Brain Pickings

The Enchanted Drawing: Blackton’s Early Animation

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Lightning sketches, journalistic sycophancy, and what Thomas Edison as to do with Pixar.

It’s a well-established fact that we have a longstanding obsession with Pixar animation and the occasional racy side project by the crew. But we also think it’s important to understand the historical roots of today’s creative obsessions.

Case in point: The Enchanted Drawing, a silent animated film from 1900 by British filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton, who pioneered animation in America. (He was also among the first to use stop-motion as an animation technique, another piece of modern-day ubiquity.) In it, Blackton sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine, then “removes” these last drawings as real objects so that the face appears to react.

Before his filmmaking career, Blackton made his living as a vaudeville performer known as “The Komikal Kartoonist.” It was in this entertainment act that he first began drawing “lightning sketches” — high-speed drawings on an easel pad, modified rapidly before the audience’s eyes as he delivered an equally rapid verbal stream.

Eventually, Blackton became a reporter for the New York Evening World newspaper and in 1896 was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his brand new Vitascope invention. In an age where wooing reporters was critical to success, Edison took Blackton to Black Maria, his studio-cabin, and created an impromptu film of Blackton doing a lightning sketch of Edison himself. Blackton became so infatuated with the technology that he soon founded the American Vitagraph Company and began producing films, debuting with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900.

Six years later, Blackton created Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, the earliest animation exploring the intricacies of human expressions and the human face. (Something else we’ve been notoriously fascinated with.) The film is now in the public domain and thus available for all the remixing your heart desires.

Blackton’s work is part of The Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921 — a fantastic collection of the work that sparked what became one of the most powerful creative movements in visual media.

We highly recommend it.

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World Water Day: 3 Smart Projects to Celebrate It

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What indie music and your favorite restaurant have to do with Haiti and TED.

It’s World Water Day today — though we believe every day should celebrate and honor Earth’s most precious resource. Since 1992, March 22 has been an international observance of the importance of clean water for a healthy world. Today, we spotlight three smart projects that actually do something about the cause and offer ways in which you too can help.

TAP PROJECT

Tap Project logoIn 2008, Tap Project topped our list of the year’s best ideas. We still think it’s one of the simplest, smartest efforts to both raise awareness about water sustainability and make an actual, action-based difference.

Developed in partnership with UNICEF, the project’s premise is brilliantly simple: During World Water Week March 21-27, restaurants would ask patrons to donate $1 for each glass of tap water that they normally enjoy for free. It may seem like little, but $1 actually provides clean drinking water for a child for 40 days — which means less than $10 get a child a year’s worth of water. All donations go to UNICEF’s water sanitation programs that strive to bring clean, accessible drinking water to children around the world.

The one million restaurants across the US comprise the second largest industry in the country, following government. Thousands of them are participating in the program this week — up from 300 in 2007, when the project launched. So imagine the scale of impact of these micro-contributions, a powerful long tail of goodness.

This year, Tap Project is launching Tap Project Radio — a platform for musicians, artists, directors and thought leaders to play music, raise awareness and help fight the water crisis. From performances by Kenna, They Might Be Giants and other indie favorites, to interviews of advertising legends Lee Clow and David Droga (who founded Tap Project in 2007), the lineup is an absolute treat.

You can help in one of three ways: Dine at one of the participating restaurants and buy yourself some tap water; donate directly to the project; or text Text “TAP” to UNICEF (864233) to donate $5 and give a child 200 days of clean drinking water.

Have a restaurant or know someone who does? It’s not too late to register and join the effort.

CHARITY: WATER

Also in 2008, we featured just-launched nonprofit charity: water — a fundraising effort to bring clean drinking water to people in the developing world. Since then, the project has become such a blockbuster success — from getting press in just about every major media outlet to being the beneficiary of last year’s Twestival — so we won’t elaborate on what it’s all about.

Today, charity:water is launching Unshaken — a concentrated effort to help Haiti recover by providing long-term water solutions in a country where a third of the population didn’t have access to clean drinking water even before the disaster. The plan focuses on 11 specific areas that need funding. For each of them, the charity: water team has worked hard to calculate the exact costs and collected real-life stories from the community about how that particular issue affects their daily lives.

The goal is to raise $1.3 million, helping 40,000 people in dire need. Bring them a wee closer to it by donating today.

PUR

At TED last month, we were excited to see PUR’s drive to donate 10 liters of clean drinking water for every tweet that answered the question, “If water could speak, what would it say?” and every photo answer at the TED photo booth. The program was a smash-hit, with more than 800 plastic bottles saved over the course of the four days and over 40,000 liters of water donated by PUR.

For World Water Week this week, PUR is doing another round under the Children’s Safe Drinking Water program — for each new Facebook fan, they’re donating 100 liters of clean drinking water to the areas that need it the most, up to 1 million (yes, million) liters total. So do your part and fan PUR to give a child this basic human right.

And, shhh, a little birdie told us PUR will be having a bunch of giveaways this week, so follow them on Twitter for a shot at the goodies.

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Infoviz Education: Animated Visualizations for Kids

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Helium, carbon, and what Little Red Riding Hood has to do with malnutrition in Africa.

We love infographics. We love animation. And we’re all for engaging kids in creative education. So today we’re looking at three educational infoviz animations that shed light on complex or important issues in beautifully art-directed ways that make little eyes widen and little brains broaden.

HOW TO FEED THE WORLD

Directed by Denis van Waerebeke, How To Feed The World is a brilliant animated short film made for the Bon appétit exhibition in Paris science museum. Though aimed at helping kids ages 9 to 14 understand the science behind eating and why nutrition is important, the film’s slick animation style and seamless visual narrative make it as educational for kids as it is for budding designers, looking to master the art of using design as a storytelling medium.

Bonus points for the obligatory British voiceover, always a delightful upgrade.

THE STORY OF STUFF

Though not necessarily aimed at kids alone, Annie Leonard’s brilliant The Story of Stuff — which we reviewed extensively some time ago — condenses the entire materials economy into 20 minutes of wonderfully illustrated and engagingly narrated storytelling that makes you never look at stuff the same way again.

The Story of Stuff recently got a book deal, further attesting to its all-around excellence. We highly recommend it.

THE ELEMENTS

A few months ago, we reviewed They Might Be Giants’ fantastic Here Comes Science 2-disc CD/DVD album aimed at the K-5 set, a brilliant intersection of entertainment and creative education. One of the highlights on it is this wonderful animated journey across the periodic table, a true exercise in art-meets-science.

The entire album is well worth the two Starbucks lattes that it costs, both as a tool of inspired education for kids and a timeless music treat for indie rock fans of all ages.

BONUS

Though certainly not educational, and likely not aimed at kids, this fantastic animation — which we featured exactly a year ago today — offers a brilliant infographic reinterpretation of the Brothers Grimm children’s classic The Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by Röyksopp’s Remind Me.

We’d love to see this as a series, celebrating the cross-pollination of some of our favorite facets of creative culture — animation, data visualization, and classic children’s literature — with quirk, humor and superb art direction.

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