when video ain’t good enough

NASA is beginning to use animation techniques from Hollywood to communicate its data, for example, on storms, climate change, and algae blooms.

“Visualization is that link between the flood of data coming down from space and the ability of the human mind to interpret it,” Feldman said. “That’s the crux of the story. Better than most other groups in the world, they are able to take this fire hose of data coming down and turn it into images — visual animation — that then allows the general public to see this data in ways their brains can interpret and study.”

But even computer-aided data visualization is no longer good enough. Got to juice it with some animation.

The Hollywoodization of NASA data is in part the result of Pixar’s success in creating real-life worlds from fantasy stories. People have come to expect that even the most fantastical of ideas — a talking, curmudgeonly Mr. Potato Head — can look and feel exceedingly real. “They don’t expect to see crudity,” Mitchell said. “They expect to see sophistication because they see it everywhere. In order for us to tell the story, we have to be sophisticated about telling stories and we have to use sophisticated technology to tell them.”

On the one hand, you want the public to have a good sense of how storms work or appreciate the urgency of climate change. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better to get people used to the lack of sophistication of some of the imagery? When does animation stop being a valuable tool and start becoming fakery? Perversely, the use of animation may convince people that everything they see is potentially fake (moon landing anyone?) OR good animation, in the hands of non-scientists, may be so convincing that the public believes the planet is doing fine.

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