At the 1986 SIGGRAPH conference a short computer animation from a small company called Pixar wowed the audience. Technically it was a breakthrough, but more stunning was the audience's reaction. The technical crowd was not asking questions about the new animation techniques it highlighted, but wanted to know if the larger lamp was Luxo Jr's mother or father. They finally had a viable story telling technique. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were able to apply the animation principles developed by Disney's Nine Old Men decades earlier to create an emotional story.
Mention advances in computer animation and conversation often turns to the uncanny valley hypothesis. While there is some evidence to support it, more interesting is how we respond to the a variety of media types - the spoken word, literature, paintings, music, film and their variations emotionally.
Think about it. We look at a piece of paper with small regions of contrasting reflection that follow a simple pattern. Our mind decodes these patterns and transforms them into an artificial world in our mind - a world that, when guided by a master, can have exquisite beauty and compelling power. Power that goes well beyond entertainment plucking at our deepest emotions. A plateau of emotional believability.
The same can be said for the other storytelling media. A new media develops and it takes the storytellers a generation or two before it finds its voice and power. Old media are rarely completely replaced. Should she master it, the story teller has acquired a new arrow for her quiver.
Technical papers are usually dry. The audience is assumed to be expert and aware of the the work's contextual place. This can be disorienting for nonspecialists presenting something of a barrier to cross-disciplinary work. Some people make an effort to remedy the problem. Good talks often have an introduction explaining why the work is relevant tailored to what may be a diverse audience. Sometimes review articles offer the additional context and even popular press descriptions in Science, Nature and Scientific American and even podcasts are useful.
Last weekend a friend pointed out a supergravity paper I normally would have skipped.1 A graduate student co-author spent some time with iMovie and put together a trailer that gives a strong motivation for why you might want to read the paper. It worked and I did:-)
Reacting to this another friend noted his company, large investment bank that relies on some rather complex algorithmic processes, took on an intern from CalArts this Summer. She is an animation student with the goal of working at a studio like Pixar, but they wanted to see if she could help with visual storytelling. Specifically little videos to motivate complex documents for non-specialist clients. The model they wanted to explore is the one pioneered by minutephysics:
He was very impressed by some of her work and said she has been offered work after her graduation, but that she was much more interested in a conventional animation studio. He doubts that anyone in their organization is cross-disciplinary enough to do this sort of work. I suspect if they looked at more recent hires they might find some video literacy.
Twelve years ago I began to devote a considerable amount of my time to issues associated with the acceleration of global warming. The fit seemed good at first - after all, it involves energy and I'm a card carrying physicist. It turned out I didn't understand the problem.
For years I thought education was the answer and, with the help of a friend who wasn't a scientist, tried to put together a book. Despite her best efforts I'm not a good storyteller and I wasn't finding the right path we could use to connect. She had some great ideas which have influenced my approach, but in the end we realized the education path didn't make sense and I began to explore other channels. A dear friend (that would be you Juliette) suggested I should be concentrating on video - very foreign to me, but completely natural to her.
I've been exploring storytelling with some experts in getting science across to the public - science communication and popularization. I've learned a bit about making stories simpler - Colleen, my writing partner, told me I had a tendency to 'Matryoshka doll' everything going deeper and deeper into explanations trying to offer background along the way.2 I've made some progress breaking away from that tendency, but a using a less ancient media is central if there is to be any progress.
The language of video and cinema is becoming important in areas I hadn't imagined. A few weeks ago, corresponding with a student planning on astronomy, I advised at least a few courses in film making and be very serious about them. And I should be taking my own advice... you are rarely too old and I know some experts.
Other forms of storytelling are emerging. I was lucky enough to meet Horace Dediu last year. We share a few fascinations including the basics of cinematic storytelling. He has helped fashion a tool with Pixxa to support the technique combined with some ideas from Tufte - and gives beautiful presentations. If you or someone in your organization gives quantitative storytelling presentations I strongly recommend attending one of his Airshow presentations.
Finally the written word is still very powerful. It and music offer some of the deepest forms of communication. It is not replaced by video and newer media and in many areas is the best channel. But unless you are enormously gifted it is difficult to reach others outside of your normal area and investigating other communication channels makes a lot of sense.
1 Perhaps too much detail, but supergravity is a supersymmetric variation of General Relativity. Supersymmetry places some very tight constraints on what can create gravity - it has to come from peculiar fields that are combinations of boson and fermion fields. The problem with current physics is making this fit in with inflation requires some cobbling to get things to work. This paper comes up with a simple way to do that - a single superfield.
2 This is a very common problem with scientists and I suspect those in many other fields that are a bit too removed from normal educations.
First a kickstarter on an immersion circulator and then a recipe:
I made an immersion circulator about five years ago. A heating element, a control element that could regulate the temperature to about 1 °F and an insulated water container. It was difficult to use, noisy and - in a word - frustrating, but I learned about sous vide cooking. Commercial units were a lure, but good ones cost nearly $1,000.
In the past year or two some less expensive commercial units appeared along with some Kickstarter projects of varying quality. One of the Kickstarters was the Nomiku. I've played with a friend's unit and like it a lot. A few days ago the Nomiku folks announced a Kickstarter for a second generation unit. I thought about it for about 15 seconds and bit. If you want to push your culinary education this may be just the ticket. It may be more appropriate for meat eaters, but even as a vegetarian I see great utility and grounds for experimentation.
and on to the recipe..
I had some rhubarb, but being allergic to strawberries the old standard - strawberry rhubarb pie - was out of the question. There were red plums, so why not.. Normally baking is the stuff a carefully followed recipes - after all - the chemistry has to come out just right. Pies are different and closer to art. There are tricks getting the crusts right, but you make that up on the fly. The same for the fillings and you usually can't go wrong unless you burn it. I wanted something tart so I went about 40% plum and 60% rhubarb - if you like sweet go the other direction rather than add sugar. I won't go into religion as everyone has their own pie crust methods - pick your own method.
Plum and Rhubarb Pie
° 2 pie crusts
° 3 cups rhubarb sliced into chunks you'd like to see in a pie
° 2 cups red plumbs diced - don't use the very soft ones... a bit firm
° 1-1/4 cup white cane sugar
° 2 tbl tapioca
° 1/4 cup corn starch
° small bit (1/8 tsp) sea salt
° milk and sugar for the top of the pie
Technique - easy as pie
° preheat oven to 425°F
° put the rhubarb and plums in a mixing bowl and gently mix in everything else with a spatula
° line a 9" glass pie plate with a crust and pour in the mixture
° add the second crust, perform whatever art you like crimping edges and cut some vent slots
° brush the top with some milk and sprinkle a goodly amount of sugar on the pie top
° bake for 20 minutes and then reduce to 350°F (don't open the oven or the temp will fall too quickly) and bake until beautifully golden brown - 45-55 minutes - look at the pie bottom through the glass plate for brownness.
° place on a pie rack and let cool enough. Great with vanilla ice cream.