Unpacking four billion years of human evolution and condensing it into a 2 minute animation – how hard can it be?
We found out with our latest collaborative animation with BBC Radio 4, which crams the entire history of the evolution of life on earth into one frame and considers “what’s next for our species?”
Yural Noah Harari, the esteemed historian and author of the best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was interviewed by Radio 4’s Today Programme to discuss the biotechnical revolution and what possible future there is for mankind. Our job was to visualize it.
At Cognitive, we love working with challenging content like this. Earlier this year we visualized Professor Stephen Hawking’s Reith Lectures on Black Holes, also for Radio 4. We like meaty and weighty subjects that we can get our teeth into – and as topics go, the history and the future of the whole of human kind is about as meaty and weighty as a Texan barbecue. But how do we go about starting to visualize something so vast in scope?
Visual thinkers have a preference for understanding things spatially, so the way we approach most of our work is to organize information in space. This means unpacking everything and laying it out so that it can be accessed clearly by an audience. It’s also a translation process from one medium to another. The content already exists in a spoken or written form and visuals are designed to complement the meaning of that content and perhaps provide an extra perspective, which is often not covered in the text. That’s where we can unleash our imaginations and have some fun.
That’s all very nice and conceptual, but how do we get started? With an ‘infographic’ like this, the content will spark an idea and then I build from that point in a fairly organic way. The key, for me, is to try and make very broad strokes at the initial stages and chunk these blocks of information in accordance with what the script is telling me. I can then start ad-libbing from these foundations once I’ve got a structure in place.
Here is my thumbnail sketch. As you’ll see later, I pretty much kept to the design logic of the original sketch in realising the final illustration.
I wanted to draw a large diagram of the life on earth and beyond. I love the idea that you can show four billion years of evolution and such a massive scope in one eye-span. It’s kind of like a scaled down version of the total perspective vortex from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. We can lay out the whole story on one ‘canvas’, which enables us to see relationships and correlations between all of the elements.
As the narrative centres on us - Homo sapiens - I wanted to draw a succession of people in various costumes from throughout history. I really like drawing in this way, seeing things from above and gaining greater perspective.
When viewed like this, we can see how valuable visualizing information in space really is. It is an exercise in displaying the relationships between things. We can clearly see the difference between each stage of human evolution. From the militaristic periods of the Romans and the middle ages, the more genteel costumes of the early renaissance and the Enlightenment to the industrial power of the Victorians, epitomized by their outrageous hats. The difference between the Norman knight and the modern hipster is glaringly obvious – we can understand a lot about the societies these people come from in a single glance. For example, it’s instantly clear the Norman wishes he could be in Game of Thrones.
I am all about the mash-up! I love to compose visual narratives that draw from many different subjects, genres and arenas. It’s the juxtaposition of these eclectic elements which allow us to make new meaning. To see one thing in stark contrast to another. We are lucky to have our entire history’s visual toolbox at our disposal. Imagination knows no bounds. We can envision anything and everything: past, present and future. Drawing allows us to actively think visually, not only for ourselves but we can also take audiences on that journey of discovery too. We can explore, play, destroy and rebirth concepts and ideas cheaply and safely and have a lot of fun in the process.
In most of our films we like to end by pulling out to see the Big Picture - to be able to see the visual journey we have just been on laid out in space. There is something satisfying about seeing how everything fits together. So here you go – 4 billion years of human evolution in a single frame… just imagine where the next 4 billion years could take us.