At Cognitive, we are passionate about visual storytelling and helping our clients tell more engaging stories. We pioneered whiteboard animation and still lead the way in setting the highest standards in visual storytelling. Read the blog to find why we think whiteboard animation is so effective.
Often the very first books we encounter are picture books, our first introduction to the power of rich visual language. While our books change, the power of this language doesn’t. Senior Creative Dan Stirrup reflects on this visual language from picture books to explainer films and whiteboard animation.
Black Holes might not seem to be visually engaging at the outset. Ultimately there’s not a lot to work with when you think of a hole that swallows light so nothing can be seen. But for Cognitive this is exactly the sort of challenge we love. Hear from Andrew Park about how he and the team visually translated Prof Hawking’s final Black Hole theory of Supertranslations.
Conveying complex ideas and feelings through pictures can be more effective than relying on mere words. That’s why people come to us - we bring stories to life in a way that’s more fun and engaging!
A lot of the time, we use characters to help aid with our storytelling which is why, as an Illustrator, I often study figures in real life and from video/photo references to improve my anatomy and sense of motion. However, through repeated practice and experience, I’ve learned that what we see in real life doesn’t always translate well into clear shots and when drawn, can feel quite lifeless. This is where a little bit of caricature is needed to stylise and give more appeal to the visual result. This is also why animated characters are often simplified and exaggerated - because they help tell a better story.
Exploring movements and poses that don’t necessarily obey the rules of real-life physics, is probably one of the best, fun and challenging things about being an illustrator. A good way to do this is by gesture drawing, which is a method of capturing the feeling of a figure’s movement. You can do this by drawing the pose as you see it in reference, then figuring out which parts of the body you can bend and push to make the pose work better. Or, like me, you can start by cutting out all the fluff and use just a few pencil strokes to capture the line of action, and then build on it. However you choose to do it, a gesture drawing should be able to fully express the action and convey the intended emotion in the clearest way possible – it’s not always just about how accurate your drawing looks (although it is important to keep things in proportions), but rather how it feels!
As well as body language, knowing how to communicate what a character is feeling through their facial expression is equally as important. The same rules of exaggeration can be applied here to intensify emotions. It should, however, be done with more care as modifying a human-like face too much can lead to an unsettling outcome - unless that was the intention!
There would be times when I need to draw a character pulling some type of expression, but not really knowing how to draw it. This is where using multiple photo references or even a mirror can help massively! You shouldn’t be looking to copy exactly what you see, instead you should study the angles, how the face squash and stretch, which bits to accentuate, and then adjust and apply it to your character.
Remember, drawing from imagination should be about using knowledge and experience – if you’re still unfamiliar or unsure of something, there is no need to feel bad about using references. It doesn’t make you less of an artist!
Working with Project Everyone on @The Global Goals we have helped them supercharge their social media by presenting their facts on project progress in visually interesting ways, driving up engagement and reach.
Everything is a story. We are hard-wired to tell stories because they help us navigate life's complex social problems. Stories are the cornerstone to what we do at Cognitive and they can be used to change the world for the better. Cognitive illustrator Alex Hedworth explores how ancient Buddhist teachings use stories to help develop meditative concentration through the power of visualisation. A process that has helped millions of tuned-in souls live a more mindful life.
As an illustrator and avid meditator I have always found the Buddhist visualisations of the meditative path to be both informative and aesthetically pleasing. Similar to the 'Storymaps' that we work with here at Cognitive the Buddhist depiction of the stages of samatha meditation features numerous visual metaphors for one of the most complex subjects known to man….the mind!
The word samatha refers to pacifying or calming the mind and this story map is a visualisation of all the different stages of this process. At the beginning of the stages the meditator is depicted chasing after a monkey that is leading an elephant on a rope. The elephant is used as a visual metaphor for the mind because of its potential to cause harm and difficulty to control. Its dark colour represents the hindrances and problems of the mind.
The monkey represents attention and its dark colour means that the attention is scattered and unruly. The monkey dragging the elephant along on a leash is a funny and clever way to depict how mischievous our attention is, wherever attention goes the mind will follow and attention doesn’t always have the minds best interest at heart. The meditator holds a goad and a rope in his hands, they symbolise the intention to tame the mind and the vigilant mindfulness needed in order to do it.
As this Buddhist “Storymap” progresses and the meditator moves further and further along the path the elephant and monkey slowly but surely fall into line. The dark colours of the animals lighten and become luminous as the various hindrances and worries of the mind are shed. Eventually the meditator gains full control as the monkey disappears and the elephant graciously accepts his authority.
Even after hundreds of years the visual language used in the depictions of the stages of meditation are still very pertinent and easy to understand. This speaks to the power of images, which have been used as a way to communicate ideas since time immemorial. It is also really interesting to see how the fundamental tools we use everyday at Cognitive, such as mapping out a story arc or using a metaphor to simplify and explain a complex idea, can be used in the pursuit of mental and spiritual improvement.
At Cognitive we tell stories. If you want to remember a message then storytelling is the best vehicle to do this. Our brains are far more engaged by stories than lists of facts and figures. We use images to help supercharge those messages. Images add a component to storytelling that text cannot: speed! Our eyes can 'read' images far faster than reading text alone. To help explore this concept one of our brilliant illustrators, Suzanne Mills shared her love of the graphic novel 'The Arrival' by Shaun Tan which uses images alone to unpack its story.
Suzanne: At Cognitive, our work revolves around telling stories. An animated film might be pretty, but without a clear message at it’s core, it would be empty and forgettable. When our team responds to a script, we know we’ve hit the right notes when our visuals reflect, embody and embellish, rather than confuse or distract. The narrative behind our work should shine through, not be hidden, and we’re always on the lookout to learn from masters of this skill.
Fewer examples of visualisation out there are as stunningly unique than ‘The Arrival’ by Australian illustrator Shaun Tan, a wordless comic depicting a migrant’s journey. From the start, the visuals communicate as powerfully as words – if not more. A setting is built by illustrations of a child’s drawing, hot coffee, a half-packed trunk.
Our protagonist is shown leaving his desolate family home and boarding a rickety train, then a steam ferry. When he disembarks, a series of clues hint that our protagonist might be a refugee. He attends a health inspection and interview - recognisable as immigration checks.
The next panels display a city full of dynamic shapes and movement. Juxtaposition between the old and new settings tell us we’re somewhere thriving and new. Tan’s next clue is given when we expect words to appear at last (e.g. shop windows, road signs) and what we see instead is this:
From his actions, it dawns on us is that these symbols are not just unreadable to us, but also our protagonist. He is surprised by the alien creatures that surprise us, is as baffled by the symbols as we are and struggles to communicate with the locals. Without a word, Tan puts us in this man’s shoes – we empathize with his fortunate escape, but simultaneously feel his displacement and alarm.
Another impressive aspect of ‘The Arrival’ is how we understand the passage of time from his layout. When the protagonist is working hard or is distracted by others (e.g. starting his first job or making friends) the frames are small and condensed on the page, and the time between each panel is sped up. But when he is alone and his emotions are the focus, the panels are larger - sometimes a double-page-spread - and pull out to show the alien city environment. His sense of feeling small in an unfamiliar city is a constant reminder amidst the action of the story. Tan also uses colour, altering the warmth of his grayscale illustrations depending of the mood of the story.
Finally, our protagonist’s family join him. We see his daughter introduce a lost-looking woman to the new land (an echo of the panel at the beginning, where a local welcomed our nervous protagonist - now his family are shown to have gained citizenship.
Although Cognitive films have the luxury of scripts to help convey the message, we aim to connect with our viewers as robustly as Tan. We’re reminded of the importance of easily readable facial expressions, gestures and 'costuming' when designing characters.We do use voice-over and words in our work, but it is important that we drive the narrative with clear, concise and unambiguous drawing. By telling part of the story with characters and backgrounds alone, you can speak volumes in seconds.
In the animated explainer video we made for BAA, the challenge we had was explaining a full day’s arrivals operations at Heathrow, the second busiest airport in the world in just three minutes.We used a number of different visual approaches to bring the story to life. We used a large geographic map of west London to Frame the location. The landscape became a character in the piece and we had fun illustrating London like a 'toy town'. Using motion graphics employing Heathrow's brand colours and our famous video-scribing technique we could direct the audiences attention to information in time with the voice-over. We used expressive characters, informative icons and symbols working in harmony with a precise voice-over.
The beauty of Scribe animations is they can deliver more than one information stream at a time, which means the images can be more playful and don't have to literally translate the information text to image. For example when we wanted to depict wind patterns over London we used a large electric fan. The weather became characters also. Using metaphor in this way encourages the audience to understand the complex information in a familiar and enjoyable way.
Powerful storytelling in games is a key feature for creating a world that players can immerse themselves in. Broaching a variety of difficult subject matters, interactive software has increased it’s suitability and accessibility to a wider audience and it’s fair to say the gaming world has expanded its horizons exponentially, giving it’s creative fantasy world a fundamental core of all-too-real issues.
In a lot of our Cognitive films, we are required to draw a public figure within the animation, whether it be a celebrity or a company employee. In this blog one of our brilliant illustrators takes us through the steps to creating an uncanny portrait. To properly convey a figure, you firstly need to explore their character and what makes them individual. How are they going to portrayed? As wise? As funny? It’s useful to pinpoint this essence as a direction before you begin the portrait.
We are continuing our creative collaboration with the BBC and Radio 4 with this animation to explore what the suffragettes did for us. It was 100 years ago that the women won the vote but what led to this historic moment?
At Cognitive we love unpacking complex information and mapping it out in space and stories like ‘What the suffragettes did for us’ are a great opportunity to supercharge the narrative with emotive drawings and kinetic animation.
One big bonus of working with the BBC and Radio 4 is that they are experts in creating great scripts and audio. We cut our teeth on this way of working, collaborating on the RSA Animate series with the RSA, who provided the audio direct from speakers like Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink. In this instance, the BBC provided the script, aptly written by feminist writer Daisy Buchanan and voiced by TV presenter Scarlett Moffatt.
Once we received the script, we could get to work. Because of our past collaborations with the BBC and Radio 4 on animations like ‘The People’s Desert Island Discs’ and ‘When did being gay become a crime?’, we have a great working relationship with the team there. They trust us to create work that delivers exactly what they need and because of this we have some freedom to experiment with different styles without deviating from our methodology of visualising information in engaging and memorable ways.
We spoke to the members of the Cognitive team behind the animation to find out how they brought the ideas to life and supercharged such a historic story.
Tom Bradshaw and Patience Nottingham were the illustrators on the project.
Tom: First of all, we received the script which was partially written. Our first step was to look in to the history of suffragettes and research the artwork from that time to try and understand the look and feel for the film. For example, we looked at the propaganda posters from that time and tried to replicate some of those ideas.
Patience: We did a few tests of style but we didn’t really go with that style in the end. We wanted to illustrate something a bit livelier and the client wanted it livelier too.
Tom: We started with the Art Nouveau poster style and then found some funnier stuff. The cartoons from the time. But these tended to be anti-suffragette propaganda, which made the suffragettes all look evil and witchy and angry. So we stayed away from that.
Patience: Conversely, the images the suffragettes were using themselves were very elegant looking, so we went for that style to reflect their integrity.
Tom: We wanted the style to be nice and free so we used a brush called ‘deliciously dry’ which gave the effect of acrylic paint on a dry paintbrush, which made the drawing livelier.
The piece was directed by one of Cognitive’s Senior Creatives, Kayle McLeish, who spent time mapping out the information and designing the structure and flow of the piece. All of Cognitive’s films are very collaborative and the creativity usually starts with a kick-off ‘Swarm’ – you can find out about this and the whole Cognitive creative process by watching our process films.
Tom: In the swarm, we got the ideas and concepts down but we were also keeping an eye out for how the piece could be drawn at the same time. One of Patience’s images was key to the look and feel. It was Christabel Pankhurst as a student.
Tom and Patience managed to work together and cement their individual styles seamlessly so it looks like the work of one artist. They started off by dividing the work with Patience taking on the design of the characters and Tom organising the layout and design elements, but eventually as the work progressed they both worked on all of the elements together.
Getting a likeness in drawings is a key discipline in some of our work. Tom redrew the Michelle Obama character. Originally the character was drawn not smiling. Tom says, ‘Her smile is how you recognise her.’ These creative decisions are ones that Cognitive’s illustrators are constantly making.
Working with clients can be challenging. Patience reflects on what it’s like to receive feedback. ‘I have to remember they are not my drawings, they are essentially the client’s drawings and I have to let go my feelings about a particular drawing for the benefit of the final piece, and obviously what the client needs.’
After the illustrators have completed the final ‘inks’ then the animators can get to work. Jackie and Paco were the animators on the project. Jackie replacing Matt, after he fell ill.
Jackie: I jumped on the project and followed on from the work that Matt had started. The animation style that we set out was a gentle unveiling of information. We wanted a slower pace with more clarity to the information. We used sweeping camera moves and focused in on specific elements. Because of this slower pace we couldn’t cheat with the animation. Nothing too abrasive.
Paco: The drawing style was good to work with. We had to be aware of the drawing and the position and posing of certain figures and where we could put pivot points and the natural flow of things.
The animation has a lot of information and elements on screen but Paco explains how the piece retains clarity:
Paco: Kayle mapped out the content and he’s a good Senior Creative because he allows a lot of freedom with the animation. We start with a camera pass on the bluelines and work out what needs to move as we journey around the screen.
Jackie: Once we had set out an animation style we just followed that through the animation. It has characters, symbols and textural elements throughout and we followed a sort of smooth movement, text, fade in, a drawn-in figure to keep you focused on that section.
The main point to animating in this kinetic way is to make sure that the audience remains focused on the content that is being revealed on screen at the time.
Andrew Park, Cognitive’s director, viewed the film for the first time today and said, ‘It was a really great piece of creative work that tells a fascinating and important story. I am really proud of the creative team that has brought it to life. I love the drawings, they have a lot of energy and the animation is clear, cogent and engaging I think it fulfils the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain.