mussel bed

Adam Cole

Adam Cole illustrated Carl Sagan for the history of pencil lead .

Adam Cole is a reporter and producer for the science desk at NPR. He creates short documentary videos, radio pieces, animations, musical podcast segments, data visualizations, and GIFs about science. In 2014, Cole launched Skunk Bear, a visual science blog and YouTube channel that has built a robust audience on social media.

Cole came to NPR as an editorial intern for the science desk in January 2011, and was then hired to stay on as a production assistant from 2011 to 2012.

Cole illustrated the max speeds of animals for a video about an annual race between man and horse. 

He got his start in journalism at The Ferndale Enterprise, a small but mighty local weekly paper in Northern California. Before that, he worked as a research scientist, studying the genetics of pancreatic cancer and the physics of mussel beds.

He uses scientific illustrations in a lot of his work. In a short interview, we asked him about his process:

Cole’s illustrations of different types of cells in the human body for a video about human cellular regeneration.

Describe how you learned to draw and your history with drawing/art. When did you combine science and art and how did that happen?

Like most kids, I started drawing before I can remember and I didn’t ever really stop. Before I could really write, I would tell my mom stories and she would write them down, and I would illustrate them. I remember one of my first stories was called “Albert The Alien.” It was a real thriller - some “bad guy” aliens attacked Albert’s home. I remember one detail in particular: Albert’s house was equipped with an alarm that went “BEEP BAD GUYS BEEP!”

I always liked to draw animals – real and imaginary. I’d go through phases - for a while the animals would all look kind of wolfy, and then they’d all start to look like frogs.

I don’t think there was any one moment where I started combining science and art - I’ve always loved both! Looking back at my notes from science class (from like third grade through college) it seems like I was more interested in drawing the things we were talking about than writing them down. 

A doodle from Cole’s math notes. “This diagram of the FOIL method (how to multiply parenthetical expressions) became a mustachioed man!”

Who are your favorite artists/influences on your work?

I’m not super literate in the art field - but I do love children’s book illustrations. When I was a kid I read all 36 of Bill Pete’s books. He was a sketch artist and storyboarder on a lot of the early Disney films (from Snow White to the Jungle Book), but he was also a children’s author. One of his stories was an environmental fable about capybara-moose hybrids! That checked a lot of boxes for me.

When I started working at NPR and got interested in animation, I remember coming across a video called “The Thomas Beale Cipher.” I was blown away by the use of texture and light in something that was entirely animated - so that had a big impact on me. Years later, the producer of that video commented on one of my personal projects and it felt awesome.

I generally get a lot of inspiration from short films on Vimeo - I see little animation techniques that people use there for commercial and art projects and think, “Could I use that to tell stories about science?” I stumbled upon some work by Daniel Gies, and learned how to create animated “puppets” from him. I use that technique in most videos.

And of course, there’s Wes Anderson. My old partner Maggie Starbard and I used to say, “WWWAD - what would Wes Anderson do?” It wasn’t about mimicking his quirky sensibility - we admired his attention to visual detail, and the cohesion of his pieces. Years ago we made a couple shorts in more of a documentary style, but I decided that Skunk Bear’s aesthetic would be extremely produced and stylized. Everything in each shot should be composed–there for a reason–and feel like it was cut from the same cloth as all the other shots. WWWAD.

Cole illustrated the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) for a video about one owl’s magnificent migration.

Cole’s 2012 map of campaign spending.

Each of your projects takes on a distinctly different illustration style. Can you talk about one example where the story dictated the look of the animation or illustration?

Form definitely follows the content. Our latest video was about the history and science of pencil lead, so of course I wanted the animations to be pencil sketches.

And that’s pretty much how it goes for every piece - we created characters and entire sets out of marshmallows in a video about finding the speed of light with peeps, I drew images with pumpkin seeds and pumpkin guts for our video on pumpkin facts, I used paper and book cover textures from a dictionary to talk about eponyms.

For those, the form was pretty obvious - we were talking about a thing, so that thing informed the aesthetic. Sometimes, its more about tone.

We did a collaboration with Robert Krulwich about an immortal animal. It had a very fairy tale feel to me - and of course Robert’s voice is perfect for narrating a story. So I went with watercolor illustrations for that  - I wanted it to look like pages from a picture book

Another time, I did a radio piece about dune restoration and I wanted the corresponding video to have a very retro-PSA feel. I put on an old-timey voice for the narration, and I looked to 1960’s era design for visual inspiration.

What challenges do you have as an illustrator and how do you work through them?

I’m not really that good at drawing compared to most illustrators, so I try to cheat as much as possible. I look at a lot of reference images, I draw rough and then trace my own work, trace over footage we’ve shot, I clean things up a lot in photoshop, I composite things. I don’t have any pride about that - I’ll cheat in whatever way I can to get the result I want.

I’m also a bit of a perfectionist, which clashes with my lack of skill. The result is I have trouble creating animations like look casual and loose - that great sketchy look. I’m still trying to work through that.

Is there anything specifically that you find challenging to draw?

When I was a kid, there was this girl named Sarah in my class who was really good at drawing horses. And I was always really jealous of her. My horses always ended up looking like weird dogs. Horses are crazy looking! What’s with that head? Where do the eyes actually sit? How do the legs bend? I still can’t draw horses.

One of Cole’s early drawings - “Instead of coloring books, I liked these books where there was just a blank space you got to fill in.”

Thanks, Adam!

-LA and Meredith