Evan wrote some incredibly funny, wonderfully educational scripts.

To turn everyone's favourite Canadian (sorry, Bieber) into an animated character should have been daunting, but his face and demeanour lends itself naturally to caricature. Also, Chris Hadfield has a big famous moustache. We studied Chris’s YouTube videos and over the course of a week developed our version of him. The series, called It’s Not Rocket Science, will see our hero (complete with sidekick pug) explain various important concepts, from vaccines to climate change to evolution, from the confines of his own personal space pod.

Episode one of It's Not Rocket Science launches later this year. In the meantime there's a Patreon here if you want to support us and get access to exclusive behind-the-scenes stuff, your own custom avatar, and even signed Chris Hadfield books.

This is a dream science animation project. If we can achieve even a fraction of the charm and longevity of the vintage science cartoons we love, we'll have done a good thing, and maybe even live to tell another tale.


Tracy King is a producer and writer. She runs an animation and videogame studio in London and writes a column on gaming culture in Custom PC. She owns three cats and has a world record for spoonbending.

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