A personal history of animation

Ever since watching “Tomorrow’s World” (by the BBC) when I was a kid, I have loved science-based animations. Of all the things I could have learnt from that show, the thing which impressed me the most was just how clear all their explanations were – of very technical science. When I was a bit older, I saw more and more animations thanks to some surprisingly lazy physics teachers, who would put on a video anytime anything complicated came up on the syllabus.

The first time I tried animating anything myself was while working for Mediwatch, where I had recently developed a novel micro-fluidics system that I wanted the company to invest a couple of years research in. Unfortunately for me, micro-fluidics was a new concept for most people in the company and certainly well beyond anything our board of directors had seen before, so in order to ‘sell’ the idea I made this little non-technical animation to explain it.

This was developed in Flash – which at the time (2007) was the go-to package for animation. The learning curve was a little steep seeing as I was trying to create a multi-object, 65 second animation. In retrospect, it might have been better to start with a box moving across the screen and slowly build up from there. I should say that I would never have been able to make this animation if it wasn’t for the huge wealth of free tutorials avliable on Newgrounds – yet another example of a great open-community full of detailed technical advice which has been put to good use making movies of cats.

Despite looking a little rough round the edges, my animation was very well received and after being shown at a board meeting, the project was approved for further development (I talked a little about where that development went here). This animation was then used at shareholder meetings and made the basis of pretty much every presentation about this project (code named: Zero-flow) from then on. By the time I started at Cranfield, my animation skills had improved a little and I put them to very good use explaining Langmuir-Blodgett coatings to a number of people (my supervisors included) who only had barely even heard of the technique.

I have lost track of how many presentations this video has appeared in. As LB coating was only part of my work, I was often presenting to biologists or physicists who had never seen this kind of coating technique before, and it was a great way to quickly cover the basics without using up 4-5 slides. At some point I will record a voice over for the video and make it a bit more stand-alone, as it currently (deliberately) only has the barest of text so that I can talk through it in a presentation.

My LB animation was the last animation I did using Flash. I stopped using Flash after this for the same reason that I have converted these animations into YouTube videos – most people can’t see Flash animations on their tablets/mobile devices. If I had embedded those animations natively, then about 40% of the traffic to my site would have just seen a big blank box labelled PLUGIN NOT FOUND. So I started working with HTML5 – a better supported platform which by its nature, is based on an open-community, rather than Adobe’s locked down Flash.

One thing I missed almost immediately from Flash, was not the protocol but the editor. Adobe Flash had been around since 1996 (then called Macromedia Flash) and since its release, the editor had been iteratively improved with new features and helpful wizards to make even complex animations simple to produce. HTML5 by contrast, was only drafted in 2008 and a lot of details were not worked out till 2012. So all the editor programs are still catching up and are at the moment a skeleton of what Adobe Flash can offer as an editor. However, they are catching up fast and thanks to the open-nature of HTML5, competition is driving the quality of the editor programs forward at an amazing rate.

My first HTML5 animation was for the oil-sensor crowd funding project (which never quite made it off the ground). Designing this animation was about 80% finding work-arounds for missing features that I was used to in Flash.

One other benefit of working in HTML5, is its compatibility – not-only on the web, but also in some eBook formats. Being able to drop animations into a eBook and even make diagrams interactive, was a big driving force behind my decision to start working on an eBook with my old boss.

As I think I have amply demonstrated, I wouldn’t describe my animation skills as ‘pro’ but if I can use them to give eBooks that slick simple quality I used to love in “Tomorrow’s World”, I think it would make a great educational tool. My advice to anyone wanting to communicate their work to a wide audience, learn to animate it!

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