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Original illustration that said, “Animate me!”

A. Kitterman/Science Signaling

And … action! Animating illustrations for Instagram

Everyone loves animation. Truly, who doesn’t love having stories spoon-fed to them? With a still image, you have to get creative in showing movement by using arrows, multiple panels, and words. But with animation, you get to show movement with movement!

In my freelancing years, I joined a multimedia team that produced videos for the pharmaceutical industry. While my job was storyboarding (creating the road map that included all the elements that make up a video), being part of that team provided a solid foundation in animation by teaching me how to effectively convey a cohesive story through multimedia.

What was common to every project was my outrage at having 3 minutes or less in which to do so, because time is money, especially when it’s charged by the second. Now, in creating animated posts for Instagram, my precious minutes have shrunk to seconds.

Nevertheless, thinking that my years of animation experience would serve me well in designing content for Instagram, I dove headlong into this new frontier.

My first task was to identify an illustration to animate. I was looking for something that I could easily execute, and furthermore, something that possessed “eye candy–ness.” My first choice presented a roadblock immediately, because the illustration was in 3D, and I had never animated in 3D.

I persevered, and the resulting 10-second animation demonstrated a technique to shrink a tumor—made up of many different types of drug-tolerant cell populations—by killing each population one at a time.

Opening 5 seconds of an animation showing how treating a tumor with one drug after another can shrink the overall tumor sizeA. Kitterman/Science Signaling

First 5 seconds of the animation showing the application of a drug to partially shrink a tumor

It performed well, and from this early boost of confidence I came up with ALICE’S INSTAGRAM ANIMATION MANIFESTO:

  1. Keep it short.
  2. Make it simple and splashy.
  3. Avoid text like the plague.

The next illustration I chose to animate also fit THE MANIFESTO. It featured the gasdermin A pore that, when it forms in a cell’s membrane, signals something bad (e.g., death) is about to happen. The goal of the animation was to simply and splashily show off the structure and its function. After recreating the pore in 3D, I chose to animate the camera flying around the pore, and then to chuck balls through it, thus demonstrating that this thing creates a hole through which other things can pass.

Opening 5 seconds of an animation that highlights the structure of gasdermin A. This structure forms a hole in a cell's membrane.A. Kitterman/Science Immunology

Opening sequence of a 10-second animation showcasing the structure and function of gasdermin A in cell membranes

Alas, this animation wasn’t shown the same love as the first one and got far fewer views. What had gone wrong? I began to think that maybe it was too short and too simple. Perhaps viewers who looked at the structure thought it was too abstract, because I hadn’t given it context (that it was found on the cell surface). My original rationalization for omitting this was: How much could I possibly hope to include in 10 seconds? And the splashy upon which I relied to reel in viewers? It didn’t fill the void of the substance that wasn’t there.

For the third animation, I chose a 2D illustration so that I wouldn’t be struggling with technical production. This illustration showed the various ways calcium is stored and moved about in a cell. Why is this important? Because calcium creates action potentials, which drive many functions in and of a cell.

As with my previous projects, I duped myself into going for it: The process should be easy, because I can execute it in a program I know. But moving numerous balls simultaneously and artfully and in a brief time frame turned into a cellular nightmare, a chaos of animated balls flying here and there, into and out of the screen, and in multiple directions at once. After a protracted period of feeling very bad about myself, I finally came up with a presentation that panned the entire length of the original illustration, to reveal the various calcium pumps and channels at work.

Opening 5 seconds of animation showing the various types of mechanisms by which calcium is moved into, out of, and within a cell A. Kitterman/Science Signaling

Opening seconds of the animation: the pumps and channels responsible for moving calcium around in a cell

Much to my surprise, this post skyrocketed in number of views.

As I continued along, I discovered that telling stories coherently through animation became more complex, and it became less feasible to avoid using text. As the narration grew longer and more complicated, so, too, did my self-derisions and expletives. Yet again to my surprise, more text was not a deterrent to the success of a post. I began to rethink ALICE’S INSTAGRAM ANIMATION MANIFESTO.

To follow are two examples of animations with a mixture of “manifesto-approved” and “frowned-upon” properties, and how they fared.

The first is an animation on reviving T cells with immune checkpoint blockade therapy.

Opening 5 seconds of animation showing activation of a T cell and expression of a key receptor (CD44)A. Kitterman/Science Translational Medicine

Opening sequence of a 15-second, 3D splashy animation with moderate text on reviving T cells with immune checkpoint blockade therapy. ~5K views

Next is an animation on drug combinations that are designed to stimulate beta cells.

A. Kitterman/Science Translational Medicine

Opening sequence of a 20-second, 2D cartoon-style animation with heavy text on drug combinations that are designed to stimulate beta cells. ~15K views

After almost a year of doing this, where do I stand? My Instagram manifesto, now defunct, is revised to Alice’s Instagram animation suggested-guidelines-that-require-further-testing:

  1. Keep it shortish.
  2. Don’t keep it simple, and don’t rely solely on splashy.
  3. Text can provide a vital narrative and thus should NOT be avoided like the plague.

The first test result below–on microswimmer robots that could be used in the future for targeted drug delivery–shows a basis for optimism. But more experimentation will reveal if this time, I’m on the right track!

Opening 5 seconds of animation within the Instagram platform showing the different speeds of the three experimental microswimmer robots.A. Kitterman/Science Robotics

Opening sequence for a 21-second, 2D/3D-hybrid animation with moderate text on microswimmer robots that could be used in the future for targeted drug delivery. ~26K views

To view the full-length animations, visit the Science Instagram account.

Alice Kitterman is a Scientific Illustrator at Science.