Longtime social activist Harold Moss has teamed his studio, FlickerLab, with NASA climate expert Peter Kalmus and a group of volunteer artists and scientists to create funny, meaningful 2D animated shorts addressing issues like Amazon deforestation, fossil fuel pollution, and rising ocean temperatures.
Earth Day has come and gone, but the need for climate crisis awareness is still very much here. Luckily, a group of creatives and scientists have come together for the Climate Ad Project to clear the air, in a sense, with animation.
In 1999, Harold Moss founded FlickerLab as a creative animation laboratory focused on three things: storytelling across media, leveraging new technologies and platforms to tell those stories, and combining the first two in order to achieve positive social impact.
In creating animated content for companies like Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Disney, Sesame Workshop, and others, the desire to elicit change in the world around him has been a driving force for Moss in nearly all his projects. From the dozens of social impact documentaries FlickerLab has collaborated on, to their digital ad campaigns around issues like gun control, police brutality, and climate change, Moss has spent many days, nights and weekends dedicating his creative juices to educating the public through animation.
While climate communication has been a passion of Moss’ for the last dozen years or so, he didn’t have the right wind power to get anything major off the ground and in front of the public’s eyes. That is, until NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus sent out a tweet calling for “a Lincoln Project but for climate.” For Moss, it was a dream come true, a chance to use his skills in animation to bring attention to the Earth’s cry for help, a chance to take humor and entertainment and use it to change people’s awareness of a quickly dying climate.
Thus, the Climate Ad Project was born. A small team of writers, designers, videographers, and a scientist have started creating short videos - some live-action, some animated - addressing topics like the perishing Amazon rainforest, record high ocean temperatures, melting polar icecaps, fossil fuel pollution, and the realities that come with investing in building to support life on Mars rather than to save our current home planet. The project has pushed out more than 30 ads, launched on their website and YouTube channel, with plans to increase not only their ad count, but specifically their animation pipeline.
We got the chance to talk with Moss about the Climate Ad Project, why comedic animation has proved to be a superior tool in which to enact change, and new animated ads the project has in the works.
Check out the Murder Offsets spot before reading on:
Victoria Davis: What kind of climate-focused projects were you doing at FlickerLab prior to the launch of the Climate Ad Project?
Harold Moss: Climate communication has been a big part of that for the last dozen years or so. We actually self-funded an animated series that ran on Danish television on Saturday mornings during the Copenhagen climate summit. It had a really cool side to it where we used software created by my old partner, Tom Vedel, to give kids the tools to create their own climate cartoons using the assets we used in our animated explainers.
And we’ve done TV spots for climate forward candidates, and groups like Repower America. For many years, I had attempted to build a regular climate communication platform which would use humor and animation to take on climate disinformation, and promote the dramatic climate action needed to prevent the catastrophic consequences scientists have seen coming. But, despite no such effort being launched anywhere, I was never able to secure the funding, and as an indie studio at FlickerLab, we just couldn’t afford to self-fund that kind of sustained production. So I did what I could, which was, frankly, piecemeal in nature, and remained frustrated at how little systematic pushback climate denialism - of all stripes - was getting.
I knew what we needed was a consistent platform, a consistent voice, and to build an audience of activists ready to shake things up. So I felt a great deal of excitement, relief, and hope on seeing Peter Kalmus, the NASA climate scientist, author, and activist and my co-founder of the Climate Ad Project, tweet his desire to launch just such an effort. I and a small but talented group of media makers responded, and we quickly went about setting up the Climate Ad Project. I’m smiling as I say this as sometimes I still can’t believe it all came together. Thanks, Peter and the rest of the Climate Ad Project gang!
VD: How many animated Climate Ad Project spots have you done so far? Can you unpack for us what each one is about?
HM: Animation, as I imagine everyone reading this is aware, is a very labor-intensive process. So as an all-volunteer organization to date, we haven’t done as many animated spots as we would like. But we have released two fully animated spots, both focused on exposing the absurdity behind carbon offsets, a largely illusory means of making carbon emitters look better. We switched the game, and made one called Infidelity Offsets - “I may be cheating on you tonight, but I paid Harry to not cheat for a month, so on the whole, the world is a bit less cheatey!” - and one called Murder Offsets.
We’ve got another that applies the concept of unlimited growth to a giant baby, suggesting that maybe not all growth is good, and a couple more ambitious ones on a longer track. But as we’re ramping up our partnerships and fundraising, we see animation being an ongoing and central part of our work.
VD: What have you found makes these animated ads - and animation in general - a particularly great conduit for climate crisis conversations?
HM: First, comedy is a great way to do an end-run around our cognitive biases. Laughter lowers the walls of our preconceptions and can let in new ideas in a way that serious explanation has a much harder time doing. And animation is a fantastic vehicle for comedy. It’s also great for visual metaphors - taking complex ideas and baking them into some silly images. Like a giant baby!
We’re also looking forward to using animation to help people imagine a better future. We need hope, as well as horror at the lack of change being done. The fact is, we have the technology and tools we need to solve the climate crisis, but we lack the political will to take on the fossil fuel industry and the political and media establishments they own. Animation is a great way to paint a compelling picture of that solar punk future that awaits us, if we can build the will to get there.
Oh, and we all also just freaking love making animations. So there’s that. I mean, I built a whole studio just so I could make cartoons every day.
HM: This is maybe the most important question in this whole conversation, as this is a big part of our 2022 plans. To date, we’ve built partnerships more with individual animators, which should be showing up on our timelines soon as more animation ads. That’s exciting, and some extremely talented folks are stepping up. But we’re also starting to build relationships with studios - like Cartoon Saloon - which is critical to our generating the kind of beautifully crafted animated stories we have in mind, and that we need to capture the attention and imagination of the world.
And I hope some of the people reading this will become those partners. Having done one-off pieces of climate work prior, I know how that can lead to some great work, but not much impact. We are building an ongoing platform, centered on the science (beyond Peter, we are building a whole panel of climate and earth science experts), that is looking at true, long-term impact. So come join us. Make one beautiful ad, or many beautiful ads. Bring ideas, or we will match you up with a script. Let’s win some awards, and make some laughter (or tears). We are literally in a fight to save human civilization -- everything we love is at risk. So let’s use those animation chops, and those talented teams of creatives to try to save the future!
VD: I believe most of the ads you’ve created thus far are 2D, save for Visit Mars!, which is more of a hybrid-type style. Do you plan to continue focusing on 2D animation, or do you have plans to delve into 3D and CG as well?
HM: Given that we have been, to date, 100 percent volunteer and self-funded, 2D animation has definitely been the way to go. Just modeling and rigging for a 3D project takes more than making a simple 2D spot. But as we’re building those partnerships, I am hopeful this will open up more opportunities for 3D animation.
VD: What other animated ad projects do you have coming down the pipeline?
HM: We’ve got a few, including the giant, overgrown baby I mentioned and one truly beautiful, sort of Dr. Seuss-like animation coming along called The Last Tree. But I’m most excited about one starring Bump, our giant, shaggy climate grief counselor monster. Climate grief is very real, and causing a lot of harm, particularly among younger folks. People feel lost and hopeless, which I understand. Our view is the best cure for that is to get active to bring about the changes we need. But sometimes, you also just need a giant furry hug, and Bump has you there. Bump will also be our first ongoing 3D project, as he will be a real-time character rendered using the awesome and amazing Unreal Engine 5.0.
I’m hoping Bump will make his debut this fall, to help with questions of existential climate dread, and sharing his vegan monster recipes, of course. Bump will also be backed up with some of the best folks working in this field. So he’s cute as hell, has lots of jokes, but is also a dead-serious project. It really goes back to humor and animation being an end-run around those biases. There are things we can more easily hear from a shaggy monster than another person.
We’re also planning a bunch of short-form, gif-like animations around topics like “Ten Climate Facts You Need To Know,” and “An Animated Compendium of the Ridiculous Lies the Fossil Fools Are Trying to Sell You On.”
VD: In addition to partnering with more studios and the bigger projects you’ve mentioned, what are your goals for the next year with The Climate Ad Project and its animated ads?
HM: In general, this is the year we are professionalizing and building out. We had a year to test the concept, and we’ve had some great work made, and have seen some real impact. Now, we’re about to hire our first full-time staff person, and are turning for the first time to fundraising to expand our work and our reach. Time really is running out on our climate, so we feel a sense of urgency every day to expand the work.
On the animation front, I’d like us to be producing at least one fully animated spot a month, with at least four more ambitious, festival and award-bound shorts made with our partners.
VD: Looking back at the years since you founded FlickerLab, has it been interesting to see how well your passion for climate activism and animation work together?
HM: Ironically, I don’t come from an animation background. Or should I say, I didn’t. I studied documentary filmmaking and came up during the desktop revolution in the 90s, doing motion graphics and special effects. I really came to animation as a means of telling stories that could have an impact. Then of course, I fell madly in love with the medium.