London creative collective Peepshow has created opening titles and over 70 animated sequences for a new documentary on PBS exploring the evolution of great ideas and innovations that have shaped the way we lived today.
How We Got to Now is a six-part series presented by science author Steven Johnson. Each hour-long episode explores a different theme – from cold to light, sound and glass – explaining the stories behind key developments in that field and their influence on modern products, science and technologies.
It also considers the unintended consequences of ideas – an episode on sound, for example, explains amplified sound’s impact on modern warfare and the invention of ultrasound, while one on cold explores connections between artificial refrigeration, voting patterns and the golden age of Hollywood cinema.
Peepshow worked on the show for around nine months, producing animations which combine collage, photography and illustration. Science-related motion graphics often rely on slick infographics and zooming shots of planets and galaxies, but the sequences in How We Got to Now have a lo-fi, handmade feel.
In some scenes, line drawings are overlaid on live action footage, while others combine black and white photography with sketches of planes, trains, buildings, cityscapes and scientific formulae, creating a varied, layered style:
Title card for an episode on ‘Clean’
Pete Mellor, who oversaw the animation, says the initial brief for the project was loosely inspired by an animated promo for Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From, which featured a series of illustrations drawn on a whiteboard:
“One of the things the network also mentioned in the initial brief was that they wanted the animations to look like the inside of Steven Johnson’s brain as he worked things out – a mix of drawings, sketches, animation and images,” he says.
“The way I pictured it in my head at first was as a kind of notebook to the show – as if Steven had given the director a scrapbook with pictures and notations and workings out.”
Art director Luke Best, who created the collages and drawings for each sequence, says that while animations became a little more fast-paced than initially intended, they remain “restrained.”
“One of the things we also agreed from the outset was that we didn’t want to make them funny – people have different perceptions of what’s funny, and creating some kind of Terry Gilliam-style sequence was something the production company was keen to avoid,” he explains.
“It was quite a big risk to commission graphics that are very different to the kind you’d usually see in this type of show – I really like the idea of explaining complicated theories through simple, hand made drawings, instead of using … pie charts or footage of zooming through someones eyeball and through the universe. It’s not that theres anything wrong with that – we just wanted to do something different,” he adds.
For each episode, Peepshow received a script with notes on where the director wanted to add some animation. “After filming, we’d look at the footage and discuss which parts we thought would work well as animated sequences, and which we thought would be best represented by live action or archive photography,” explains Best.
“If it was an initial script meeting, you could also suggest how something should be shot shot to tie in with the sequences. Though as it’s a documentary, you also had to be prepared for the fact that some scenes would turn out differently, or be cut altogether,” says Mellor.
“I think they really appreciated that we were willing to problem solve,” adds Best. “Because of our illustration and art direction background, they could come to us with half-formed ideas or basic concepts and we could work out how to best to represent that visually using collage or mark making.”
With a different director for each episode, Best and Peepshow co-founder Miles Donovan say it was important to ensure the visual language was flexible, yet strong enough to look consistent across the series. “Different directors will treat animated scenes differently, and some would want a more narrative-based sequence than others … I had a few visual rules – I did all of the drawings with the same pen so there was consistency with the mark-making,” explains Best.
“We also had quite a small team of animators, so Pete could work closely with them to oversee consistency with the animations and remain as faithful as possible to Luke’s artwork,” adds Donovan.
“It was fun seeing people from quite a slick motion graphics background adjusting to working on these kind of lo-fi illustrations – ones where it’s OK if someone has no legs, or their head is cropped off,” says Mellor.
One of the biggest challenges when devising sequences for the show was working out how best to represent abstract and complex theories and present everyday objects in an unusual or novel way, says Best.
“Some things were really tricky to animate – with a sequence about the radiometric clock, for example, I didn’t want to just show an image of a clock,” he explains. “We had a general rule that we’d try and avoid showing something the easy way if it didn’t really add anything to the commentary. Other times, you’d get a list of the topics the sequence had to cover and think, theres nothing visually connecting this. It was fun though, thinking about new ways of representing things, [such as] re-designing a chemical symbol, or visualising sound without just using an image of a soundwave,” he adds.
Each sequence also required a significant amount of research: Best worked with a picture researcher on the series, but sourced the majority of images for collages himself.
“With the collage elements, it was easier to just find my own images – it’s difficult to explain what you’re looking for when you’re working in collage. There might be a badly cropped picture or one that to a researcher, will look terrible, but to you, it’s perfect,” he says. “We do a lot of editorial illustration work, so we’re used to doing a lot of research – but this really pushed our skillset to the limit,” he says.
Sketches by Best
Peepshow’s artwork has also been used in a book accompanying the show, published by Riverhead, and a website, howwegettonext.com. The next episode will be broadcast on PBS on Wednesday, 22 October at 9pm and the show will be distributed worldwide by BBC.