Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘animation’

02 APRIL, 2010

Japan: The Strange Country


Kabuki, GDP, and speech-free storytelling that leaves you speechless.

Last week, we saw and loved Japan: The Strange Country — a wonderful student project presenting Japan’s numbers and figures in a brilliant infographic animation. In the past few days, the film got a decent amount of press. But today, something strange happened: The English version of the animation was taken down, leaving only the Japanese one.

Out of curiosity, we gave the Japanese version a spin and were astounded to realize it was just as brilliant, despite the foreign voiceover — just as crisp, just as digestible, just as informationally revelational. And we thought this was the true litmus test for excellent infographic visualization: Using design and visual narrative as a storytelling device in a way that makes the data so intuitive and clear that it renders language unnecessary.

See for yourself.

So for your next encounter with infoviz, consider this: If you took language away, would it still make sense and tell a story?

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23 MARCH, 2010

The Enchanted Drawing: Blackton’s Early Animation


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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19 MARCH, 2010

Infoviz Education: Animated Visualizations for Kids


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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