Common Ocean Terminology Explained—in 10 Animated Videos

  • May 11, 2016
  • by John Briley

The series combines Jim Toomey's drawing skills and passion for conservation with techniques that include filming him in front of a green screen, allowing him to become part of his own cartoons.

Cartoonist Jim Toomey is standing on the floor of the ocean, broom in hand, flanked by coral heads, a sunken ship, and a concerned-looking shark, sea turtle, and octopus. Toomey, clad in street clothes, is sweeping up litter as he decries the amount of pollution fouling ocean waters.

Or at least that’s what viewers see and hear when they watch an animated video explaining the problem of marine debris—scientists say there are 5.75 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean—and its impact on our seas.

In reality, Toomey made his pitch comfortably above sea level, standing in front of a wall-size parcel of green cardboard in a dry, soundproof room at a creative studio in Maryland. He was indeed wielding a broom, but the rest of the “set” was added later, drawn into the video by Toomey himself.

Toomey, the creator of the cartoon strip “Sherman’s Lagoon,” and a team of Pew staffers produced the animated piece and nine others—a video glossary that explains marine conservation terminology to a general audience.

The 10 videos cover such critical topics as ocean acidification, which is dissolving the shells of clams, oysters, and other animals; illegal fishing, which accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood annually; and the need to protect forage fish, oft-overlooked species that play a critical role in the marine food web but are in many places heavily overfished. Each segment runs about two minutes.

The pieces combine Toomey’s drawing skills and passion for environmental conservation with state-of-the-art techniques that overlay video, animation, and special effects—like the school of cartoon fish that will swim past Toomey later in his discussion of marine debris.

The series is intended to make the science of environmental issues more accessible. Each video can stand on its own so that links can be embedded in a wide range of electronic content, from policy papers and fact sheets to news releases and blog posts.

This collaboration is the latest between Toomey and Pew. The animated short ”Sharks and Ocean Health,” which he made to support Pew’s shark conservation campaign, won best in animation at the Blue Ocean Film Fest in 2012. The next year, to boost Pew’s Antarctic marine conservation work, Toomey devoted a week of “Sherman’s Lagoon” installments to the need for a marine reserve in the Southern Ocean.

Toomey says he partners with Pew because the organization “understands the power of communication and knows how to use it strategically. Pew has enjoyed a lot of success in ocean conservation, and it’s great to be a part of that.”

He has also worked with the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute on ocean advocacy projects, and frequently uses his syndicated strip to raise awareness of human impact on the seas.

“My love of the ocean started when I was very young,” Toomey says. “The ocean appealed to my sense of wonder like nothing else did, even outer space, which was getting a lot more media attention in my childhood. The ocean has just as much variety and texture as the above-water world but was almost completely unexplored.”

He got his scuba certification at age 13, started developing “Sherman’s Lagoon” in his 20s, and, he says, “eventually realized that my comic strip could serve a greater good than just providing a laugh a day. If I could bring the ocean to everyone’s breakfast table on a daily basis, in the funny pages, then maybe I could change public perceptions about the real ocean, which is the first step in shaping conservation.”

The animated videos appear to be having the desired impact. The series has attracted a strong following online and has been picked up and reposted on dozens of marine conservation sites and influential social media accounts. Some of the videos include broad policy recommendations—such as setting catch limits to help protect forage fish—while others simply explain commonly used terms so that a general audience has a firmer grasp of issues.

For example, a piece on ocean governance uses a Wild West metaphor to show why rules are so hard to set and so easy to flout on the high seas. Another, on ecosystem-based fishery management, advocates for policies that consider habitat health, the balance between predators and prey, and broader environmental conditions when setting catch limits on a species.

Producing seamless animated videos required a series of painstaking steps. Pew staff wrote the scripts, hewing to Toomey’s voice as a cartoonist and ensuring they were based in accepted marine science. A video team then suggested what Toomey might draw for each scene, and blocked out a shooting plan. Toomey offered edits to the text and proposed visuals.

In many scenes, Toomey held a Magic Marker and pretended to draw in the air in front of him, so that when he added animation he would appear to be drawing on a transparent screen. Toomey was filmed in front of a solid green background, known as a green screen, which allowed the team to later superimpose imagery, animation, and other effects.

Following each shoot, the video team eliminated the green background from the video and Toomey then took the footage to his home studio to add animation. “There was a lot of meticulous frame-by-frame animation in the scenes where I’m drawing with the Magic Marker,” Toomey says. “It took a lot of work, but the drawing-in-thin-air technique ended up looking great.”

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