Turning an abstract concept into a concrete visual story
How does your sense of taste work? How does the body translate the experience of placing food in the mouth into one of pleasure, disgust or even pain? This biological process is complex and tricky to visualize in the mind's eye. That's why I tackled this project and animated the above video. I took the abstract concept of sensing taste and turned it into a concrete visual experience. Enjoy!
The first step of this project was research. I needed to develop an understanding of the ins and outs of the chemosensation system so I could then communicate it to others. I read articles from the U.S. National Library of Medicine and learned about the anatomy, chemicals, and systems involved in the process of sensing taste.
After digesting a lot of complex information, I took a first pass at drafting a simplified explanation of the taste process:
Our sense of taste belongs to a complex chemical sensing system called chemosensation. This system is made up of thousands of nerve endings in the nose, mouth, throat, and even the eyes. First, molecules from foods float through the air into the nose and bind to olfactory cells. This triggers neurons that cause us to smell the “color” of a taste. Next, the gustatory cells are activated when food in the mouth is mixed with saliva. Taste information is sent through taste buds, to nearby nerve fibers, to the brain. This is how we sense flavor. Lastly, thousands of nerve endings on the surface of our eyes, nose, mouth, and throat, activate when we sense the heat of chili peppers and the coolness of menthol. When all of these sensory inputs work together, we experience the full extent of taste.
I started playing with ideas about possible elements within the video. I thought about the types of actors and settings and came up with two different ideas:
- Personify the nose, mouth, brain, etc. and demonstrate how communication occurs between them.
- Follow a chronological story of someone eating eating food and examine how taste is experienced.
I decided to go with the second option. My concern with the first option was that it could end up being too metaphorical and may dilute the clarity of the message. Instead, I chose to follow a character through their experience of taste and then zoom into the biological events inside the mouth and nose. This seemed to be the most concrete way to communicate how taste works.
I realized that I wanted the mood of this video to be upbeat, fun and little silly and my first draft of the narration was somewhat dull and unexciting. So, I came up with a second draft that included two characters, a narrator and Bill, who supplied more personality to the story. This format allowed for dialog to go back and forth between characters and helped smooth transitions between ideas and settings.
Narrator: This is Bill.
Narrator: And these are bowls of chips and guacamole. (Bill gives an “ooooh”) Let’s take a look at how Bill experiences the taste. (To Bill) Go ahead and dig in.
Bill: Oh, don’t mind if I do. (Bill takes a bite) (Crunch, crunch, crunch)
Narrator: Let’s take a closer look. This is the inside of Bill’s mouth. Here, saliva is mixing with the food and activating the gustatory cells. Taste information is sent through taste buds, to nearby nerve fibers, to the brain. (Bill: mmmmmm) This is how Bill senses the flavor of the food. But that’s not all. Vapor particles from the food leave the mouth (Inside Nose) and float through the retro nasal canal into the nasal passage. Here they bind to olfactory cells and are translated into the “color” of the flavor by the brain.
Bill: (sniffling, sweating, breathing, panting)
Narrator: Bill are you alright?
Bill: Hot. Hot. Hot.
Narrator: Ah, Bill’s body is reacting to the spicy guacamole. Let’s take a closer look. Here we can see that capsaicin, an irritant from chili peppers, is contacting the surface of Bill’s mouth. Capsaicin binds with vanilloid receptors which then activate trigeminal nerve endings that trick the brain into thinking that Bill’s mouth is burning from heat. That is how Bill’s body perceives spiciness. When the nose, mouth, nervous system and brain work together, we feel the full sensation of taste and can enjoy the flavorful and spicy experience of chips and salsa.
I began storyboarding the flow of information for the video. The first draft focused on only the settings. The second draft focused more on how I would communicate the intricacies and exchanges of chemical information within the body. After making these storyboards, I learned that I need to pay special attention to transitions because, unless they are seamless, the story won't make sense.
It took me a few tries to clearly communicate how vapor particles from the food move through the nasal canal. My first try (see top left image) proved to be ineffective and misleading. The depth of the illustration skewed the placement of the nose relative to the mouth. It also led viewers to think that particles move through the roof of the mouth to get to the olfactory cells. My second attempt changed the perspective and communicated the process much better, showing how the vapors move to the back of the mouth and then upwards through the retro nasal canal.