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Cell Animation: Our Partnership with the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy

I wasn’t a good biology student in high school. Quite the opposite, actually. I recall spending many nights struggling with the material, desperately relying on my friend Lauren’s help as my tutor. She graduated from medical school and became a physician, and I grew up to be a writer for a video production company. You might say we were both destined for different career paths.

So when the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy approached Demo Duck in 2018 to produce an explainer video series, I was excited to take on the project—and also had some personal motivation. Could I finally have a biology breakthrough, and redeem my report card from decades past? Well, 20 videos later (plus a handful of infographics and web articles), I’m extremely proud of our partnership. We distilled complicated topics into engaging educational materials, helping ASGCT see success in a variety of important metrics.

Our partnership with ASGCT has already seen some awesome results.

The Project Begins

Here’s a little history to go with the biology. Founded in 1996 by a group of medical researchers, The American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy is an organization dedicated to advancing knowledge, awareness and education of gene and cell therapy. They approached Demo Duck with a video series in mind—eight educational videos for the general public and specific patient  populations about gene and cell therapy. The animated video series would explain what gene and cell therapy is, how it works, and how it pertains to certain diseases.

Our team needed to develop a creative approach that could be applied to every video, but then also applied to communicating disease-specific information. Our inspiration started, naturally, at the cellular level. We wondered what it would look like if we used the organic shapes of genetic building blocks—cells, genes and DNA—as a way to explain concepts. These elements also naturally create a colorful backdrop for text, stats, and character-based vignettes. The use of characters was key, as we were looking for a way to add a warm, human element to videos that focus on the heavy topic of genetic disorders. To take that “human element” one step further, we proposed interviewing experts (doctors, researchers) and adding snippets of their voices to each video.

These storyboards from a video about Fabry Disease show how our overarching visual approach utilizes text, characters and cell-like shapes.
These storyboards from a video about Fabry Disease show how our overarching visual approach utilizes text, characters and cell-like shapes.

Doing Our Homework

The ASGCT team was excited about our direction, and we began production. As our art directors and creative partners got to work fully realizing the visuals, it was time for me to get a crash course in gene and cell therapy. The ASGCT team provided me with a variety of outlines and other resources, and I did my own online research in medical journals, government agencies, academic websites and more. I even texted the aforementioned Lauren with a few questions, who as you may imagine, was quite surprised to hear me asking about the Blood-Brain Barrier!

Self-deprecating quips aside, my lack of familiarity with the topic at the start of the project actually proved to be a valuable asset. The audience for this video is not medical experts, but everyday people who may be learning about rare genetic disorders and gene therapy treatments for the first time. Perhaps a couple who after undergoing genetic testing, found out that they’re at risk of passing along an inherited genetic disorder to a child. In a vulnerable, emotional moment, they search for more information about the disease and if there’s any hope for treatment. I scripted with these personal journeys in mind, and made sure that our videos clearly explained complex information in a way that is realistic, empathetic and hopeful.

For our very first video, we broke down the basics of gene and cell therapy. It helped me learn the fundamental concepts of this exciting field of research at the start of the project.

It was also fascinating to talk with the subject matter experts. Theresa and Cody (the producers on the project) and myself would call these medical professionals and record the conversations using either podcasting and meeting hosting platforms (it took some trial and error) ultimately splicing their takes into the larger voiceover artist’s script read! Recording voiceover for an animated video certainly isn’t on their typical daily to-do list, so I could tell that some had a great time with the experience.

The Power of Partnership

A successful project always starts with a strong client relationship—especially one dealing with such detailed subject matter. ASGCT’s team was vital to helping us get the job done. They provide outlines, resources, feedback, suggestions and more—all within timely turnarounds to keep these various explainer videos moving. This is also possible through the timelines and review processes implemented by our talented producers (shout out to Theresa and Cody), who also keep the lines of client communication going so strong.

Design Is in Our DNA

As we got deeper into the project, the client realized that they could use additional materials to complement the content—specifically web copy and infographics to accompany each video topic. No sweat! Our team of art directors have killer design chops, and are just as skilled with static images as they are with putting things in motion. Thanks to my background in journalism and public relations, I’m certainly comfortable with long-form writing as well. It was exciting for both our team and the client to watch the project grow organically into exciting new directions, all following the “north star” of creating what is most educational and engaging for our audience.

cell therapy DNA graphic
The infographics extended our overall creative approach into a new medium.

Final Exam

From the initial eight-video engagement, the project has grown into a 20-part series with corresponding web articles and infographics for each topic. It’s been inspiring to watch our team and production partners work together to take the initial creative concept and expand on it in interesting new ways. And you know what? I’ve really found an interest in this subject! One of my favorite parts of working at Demo Duck is working with such a wide variety of clients and learning about their specific industries. Getting a crash course in human biology, rare genetic disorders and therapeutic technologies in my early 30s has been an unexpected thrill. My 18-year-old self would be certainly proud…but maybe he should get back to studying.

Written by Jarrett Hothan
Jarrett is a writer for Demo Duck, a Chicago-based video production company. He has a passion for helping clients tell their stories through video. He also plays guitar and sings in Chicago's 143rd best garage rock duo.