The Story of Frank the Coral: a Case Study for Science Animation Impact
It was a warm and tranquil summer day back in 2016 when the news broke. The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing mass coral bleaching.
My heart sunk. As a marine biologist, I knew perfectly-well what that meant and how serious it was going to be for the health of the largest coral reef in the world and UNESCO world heritage site.
The Great Barrier Reef holds a special place in my heart. In 2008 I had the privilege of diving the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, and I can only describe it as a transformative experience. I spent hours and hours exploring coral gardens teeming with vibrant life. I saw my first ever shark. And I even met a friendly but giant Maori wrasse, who liked being scratched on its belly by divers. Dive after dive, overwhelmed by the experience, I surrendered to the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. It was the most incredible place I had ever seen.
Knowing that the reef was suffering hurt me deeply. I wanted to do something, but what? What could I do from the other side of Australia? This question tormented me for days until an idea took shape.
I noticed that even if the coral bleaching story was all over the news, accessible science-based information was not easy to find. Journalists tried to explain to the public what coral bleaching is but didn’t go very far because it’s a complex issue. Another thing that I didn’t like was that the media coverage was very gloomy and didn’t give space for hope and action. On the other side, there were groups with vested interested in the fossil fuel industry spreading misinformation on the situation and minimising its severity.
I reached a decision. I was going to use my skills in science communication and animation to explain to the public the science of coral bleaching and what they can do about it. It had to be accessible to everyone, from school kids to grandparents, and it had to give hope. That was going to be my contribution.
An important lesson I learned during my PhD days is that the public generally doesn’t like science lectures. Could you blame them? I had to use something more influential. I had to communicate science in a way that didn’t feel like science. It had to be a story, and I was going to tell it using engaging whiteboard animation.
I put myself to work, and after many MANY hours of scriptwriting, editing, drawing, voice-over recording, and animating this video came to life.
When I published the video, I really didn’t know what to expect... was anybody going to notice it?
Actually, I was overwhelmed by the positive reaction. Clearly, people were searching for videos about coral bleaching on YouTube, proving that the public was hungry for better information on the subject.
Here are some vanity metrics:
Facebook views: 120,000+
YouTube views: 62,000+
Soon after the video started to go around, I even got invited to talk about coral bleaching on Perth radio RTRFM 92.1!
But the number of views doesn’t tell the whole story. The best part was yet to come. Let’s get into the qualitative metrics and then the key learnings I got from this experience.
YouTube commenters are not all trolls
YouTube comment sections are notorious for being dominated by trolls. I honestly expected to find more negative comments by climate change deniers than positive ones. I was wrong.
The video earned a really positive thumbs-up rate of 97.6%, and I received plenty of very supportive comments.
Here are my three favourites.
“Great video [it] is probably the best one I have seen to explain coral bleaching to us non-scientists.”
“Great explanation, thanks. I’ll use it with my students in Year 7-9 (12-15) at a school in Mandurah, Western Australia.”
“Thank you so much for this video!!!
It has really opened my eyes to what happens to the reef, and I will definitely try my hardest to help!!”
Frank put on a french accent
One day, I got an email from Brigitte from TARA, a French NGO that does excellent educational work on marine science. They asked me if they could translate the video into French! Of course, I said yes and soon after I found myself with a french version of the video narrated by the lovely actor Natacha Régnier. I have to admit that it felt surreal to hear my own script being narrated by her beautiful and melodic voice!
But TARA didn’t stop there. They developed some fantastic and freely available teaching materials around the video for kids of various age brackets in both French and English.
And since the French version has been out, it attracted over 12,000 views, got used by the popular french YouTuber Lea Camilleri and one day I even got an email from Thalassa, a French TV program who asked permission to use parts of the animation to explain coral bleaching on French national television. Not bad, Frank!
More recently, I also learned that the video is going to be part of new school textbooks in France.
Thanks to my friends Emily King and Nara Lina, I also managed to get the video translated into Chinese and Portuguese. How incredible is that!?
Frank as a school project
The vanity metrics are nice, but I realised that the video really had an impact when Vivian and Mackaya, two students from Burnaby Central High School in Canada got in touch with me and said that my video ignited their interest in the subject. They wanted to do a school project on coral bleaching and had a list of excellent question to go in further depth. It felt so rewarding to realise that on the other side of the world, two young students received my message, cared and decided to learn more.
Frank in Museums & Aquariums
As the video went around, museums around the world also felt that the story of Frank the coral was the perfect way to teach kids and adults about coral bleaching and so, as far as I know, at least these three museums have integrated the video into their exhibitions.
Reef HQ Aquarium, Townsville, Australia
Museum Natur und Mensch, Freiburg, Germany
Lakes Aquarium, Ulverston, UK
Frank & politicians
Reaching the masses is great, but even better would be for politicians and decision-makers to see the video and act accordingly. Did Frank educate some politicians? You bet!
A friend of mine, which I am going to leave unnamed, told me that while trying to convince a politician to do something about the coral bleaching she realised that this politician didn’t even know what corals are and why they matter. Let alone how they are impacted by coral bleaching! Frank came to the rescue! My friend showed the video to the politician and filled that knowledge gap in just 7 minutes!
And the winner is...Frank!
Last but not least, Frank won two awards that made me very, very proud. The video was elected Best Educational Video at the Film4Climate Global Video Competition and was a finalist at SCINEMA 2016 International Film Festival. 🏆
What an experience making and sharing this video has been! It has been gratifying, and it made me learn a lot about what makes a good science animation.
I now want you to summarise for you those key learnings so that you can replicate my approach and spread your message.
Here we go
People don’t want science lectures, they want stories! So use storytelling to communicate your science "by stealth"! You’ll reach a much wider audience: well beyond the already converted.
It’s generally assumed that people these days have short attention spans and the shorter a video is, the better. Frank the coral, is 7 minutes long, yet it’s my most successful video so far. How is this possible? Again, it’s about the story. I am sure that if I simply listed facts about coral bleaching, people would have dropped off in the first minute. The reason why they kept on watching until the end is that they got emotionally involved in the narrative. If you tell them a compelling story with drama, they will keep watching.
And last but not least, fancy and expensive animations are not a necessary condition to make a video successful. Whiteboard animations, which are by far the most affordable type of 2D animation, are just fine! What matters most is the narrative. The story is king.