The students work for Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO), an initiative that brings development education to people around the world in the form of animated, narrated cellphone videos and interactive games.
The students work on a team led by Barry Pittendrigh, an entomology professor at Illinois, and Julia Bello Bravo, an assistant director of Illinois Strategic International Partnerships in the office of International Programs and Studies. Pittendrigh and Bello Bravo founded SAWBO in 2010 to address the growing educational needs of an increasingly tech-savvy world. The animations allow SAWBO to offer instruction to a global audience at minimal cost – and to hear back from that audience about new educational needs or how to improve the message.
Today, SAWBO reaches people in countries around the world with messages about preventing the spread of cholera, dengue, malaria, TB and other diseases; preventing pre- or post-harvest crop losses; and building and using sustainable devices. The videos are narrated, allowing the creators to offer them in any language.
Although the SAWBO team has long used international students to record narrations in their native languages, it only recently enlisted the services of student animators. The team first worked with a professional animator who modeled complex scenes and built appealing three-dimensional characters. SAWBO still uses its original animator, but in June 2012, as the list of projects grew, it also hired several undergraduate students with backgrounds in animation.
“It’s really very interesting. I didn’t think there were programs like SAWBO when I first went into school,” said Benjamin Blalock, a senior from Seneca, Ill., who is majoring in new media and ceramics.
Blalock took a class in 3-D animation on campus last spring and spent the summer teaching himself more about the software. So far, he’s developed two animations for SAWBO, both showing how to reduce the loss of grains or other crops when transporting them to market. The animations show in colorful 3-D detail how to prepare a truck for loading and how to secure the crops to prevent loss in transit.
The potential impact of these videos is substantial. Huge quantities of food are lost after harvest and never make it to market. According to a 2011 United Nations report, “roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year.”
“It’s very gratifying to see that all this work is actually going somewhere to help someone,” Blalock said. “When I started school it wasn’t my intention to find work helping people – I mean, I’d like to be a positive influence on the world, but it wasn’t a primary goal. But it really does feel rewarding to finish an animation and know that somebody’s going to see it somewhere and, hopefully, it can help them.”
Annie Lin, a sophomore in new media from Schaumburg, Ill., says she “found her calling” by working for SAWBO.
“I knew I wanted to do animation but I was not sure where I wanted to go with it,” she said. “After working with SAWBO for about half a year, I realized this is what I really ought to do, to use my talents for the community.”
Lin has helped produce animations on tuberculosis, on how to use an inhaler, and how and when to wash your hands. She was amazed at the complexity of the information she was asked to incorporate into the animations, especially on the hand-washing video.
“Being a know-it-all, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a hand-washing commercial. How hard could it be?’ ” she said. “But by the time I thought I was finished, half the script was left out and I didn’t even realize it because I thought I knew everything there was to know on the subject.”
A big part of the task involved visually describing – in a culturally neutral way – when someone should wash her hands, Lin said.
“Touching raw meat, when you cut your hand, when your hands are visibly dirty, when you take out the trash, before and after eating, after changing a child’s diaper, touching animals, coughing and sneezing, coming home … and there was a lot more to draw!” she said.
Two-dimensional animations require the artists to draw nearly every frame. Their artistry makes the characters move in a realistic way and situates them in a background that is recognizable, but culturally neutral.
“In a way, we’re creating our own language using images, and trying to figure out what kind of images are universally accepted as this or that,” Lin said. “Even just facial expressions or hand gestures are different around the world. Shaking hands may mean something different around the world. Or waving.”
Sophomore Pakpoom Buabthong, a physics major from Bangkok, worked with Lin. He grew up drawing cartoons, he said, and had done an animation for a physics class that showed how a semiconductor worked. He soon learned that the standard academic approach to animation was just too stiff.
“After I finished a scene, I would ask my friends to view the animation,” he said. “They said it was informative but it wasn’t attractive to be watched. They said it’s kind of straightforward and monotonous. … Annie said I should add a sense of humor.”
So the boring, capsule-shaped TB bacterium got eyes and a mouth and became a character too, he said.
“We decided to make the drug-resistant bacterium look red and angry,” he said. He learned a lot from Lin, he said, because she had more experience drawing frame-by-frame animations and had a more playful approach.
“One of the many great things about being on the Urbana-Champaign campus is the diversity of highly talented students,” said SAWBO co-founder Pittendrigh. “Their creative efforts in the SAWBO program have been critical for us to develop new educational tools to reach out to the world. Each student, from different parts of Illinois and different parts of the world, has brought a unique set of skills and insights that have been invaluable to the SAWBO program. We also know that SAWBO allows the students to gain a great diversity of international experiences, without having to leave campus.”
Amanda Morales, an industrial design major from Wheeling, Ill., likes working with the small SAWBO team on an effort that feels a lot like a startup.
“Because it’s so new, I feel we have a lot more input, which I really like,” said Morales, who graduates this spring. “Working with people who are trying to start something is very interesting, just to learn from that.”
She also likes collaborating with scientists, something she never expected to do at school or on the job. The team meets regularly, to ensure that the animations are not only comprehensible, but also scientifically accurate, she said. She notes that the first SAWBO animator, when creating a video animation about malaria, actually had to produce an “anatomically correct” mosquito.
“It looked amazing, but I don’t think the animator was prepared for that,” she said.
The students say they learn from the SAWBO leadership and from each other. They hear Spanish and English spoken regularly around the computer lab where they work, and international students come in to record the video narrations in their native languages. The student artists must think about cultural norms and differences as they create the animations. This means that as they improve their animation skills, they also gain a global perspective.
The work is hard, and time-consuming. The team consults with partners around the world and makes revisions to meet the needs of the people who will share them with others in their communities.
“The first draft of a four-minute video was three months of work and another three months of revision,” Morales said.
But with the work comes a sense of accomplishment and mastery.
“Even though it’s very tedious drawing every individual frame, I like watching my end-product coming to life,” Lin said. And once it’s done, “it’s the most satisfying feeling I’ve ever had – to create something that I actually am really proud of.”