Illustrations and Animated Scientific Videos. Dr Tullio Rossi

Take a marine biologist, Tullio Rossilet him play with Photoshop. Later on, teach him how to tell stories. That’s how you make Tullio Rossi!

Animated videos: The Coral Garden


Tullio, you are a scientist, a graphic designer, and a storyteller. You have complemented your activity in academia with graphic design work. After completing your PhD in climate science you decided to fully dedicate yourself to science communication and become a freelancer. You believe that research alone is not sufficient, and that science communication is key to driving change. How would you transmit this to other fellow scientists who are not as engaged in this practice? During my PhD in climate science I asked myself a very simple question. What is the point of climate science? The only answer I could come up with was: it is about letting the public know what we risk if we do not reduce our carbon emissions. How do you let the public know about your findings? By publishing jargon packed peer-reviewed papers? Well…that’s not enough because NO ONE reads those outside your small group of peers. Also, we’ve seen that throwing graphs at people doesn’t work as a communication strategy. A lot can be done though; you just have to make a little effort. Try accompanying your paper with a media release or perhaps with an outreach video. You’ll be positively surprised with the result! I’ve found the experience of reaching out to the public to be very rewarding (except dealing with climate change deniers trolls, those are a pain!).

How did you come up with the idea of developing info-graphics, info-comics, or animated videos? I knew that I wanted to communicate my research to the public but at first I didn’t really know how. So…I googled it! That’s how I came across Randy Olson’s books on science communication. I read them all and learned a lot. Especially the storytelling techniques were illuminating for me! Then, a competition on popped up and invited scientists to make short outreach videos. That gave me a deadline to meet and that’s how I told to myself: Tullio, sit down and do it!. I had no interesting footage from my experiments and fieldwork so the choice was between making a talking head video or an animation. I think that animation is so much cooler and engaging so I decided to go down that path.

The Coral Garden.gif

What do you think the advantage of presenting scientific information in this way is? Using whiteboard animation videos is my favourite media. It is relatively easy to make and very engaging for the audience. Research has shown that this type of animation is superior in many ways to talking head videos. I think that it has something to do with our brain trying to anticipate the figure that is being drawn on screen… it keeps you engaged and focused.

To which audiences do you direct your illustrations and videos? And how does the targeted audience influence the way in which you develop your message? My videos on The Coral Garden are mainly educational and I want them to be understandable by the broadest audience possible. To do this I strip all the jargon away and embed the science into a simple story. This proved to work very well. My videos are being used for teaching in schools and even my grandma understands them! That’s a pretty large audience, isn’t it?

Frank the coral

Frank the Coral.

In your videos, you compare aspects of marine life to aspects of urban life. For example, you explain that reefs emit noises, and that baby fish use these as a cue to find them and settle in an anemone. You say that is similar to what we do when we are in the street looking for a house-party and we follow the music to find the right house. Do you think daily life comparisons are a useful way of conveying scientific information? Absolutely! It is all about making it relatable to everyday life. That’s why I include this type of comparisons. I find that pop culture references work well too. I recently ran a science communication workshop that included references to Kim Kardashian, her sex tapes and even Star Wars! The audience loved it and laughed. When they laugh it means that they are listening. That’s when you deliver your message!

You use music in your animated videos. A cheerful melody accompanying the explanation of what corals are, fades into a suspenseful tune when explaining how human activity and CO2 emissions are contributing to warmer and more acidic oceans which, in turn, are bleaching (i.e. killing) the corals. How does the music contribute to the understanding of the information? What other ways have you used, or can be used, to guide the audience through the content? My videos have a clear narrative structure. As you follow the story, you will eventually encounter a moment of conflict and drama. I like to associate this moment to a dramatic music. It helps conveying the message. Also, I always finish the video on a positive note and associate that with hopeful/happy music. Other ways? Maybe colour is something that I could explore more… different colours communicate different moods so I reckon it would work too.

I can see that you finish the videos with a clear call to action. You complement the statement “we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, with clear measures that humans can start to adopt today, such as, “cut meat consumption”. Do you think science communication activities should conclude with a call to action? Why? Not necessarily. It is all about your end goal. The Coral Garden videos go beyond the communication of scientific information. I want to inspire action and engage the public. I want the public to understand that they are actors in this climate change issue, not just spectators. This is why I use a call to action at the end of my videos. When it comes to climate change, people are tired of listening to bad news. They want to think about solutions and know if and what they can do about it. That’s why I have a call to action in my videos.

This excellent form of science communication seems possible only if you are skilled or trained in graphic design, video animation, or visual communication. Is part of your freelance job to unite with other scientists and work together in developing illustrations and videos? Exactly, in my business I help scientists communicate their research using storytelling and video animation. I love to get to learn about other’s people research outside my field of expertise and find their story. It can be hard at times but there is always a story, you just have to look for it!

Where do you see interdisciplinary collaborations in the future of science communication? Right now I work alone but I believe in the value of interdisciplinary collaboration. In the near future I plan to hire creative people to help me with the graphic design and animation side of the business. If you possess these skills and would like to work with me in science communication get in touch, there might be interesting opportunities soon!

And finally, do you have any tips for other professionals participating in science communication? Humans don’t like raw scientific facts just like they don’t like to eat plain lettuce. My tip, whatever medium you use, is to embed the science into a story. Think like this: story is to facts what dressing is to plain lettuce. Trust me, it will go down a lot better and it will make a difference!

You can learn more about Tullio Rossi’s work in his website.