Erin Shea, an artist and designer for a cybersecurity startup in the United States, conceived the idea for Ampersand during graduate school. Supported by a Sloan Science and Film grant, she and her colleague Simón Wilches Castro drew by hand some 4,000 frames for the film. She tells us about it:
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How did you get to here?
My background in college was in media theory and history, so I’ve always had a really strong interest in the evolution of how we communicate and use technology. I’ve also always had a big passion for science as a way of understanding our place in the universe and how things work, from the micro to the macro.
After I realized I wanted to be a media creator and not just a consumer, I enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC) film school to do a Master of Fine Arts in Animation and Digital Arts. A lot of my work has been inspired by science – bringing light to things you can’t see, and always with an air of wonder. Animation is an amazing way to visualize information you can’t see, and I especially love how it transcends the need for verbal language.
While I was at USC, I wanted to make my thesis film about how all matter is made of atoms — which mysteriously behave as both particles and waves. The concept that something can appear one way and as another depending on your perspective was a powerful idea for me as I was designing the film, so the title "Ampersand" — which means "and" — felt fitting.
How did you get interested in ideas in physics?
It started from a couple of physics classes I took in undergrad at Pomona College where I learned how the way atoms behave is totally different than what we see on a larger scale. It’s rich and complex, and the quantum realm inspires me in many ways. You can have a visceral understanding of gravity or the laws of motion, but the wave-particle duality is very mysterious and non-intuitive. I also love reading science writing.
What research did you do?
I went back and read a lot of books, like those by Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Sean Carroll. Being at USC, I was also really lucky to be able to consult with Gene Bickers, a professor of physics there.
What goals did you have with the film?
I had a couple. Primarily I wanted to spur curiosity and wonder about science and nature. With advanced science, it’s hard to communicate the magic because research is so specialized. I wanted to infuse my film with the excitement of scientific concepts so that a mix of people, even kids, could get it. I also wanted to explore the power of shifting perspectives –starting at the subatomic level and going to the galactic – and to show that everything is connected through the concepts of atoms, particles, and waves. But mostly I wanted to create a delightful viewing experience.
How was it made?
I’m really inspired by music, so I always start with the soundtrack, and that informs how things move as I create animation. The music is a preexisting piece by a Greek group, Keep Shelly in Athens. It really captures the light-hearted tone and wonder I wanted in the animation. I got in touch with the band and they were excited to be part of my project.
The entire film is hand drawn, and it's about 4,300 drawings done on a tablet. For hand drawn animation, you need between 12 and 24 drawings per second, so it's a very slow art. You can go a little crazy where you go into this altered state because you're just drawing and drawing, but when you see them moving, it just completely hooks you. Luckily I was able to work with another very talented animator, Simón Wilches Castro, thanks to the Sloan grant. We used Adobe Flash – it’s an old program, but I love how simple it is — and then I took the drawings into Adobe After Effects for coloring and compositing.
Will you continue in this area?
I’m super excited to! I'd love to work with scientists and the scientific community to either make animations or interactive web experiences that convey science in interesting ways. Education is the bedrock of change, and today more than ever, it's important to communicate the wonder of our natural world so we can make positive impacts with policy.