Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Animation for Education: “Cartoons Aren’t Just for Kids”

London, UK
Kong Studio reveal their secrets having worked with likes of BBC Ideas and The Open University

From balancing accuracy with abstraction, to nailing the right pace, in this interview, Kong Studios co-founders Bill Elliot and Tom Baker join animation producer Emma Burch to reveal what it takes to create great educational animation content.

LBB> When it comes to animating for educational purposes, how does your approach differ to animation for entertainment? Is your ideation or creative process any different?

Billy> Not really. The script, message and tone are key, so everything we do must reinforce this. It doesn’t matter whether you are doing kids TV, a corporate video or an educational film, our job is to make the message as clear and engaging as possible.
Tom> Nope. We just try not to go off-script as much. 

LBB> Where there is a lot of information being communicated, how does animation help break this down into easy to remember, digestible parts?

Billy> The secret is pacing. For the likes of BBC Ideas, the scripts are always fascinating and fun, but we know they will end up longer than originally pitched by the client. With a bit of breathing room, it gives the viewer the opportunity to absorb and enjoy the subject, rather than becoming a brain-dump. 

Hopefully with beautiful animation we then offer the chance to learn by association. Remember our beautiful animation and the subject matter in tandem. This is, of course, totally un-scientific cod psychology nonsense I’m spouting…

Tom> Well a picture tells a thousand words and we’re working several pictures a second. It’s just a case of drawing the right image in the right order. 

Emma> I feel there is always a balancing act of mixing visuals with text and graphics so the essential points are communicated. Get that right and you can effectively tap into people’s iconic memory. Followed by our approach to always inject a little humour (if the subject matter allows). 

The Humour Effect is a theory that people are generally better at remembering information they perceive to be amusing. Even if the theory isn’t conclusive and we just make something funny, at least we’ll entertain the audience.

LBB> What are some of the other challenges associated with animation for education?

Billy> Accuracy in what we are depicting. We are dealing with experts in their fields. Hence as an example, we drew many a wrong fungus! We work closely with academics on getting the details right.

Tom> Yeah… you can’t wing it as much. You can totally stretch the truth in kids TV but not so much for the OU. They’re sticklers for the facts.

LBB> You must have to work on a lot of projects where the subject matter is something unfamiliar to yourselves. In order to create an effective animation, how closely do you work with clients to ensure that the information is being presented and portrayed correctly?

Tom> Not really. I am pretty much an expert in any given field. And who lets facts get in the way of a good story? Well, the BBC do for a start so yes, we need to keep showing our partners what we’re doing.

Emma> We work very closely with passionate professionals in their field. Designs are shared in draft form to make sure they’re correct before being finalised. The issue can be if academics disagree and there is a debate about what is right or wrong. It has happened. 

Our job is to come up with creative solutions that address any of the client’s or academic’s concerns while being clear to someone coming to a subject for the first time.

LBB> You recently worked on your second project with Open University on perceptions of people with HIV. What was it like working on this?

Billy> It gave us yet another opportunity to work with new styles and talent. Kong prides itself on not having a house style. We want to try and create new and unique work. We get so many exciting artists approach us, it’s great when an artist’s website or Instagram just springs to mind. Sometimes it's timing, but frequently we are having a certain artist on our mind. When these projects arrive, the conversation starts with, “Wouldn’t Emily be great for this?!”

Emma> The Unheard Tapes were slightly different educational content in that the films are personal accounts describing experiences – as opposed to facts and stats. The animation was there to evoke emotion and atmosphere. And due to some of the graphic accounts that were described – abstract animation felt the way to go for two of the films. 

Abstract animation rarely fits commercial or corporate projects - but it fitted these films perfectly. But working on this it was great to broaden my understanding of life with HIV. I wasn’t previously aware of U=U. That’s the beauty of working on educational content - we often learn something from it ourselves. Did you know the biggest single living organism is a honey fungus covering 9km2 (that glows in the dark) in a forest in the US? Nor did I until we worked on The Fascinating World of Fungi.

LBB> How has your relationship and creative process with OU evolved from your first project together to now? What lessons have you brought forward?

Emma> The Open University has been a great client from the start. So far, they’ve provided the scripts and we’ve brought them to life. We earned The OU’s trust with our first films for Secrets of the Museum. Since then, we’ve consistently proved we can find the right talent and style for a given subject. But each new designer and animator we work with has a slightly different way of working, so we make sure we’re the consistent bridge between creator and client.

Communication is key. We’ve learned that if something isn’t being communicated effectively at script stage, it’s better to raise it with the client to get it right, despite the subject not being our area of expertise. Educational content often portrays facts and theories to an audience for the first time, so it needs to speak in layman’s terms. That’s why we’re well placed to question it. We test the script. If we don’t understand it, we won’t be able to make a film the audience will understand.

LBB> You’ve also worked with BBC Ideas on several projects. What have been some of your highlights?

Emma> 3 Tips for Resilience was a great project to work on. It was commissioned around the time of the pandemic hitting, just when we all needed coping mechanisms to deal with the chaotic and unpredictable world we lived in. Plus, we got to work with Sharon Liu, a very talented designer/animator that had been on our radar for a while.

And Plyscrapers was a fascinating film to work on. I love the idea of huge shifts in thinking and more sustainable approaches to industries. Joe Blaxland did a fantastic job of bringing the script to life using motion graphics and wood textures.

LBB> What advice do you have for clients looking to create animations for educational purposes? Are there any common mistakes or pitfalls that should be avoided when working with an animation partner?

Tom> The usual sorts of things. Cartoons aren’t just for kids. You need to sign it all off before animating otherwise changes can be time-consuming. Cartoons don’t date as much as live action etc. 

Emma> As with any content, you need to know your audience and be realistic about how long you can maintain their attention. It might only be for 1-2 minutes at a time; in which case the script needs to be concise. If the subject is broad, break it down and write a series of scripts that inspire interest and intrigue to find out more on the subject – hooking them in. Script development is key – and it’s so easy to underestimate the time needed to get it right. But when you do, the production process is so much easier, and the end product shines.  

LBB> In your opinion, how would you sum up a great educational animation?

Emma> Hmmm… Engaging, thought provoking and humorous.

Tom> Something you watch from start to finish without even realising you’ve been tricked into learning something. Very like preschool cartoons as they all need to be educational.