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  • Animating, Entertaining, Educating:A Dialogue between Oliver Gaycken and Ariana Killoran
  • Oliver Gaycken (bio) and Ariana Killoran (bio)

The field of animation studies has begun to move beyond the canonical works of entertainment animation (from Bray to Disney to Pixar) to examine the myriad other forms that animation has taken over the course of the twentieth century. Many of these alternative kinds of animation are part of the nontheatrical domain of media production: moving images produced for exhibition outside of commercial cinemas, that is, schools, museums, laboratories, public health campaigns, and so forth. Because these forms of animation have only recently become an area of scholarly interest, very little has been written about them within cinema and media studies. This interview with a current practitioner offers an opportunity to get a sense of the details of one person’s animation practice and to ask how this animator perceives her relationship to her field, both in the present and historically.

The following interview with Ariana Killoran, an artist and animator who has created a series of Flash animations for the personal genomics company 23andMe, comes out of a 2012 workshop at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. The interview continues a conversation initiated there about the intersection of science and animation (the other [End Page 207] participants on the workshop panel were Kirsten Ostherr, editor of this issue, and Scott Curtis and Robert Lue, whose conversation also appears in this issue). The interview with Killoran took place over e-mail in two phases beginning in the summer of 2013 and concluding in the summer of 2014.

Introduction by Ariana Killoran

In 2006, I began creating Flash movies that teach basic genetics, human prehistory, and genetic disease risk. They were not created for students, though they are used by thousands of students and teachers all over the world. They were created for the customers, actual and potential, of 23andMe, a personal genotyping service. 23andMe has a product heavy on both science and technology. From a customer’s saliva sample, the company takes over half a million genetic data points (a series of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs) and provides them with information about their personal ancestry. Until recently, customers also received information about their individual health risks, drug responses, and physical traits. In order to engage with all this information, customers needed basic genetic literacy. And to be a responsible company, 23andMe needed to effectively educate its customers, because misunderstanding information about disease risk, for example, could lead customers to take action or inaction with grave results. My challenge was to create educational materials that would entice customers to self-educate, to study when there was no test. I used film because I didn’t want this education to feel like work.

The first films I made for 23andMe comprised a four-part Genetics 101 series. They look like I drew them with my foot, and that is not far off, as I had almost no digital illustration or animation skills at the time. But I like to think that this aesthetic projects accessibility. Genetics is complex and intimidating material, so in this film series the visuals are stripped down with no backgrounds to clear out any distractions that might impede understanding. The Human Prehistory 101 series is more story driven, about our distant ancestors in distant environments, so the films have a richer visual language, though they retain the same general feel.

Before a certain age, sometime in high school or just afterward for most of us, science seems knowable. When we are very young, our daily discoveries are almost entirely scientific. When we are a little older, we are experts on dinosaurs, volcanoes, planets, zoology, how to burn things with magnifying glasses, and magnets. And to explain science, we use everything at our disposal—we perform [End Page 208] skits, create dioramas, construct three-sided poster boards, and build models. And then somewhere between ages sixteen and nineteen, a chasm appears. Suddenly, there are science people and nonscience people. And if you are a nonscience person, you lose access to science. Science suddenly seems unknowable, because you no longer have the language to engage...


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