Animating Drought: Making the invisible visible through a persistence of vision

Joanne Garde-Hansen, Director of the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, University of Warwick

We often forget that animation was born out of science not art. Early experiments from the 1820s-1890s (such as Paris, Plateau, Horner, Muybridge and Reynaud) explored optics creating that ‘persistence of vision’ at the very core of animation. Trick films, scientific experimentation, magical effects and a tendency to represent the un-representable (i.e. the supernatural, outer space or the sinking of the Lusitania) all suggest making the invisible visible was key.

As an artistic and media form, animation presents some very interesting opportunities for communicating concepts of drought. Drought itself is slow in its development and often invisible, it does not fit well into the mediated templates of natural disaster in the same way floods, storm surges and hurricanes do. It is not a mediated event, one cannot make an appointment to watch or hear a drought event unfold as one can with increasing predictability of, say, typhoons, for example.


Jo animation image 1

In thinking about our work package at the University of Warwick, I am responsible for a focus on ‘creative and social media’ approaches to communicating drought and I wanted to undertake a creative experiment using animation/illustration for visualising the science research and for an engaging and simplified ‘story’, targeting the 16-24-year-old audience.

The process for doing this is a form of practice-as-research in the arts and humanities, not unusual as a methodological approach to creating story. Thus, marketing and communications approaches to science communication would focus on the output and its messaging, whereas an arts approach is more focused on the process of getting to the output: what kinds of research needs to be done, what techniques used, how is the story told, using what kinds of materials and resources, who creates the story and how do they imagine the audience? Working with a talented animation student at the University of Gloucestershire we discussed and explored some key features of drought in terms of its representation.

Discussions with an animator

Explaining drought to a young animator can be tricky. Drought is invisible to the public. It is not only bottom of the mind but out of mind entirely. For the over 50s they will have living memories of the last major drought in the UK (the Summer of 1976), often now represented nostalgically or as a disaster for the land. Therefore, trying to engage members of the public or young people in the real issue of drought and water management is a challenge. In other contexts, it is not so difficult to engage young people in the complex interplay of drought risk factors:

Jo animation image 2

As I mentioned in the previous post on The Heart of Drought, real drought is often preceded by a cultural drought, a lack of will to or an inability to represent the realities of environmental, social and cultural risk. Animation brings with it a whole genre of storytelling based around these moral issues of good versus evil that provide useful tropes for exploring the heroes and villains of drought storytelling. After discussion with the agricultural work package leaders, we wanted the animation or illustration to be about Potatoes versus Quinoa! A simple binary opposition perhaps that would provoke discussion, debate and contestation. If Quinoa were imagined as some kind of 21st century hero, then how can this tap into current debates about good versus bad food that are so prevalent in social media right now?

Jo animation image 3


Jo animation image 4

Popular cultural narratives of nutrition amongst middle-class and younger well-ness and #fitspo instagrammers, for example, have been pushing up the value of quinoa in lucrative albeit smaller markets (one only needs to explore Mintel for market research or perhaps have a chat with the British Quinoa Company). While potatoes remain a staple in the UK diet, shifting representations of quinoa (as a South American conquistador of healthy eating) means that quinoa (while not a direct swap-out for potato) has been instagrammed as de rigeur amongst those keen to up their protein and lower their carbohydrates.



Considering the relative size of quinoa growing and its market-share to potatoes, the social media presence of the pseudo-grain is significantly out of proportion.

Jo animation image 5

Posts in Instagram as of 28/9/17

As part of the DRY project Harper Adams have been doing experiments with quinoa and we thought it would be interesting to explore these two crops in a comic book hero style narrative, sequential art or a short animation/meme. The crops could be anthropomorphic and in any style. The story could be fun or serious, accurate or imaginary, simple or complex. However, the over-arching narrative is that the Potato (which has a long history of growing in the UK) has a new competitor from South America. But Quinoa’s testing in the UK as a more drought tolerant species than the potato may have succumbed to insect plagues, and so must battle with local insect problems if it is to survive and save water. Dr Ivan Grove advised the animator on the agricultural science aspects of the two crops.

Are there already drought animations online?

There are a handful of drought animations circulating on YouTube, not with very many views and some with rather gruesome storylines, such as this one in which a decapitated cow explains the impact of beef farming on water supplies.

Jo animation image 6

In this more standard ‘Drought Solution’ animation for World Water Day 2017, the animator focuses on change, speeding up the transition from fertility to desiccation and showing its impacts in simple ways on humans, with the solution being water saving at the personal as well as industrial scales.

Jo animation image 7

In my discussions with the animator we explored the influence of these made-for-online animations in terms of aesthetics, length of animation, simplicity of story and metonymic qualities of key features of the drawing. We also wanted to incorporate the visual aesthetics of the modelling maps the science of the DRY project had produced. The animator found this aspect the trickiest, she reflected in one email exchange with me:

In order to incorporate the pixels into the animation how about we begin looking at the Potato farmer when drought hadn’t effected the earth. So everything starts off rich, vibrant and hydrated and we could zoom out to show the drought map data and the farmer living in a healthy wet area. But over time as he plants more potatoes, the farm, and its surrounding areas, loses saturation and becomes dry, red and almost blurs in focus and pixelates itself as depicted in the extreme drought image. Perhaps the farmer himself could even lose saturation and he and his farm become made up of red toned pixels to further emphasise their importance. Then we could zoom out and show an animation of the pixels on the map slowly changing from high soil moisture to low (blue to red) as the concentration of potatoes increases in the area. And Juxtapose this against the small area of healthy land owned by the Quinoa farmer.

By using the drought map of the UK, flashing forwards to 2026 and back to 1976, the animator explored the use of the same pixilation of the modelled drought maps of the DRY project and from the CEH drought portal within the colour palette of the animated characters and their environment.

Jo animation image 8

Click above to play the video

There is no narrative voice-over to our completed animation and that differentiates it significantly from public service announcement type animations that have an ‘on message’ communication strategy about the science of drought. We were interested in how animation can offer drought science’s visual register a certain malleability, the way the science modelling of pixilated maps of drought risk catchments can be stretched and changed and become the surrounding environment of the characters, creating a new context.

Our experimentation was exploring the aesthetics of drought science as much as the science of drought art, and while we did not get to the killer insects plaguing quinoa, we did learn a great deal about the differences between communicating a science message in a straightforward public relations framework versus an interesting exploration of drought aesthetics between a researcher and an animation artist that are not ‘literally’ communicating drought risk but imagining drought possibilities. In Re-imagining Animation (2008, 83), Paul Wells and Johnny Hardstaff state:

Animation, broadly, is shaping time, shaping events in time so as to reinvent our experience…temporality is itself available, malleable, up for grabs……

Reflecting on the many conversations I have had with the drought science experts, ‘shaping time’ and ‘shaping events’ in relation to communicating drought risk, to ‘reinvent the experience’ of drought so that it is more fully understood, suggests a malleability of approach may be needed in science communication.




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